Cat Tales from Takayama and Beyond: Top 5 feline-themed hot spots

In February, Japan celebrates the National Cat Day which is a great opportunity to take a closer look at cat-themed locations in Japan! Already inspired by our chat with the feline station master of Ashinomaki Onsen train station, we decided to ask the ultimate cat-lover and author, CJ Fentiman, for a list of all the cat locations that inspired her. CJ's recently published travel memoir 'The Cat with Three Passports' is a story about what a Japanese cat taught her about an old culture and new beginnings. CJ shared with us her top places you need to visit in Japan and included a few great book recommendations!

From fashion through folklore to everyday expressions, cats are a meaningful feature of Japanese culture. It is generally believed that felines first appeared in Japan with the arrival of Buddhism via China, their main role was to stop pesky vermin from damaging the precious scriptures. From then on they have truly become part of the culture.

Picture the instantaneously recognisable Hello Kitty or the mythological shape-shifting Bake-Neko. Perhaps, you have heard the expression neko jita which translates as “cat tongue” and which refers to the inability to take hot food or drink? Or maybe you have come across the phrase: neko no te mo karitai, meaning you are so busy you want to borrow a cat's paws?

These are just some of the feline-themed examples I came across in my three years of residence in Japan that inspired my travel memoir. Now let me take you on a journey to discover my top five destinations to inspire your own feline-focused discovery of Japan. 

Takayama’s Cat Statues

My journey of exploration into Japan’s cat culture began in Gifu prefecture in Takayama, surrounded by the Hida Mountains of the Japanese Alps. It is also the birthplace of Gershwin – the main character in 'The Cat with Three Passports'. 

This magical city is steeped in history and is home to the famous Takayama Festival that’s held each April. It will always have a special place in my heart, not only because of its amazing scenery but also because of the incredibly special people that call it home. 

Like most destinations in Japan, you don’t have to look far to find an animal-inspired statue in Takayama. Here are just three feline statues that mark some of the most treasured places in the city. 

A giant Maneki-Neko located on Honmachi Street has a fishing rod in its paw and a red sea bream that welcomes prosperity to the commercial part of the city. It’s said that Sea Bream is an auspicious symbol in Japan and is known as the ‘King of Fish’ due to its longevity.

The second cat statue can be spotted outside a cluster of gift shops at Hida-No-Sato (Hida Folk Village), an open-air museum of old farmhouses and traditional gasshō-zukuri-style buildings. The statue is positioned opposite the main village and greets visitors with a raised paw as they pass.

The third cat statue is in Takayama’s old town located on Kamisannomachi just outside of the Hisadaya restaurant. Here it feels like you have stepped into the Edo period (1603-1867) with its old sake breweries and dark wood buildings of yesteryear.

At the restaurant, you can enjoy an authentic Japanese lunch with a focus on local ingredients, such as Hoba miso, Hida beef and edible wild plants. The concrete kitty sits with its left paw raised, which is said to attract customers.

Pet Apparel in Asakusa Nakamise Adachiya

Before leaving Takayama for a new job at British Hills in Fukushima prefecture, I spent some time visiting Tokyo. Strolling through atmospheric Asakusa and along Nakamise Shopping Street (the main approach to the Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji), I stumbled upon Adachiya

Founded over 120 years ago, this popular shop stocks a wide range of dog and cat supplies. After browsing the pet apparel, I chose a red kimono for Gershwin, which features in Chapter Ten of The Cat with Three Passports. Although everyone doubted that I would get my cat to wear it, he kindly obliged (only a little unwillingly) on special occasions. I was particularly fascinated by all of the cute photos of pet cosplay that were on display in the shop. Deciding exactly what to buy was a difficult choice, but I felt inspired by the pictures captured by previous customers to dress up my own cat.

Cat Island Tashirojima

Japan is home to numerous cat islands but the one that I visited was Tashirojima, which lies just off the east coast of Honshu near Ishinomaki. Often described as one of Japan’s most wonderful places to visit, Tashirojima is a “must” for feline fans. It enjoys fresh sea breezes and captivating scenes of fishermen hauling in a tasty catch. 

Apparently, the cats of Tashirojima were originally brought to the island to deal with the mice population. But today, they help the local residents by attracting tourists. The island’s dwindling human population means that the human to cat ratio is reported to be a staggering 1:4! Thankfully, a recent surge in tourism from curious folks hoping to witness a slice of this cat heaven has breathed new life into Tashirojima.

In the summer months, you can treat yourself by staying in the cat-shaped cabins of Manga Ai-land, which have been designed by famous manga artists such as Shotaro Ishinomari. This part of the island has been nicknamed “Manga Island” due to the resort’s unique design.

Cat Cafés, Tokyo

In my opinion, no visit to Japan is complete without spending at least some time at a cat café. I had the pleasure of visiting two of them while in Tokyo and they did not disappoint. 

Owned by Takako Saito, Asakusa Nekoen is a cafe that looks after rescue cats until they find their forever home. On one of my visits to the café, I got to meet a cat from Fukushima's “Uninhabitable” Radioactive Zone. The café is open from Wednesday to Monday 11:00 - 21:00 (closed Tuesday) and the entrance fee is ¥800 (around £5) for one hour, with drinks extra.

The second cat café I visited was Nyafe Melange, which is just a short walk from the west exit of Ebisu JR station. This café stays open until around 8 pm, giving you plenty of time for kitty cuddles. In addition to around 20 cats for you to pet, they have a cute coffee table book that introduces each of them. It’s a clean and cosy place, as well as being the only cat café that allows children. Opening times for this café are from 12 pm to 8 pm, 7 days a week.

Nyankodō  – Cat-Themed Bookshop, Tokyo

What cat-loving writer wouldn’t go catnip crazy for a bookshop that exclusively stocks books on kitties? Nyankodō is in Tokyo’s famous used bookstore district of Jimbocho and has everything you need for the purrfect read. Browse the shelves of this quirky store and you will find not only cat-inspired books but also cat-themed goods, which are irresistible.

Two of my favourite books on cats are by Japanese authors: 'The Guest Cat' by Takashi Hiraide and 'The Travelling Cat Chronicles' by Hiro Arikawa. But over 100 years before these books were released, the famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki was writing about our feline friends in the book 'I Am a Cat' – a satirical work on Japan’s upper-middle-class society. He was also a scholar of British literature and wrote 'The Tower of London', another book that inspired me greatly due to its accurate portrayal of a Japanese person living in London during the Victorian era.

My Cat Journey Continues

With so many cat-themed destinations in Japan, you would be unlucky not to find one during your travels. While these places captured my imagination during my time in Japan, I know the list is far from exhaustive when it comes to the country’s cat offerings, and I definitely have plans to explore further when I return. 

On top of my list for my next visit to Japan is Gotokuji Temple, which is located in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo. This Buddhist temple is said to be the birthplace of Maneki-Neko – the ‘beckoning cat’ who brings good luck to residents across the Japanese archipelago and beyond. 

For more cat inspiration follow CJ on her Instagram and get a copy of 'The Cat with Three Passports' from Waterstones or Amazon!



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