Being a cat lover in Japan is like being a kid in a candy store. Cat temples, lucky cats, Hello Kitty, cat cafés——the nation appears to be obsessed with the furry creatures. There are some places in Japan, however, that take this obsession to another level entirely. The nation's eleven "cat islands"—islands off the Japanese coast where, in many cases, the cats outnumber the people, are the ultimate destination for anyone with a more than normal fondness for felines.
One of the most famous of these cat islands is Aoshima, a 1.6 km long island located 30 minutes by ferry off the coast of southern Japan. Approximately 20 people live on Aoshima, but there are well over 100 cats, who spend their days curled up in the island's abandoned buildings or prowling about the harbour hunting for fish. After pictures of the island went viral online, the number of tourists visiting Aoshima has risen dramatically. The island is not exactly tourist friendly, though, with no cars, hotels, restaurants, or even vending machines, and the current human residents are mostly elderly people who make a simple living by fishing. Indeed, cats were originally introduced to the island in order to help control the rats and mice that hung around the fishing boats. But as the population of the island dwindled over the years, the cat population rapidly took over.
The increased awareness and subsequent popularity of these cat islands have, however, brought problems. On the tiny cat island of Ainoshima, for instance, the abundance of food provided by tourists for the hundreds of local cats has led to serious overpopulation. This in turn has led to stress, violence, and disease among the cats, who often die in fights over territory on the crowded island.
Therefore, while visiting one of these islands may be a must for any cat lover, it's important to do whatever is possible to minimize the negative impact that tourism can bring. While many islands are now implementing trapneuter-return programs to help control their feline populations, visitors must do their part, too. When visiting, tourists must refrain from feeding the islands' cats, no matter how hard it might be to resist those heart-melting feline eyes! Only by doing this can we ensure that these islands remain heavens for both visitors and the cats themselves.