31 May 2016

Ainoshima: Japan's legendary cat island

Relatively little has gone wrong over the course of my travels in Japan so far. The country is safe, people are friendly and helpful, and there's a surprising amount of English language signage to help you find your way about. However, whenever you go away to another country, particularly somewhere that you speak little or none of the language, there inevitably comes a day when you just can't seem to get wherever it is you're trying to get to. As various attempts to glean information from local people, that map you picked up at the station, and google (if you can figure out how to connect to the local wifi network, that is), all prove fruitless, your sense of frustration comes to a head and you have a strong desire to hop back on the train/bus you just got off of, go back to your hotel, bury your head in a pillow and pretend none of this ever happened. This is how I felt at one point when trying to find the legendary Cat Island.

Apparently, there are in fact 11 Cat Islands in Japan. The one I was trying to visit is called Ainoshima, and is an island off the coast of Fukuoka. Getting there seemed easy enough. Simply get the train to Nishitetsu Shingu station, then hop on the community bus to the port, from which ferries transport feline aficionados from all over the world to the island, multiple times a day.

However, after a cursory look around the bus station upon arrival, it became clear that there was absolutely nothing written in English, so it was impossible to work out which bus to take to the port and at what time it would depart. I went back to the station to ask the staff there, who taking a look at us, immediately knew where these two foreigners must be headed: Ainoshima Cat Island. I asked which bus number to take and he said that the bus had no number, and simply pointed at a picture of a green bus on the wall. He also told us what time the bus would depart. 

Perfect. So we walked back to the bus station and awaited the arrival of this mysterious green bus. The departure time came and went and still no sign of the green bus. I started to wonder whether the bus had to be green, or if the same model of bus in say a shade of blue or pink may be going the same way?

At this point a local man, also waiting for a bus, started talking to us in broken English, pointing at the bus timetable and informing us that there were 'no ferries'. Wonderful. However, given the fact that the weather was fine and it wasn't a Sunday or public holiday, I didn't quite believe that this could possibly be the case. Then, a bus arrived, and I asked the driver whether it was going to Shingu Port, and he also informed us that no it wasn't, and that there were no ferries.

This is when the strong desire to simply give up and get back on the train back began to rear its ugly head. However, I decided that since we had made it all the way out here, we may as well try to find our way to the port by foot, and then if there were indeed no ferries, we would simply have a look around the port, have lunch and then go home. I wasn't about to give up just yet.

It was actually straight forward to walk to the port by foot, taking only about 20 minutes. When we got to the ferry terminal, we saw that there were indeed no ferries, for three hours from 11.30. However, at 14.30 a ferry would depart and take us to our final destination - hurrah! 

This meant that we had roughly 90 minutes to spare. Luckily there was a restaurant, Bistro Le Port, directly opposite the terminal. I had pretty low expectations of this mediterranean-inspired bistro opposite a ferry terminal in the middle of nowhere, but happily I was proved wrong. The owner only spoke Japanese and French (no English!) but I did discover that he had lived in France and obviously took pride in this little bistro he had opened. We opted for the pasta set menu, and he also strongly suggested that I try the osusume (recommended) starter, which turned out to be an incredibly delicious garlic butter vegetable medley topped with filo pastry. The main was a simple but tasty clam spaghetti.

Bistro Le Port, with my ghostly reflection in the door

The recommended starter: filo pastry on top...

... and garlicky veggie goodness in the middle

After our lunchtime trip to the mediterranean, we hoped on the ferry to Ainoshima. The port area where the ferry docks is where the majority of the cats hang out, and you can see lots of them without ever having to stroll further than 10 minutes or so from the port. The island is a fishing village, which may partly explain the predominance of cats (lots of tasty fish scraps for them to enjoy!). Despite several signs asking visitors to not feed the cats, I saw a lot of people had come prepared with tasty tidbits to lure the feral cats.

A lot of the cats were snoozing:

Others were seeking shade:

Some were having a snack:

Others were hiding:

Most were just hanging out, happy to pose for tourists:

Even though the main draw for tourists is the cats, the island actually has plenty more to offer. If you can tear yourself away from taking photos of cats, the fishing village and port area is quite scenic to walk through, although there were a few areas where junk had been dumped/abandoned. However, these are often the areas that the cats like to hide in, so keep an eye out for them!

After walking through the village, you can walk to the more remote part of the island. A couple of kilometres away from the main port area, there is a pebble beach with beautiful views of the bay and over to the mainland. There's also an impressive stone arch out at sea.

After a pleasant couple of hours on the island, we caught the last ferry back to the mainland. As much as I enjoyed my trip, I didn't have any desire to find out what might happen to a couple of tourists stranded on an island full of wild cats overnight!

Ainoshima is a must-visit for cat lovers in the Fukuoka area; but also a pleasant island get-away for those less enamoured with the furry creatures.

Unfortunately it was only after my struggle to find Cat Island that I found this really handy post on Zooming Japan, which provides details on how to get there, including explanations of the the bus and ferry timetables. Definitely take a look at that post for further details if you plan to visit.

What do you think of Japan's cat islands?


  1. I am so desperate to visit a cat island next time I'm in Japan - definitely bookmarking the Zooming Japan post!

    1. It's definitely one of Japan's (many) unique experiences! Hopefully you'll find it more easily than I did :)

  2. Cat Island sounds amazing but alas I don't think I have time to visit :(

    1. Save it for if you ever come on a second trip to Japan :)