Ultimate Guide to Aoshima AKA Cat Island
By the Japan Switch Team | May 20th, 2022
Ask any dedicated cat lover out there what his version of paradise looks like, and you’re bound to get an answer that somehow involves a lot of cats, right? Well, for the cat lovers out there who are even slightly familiar with Japan’s rich history, the answer might just be Aoshima (青島), Japan’s most famous “cat island”
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What is a cat island, exactly?
For non-natives, the very concept of a cat island might seem a little peculiar, at first. But a cat island is, as the name tells us, an island where the cat population vastly surpasses that of people. The concept seems to be one exclusive to Japan, where we can find about a dozen or so “cat islands” (neko no shima, 猫の島) strewn across the country.
For a long time, cat islands were generally ignored by the rest of the world, though in more recent years, Aoshima (as well as other similar places) have really exploded across social media channels. This has sparked a steep increase in the number of foreign visitors to the island, which in turn, has helped the island’s modest economy.
How many cats live on Aoshima Island?
Aoshima, also referred to as Aoshima Island, houses over 100 feline residents at the moment, which greatly outnumber the human residents. Down the years, as people moved away and the elderly residents of the island died, the feline to human ratio on Aoshima Island has snowballed from 6:1, followed by 10:1, and in more recent years, to an overwhelming 36:1.
Of course, this isn’t due solely to the rapid reproduction rates of the cats, but also to the dropping jobs and availability on the island. As fisheries on Aoshima closed down, and more and more jobs moved to the city, so did the island’s residents. At present, a meager six human beings live on Aoshima island, surrounded by cats.
This is a huge drop in population, considering that in 1945, less than a century ago, the island, which is only 1.6 km (1 mile) long, was home to a robust 900 people.
History of Aoshima
As is the case with many similar islands across the world, Aoshima is, at its core, a remote fishing village that for a very long time was supported by the adjacent sardine trade. Aoshima saw its fair share of fishing and sailing, and as is the case for all folks who spend a long time at sea, it also saw a serious rodent problem. Plagued by pesky rats, the fishermen of Aoshima grew desperate for a solution, which is how they came to adopt the stray cats they encountered in the ports they docked in. Taking the cats to sail along with them, when the fishermen eventually docked home, they left some of the felines on the island, when they next departed.
It turned out the cats were as useful on land as they had been off-shore, and the thriving population of Aoshima took to their new feline inhabitants with great reverence and care. In time, this served to domesticate the felines, and got them feeling comfortable, which also encouraged a steady reproduction rate.
But in time, the sardine supply of Aoshima Island began to decrease, and trade grew difficult for locals. As the fishing trade grew strained, more and more locals began looking for their fortune elsewhere, on the mainland, which led to them abandoning the island.
Once a bustling fishing community, Aoshima is now home only to a few elderly members of the original population, who have chosen to stay, despite the difficulties, and the island’s remoteness.
The remaining population, however, continued feeding, and caring for the cats, which in turn, encouraged them to multiply, and to so greatly outnumber the humans on the island. Thanks to the Internet, and also through word-of-mouth of the people who’d been on the island, Aoshima Island became quite the tourist attraction, with tourists coming especially to feed and play with the felines.
What will happen with Aoshima?
While for many, Aoshima seems like a true, natural paradise, the island itself is not sustainable, in the long term. While there are some tourists that frequent Aoshima Island, unfortunately, they are few and not enough to care for the thriving cat population. And since the tourist trade is only made possible by the ferries that sail to and from the island (which in turn do so to aid the remaining residents), it’s quite unlikely that the ferries will continue to run, once the remaining inhabitants of Aoshima disappear.
As an answer to this problem, the local authorities have implemented a neutering plan.
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How to Get to Aoshima
Located in the Ehime prefecture of southern Japan, Aoshima Island can be accessed by ferry, from the Nagahama port (長浜港). In turn, you can reach the port by taking the train to Iyo-Nagahama train station (伊予長浜駅), which is located just a few minutes’ walk away from the port. Along the JR Yosan Line, Iyo-Nagahama train station can be reached from the larger, more popular Matsuyama station (松山駅), which is accessible from all major Japanese cities, like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
There are only two ferry rides to Aoshima Island in each given day, one departing in the morning (at 8.00), and at noon, (14.30), with the only return ferry sailing from the island back to mainland at around 16.30. The cost of a round-trip is roughly $10 (¥1,360), and about half that (¥680) for children under 12.
Depending on how long you want to spend on the island, you can arrive on the early morning ferry, and leave in the afternoon. Since the island is less than a mile long, you can take in the general view and feel of it in only a few hours.
However, if you’re looking for a little peace and quiet, and your idea of paradise involves being away from society, and surrounded by cats, you can come to stay on Aoshima island for a few days, take in the sights, spend time with the feline population, and just take a break from it all.
Alternatively, if taking the ferry isn’t ideal for your situation, you can also reach Aoshima Island by crossing the Yayoi Bridge, located off of the mainland Aoshima beach. This is great, as it allows you to visit the island by car, and bring along your own surfboards, if you’re visiting the island for this purpose.
Getting Around Aoshima
Before you decide to visit Japan’s infamous “Cat Island”, keep in mind that because of the island’s reduced population and relatively small size, there is no public transport available on Aoshima Island, per se (there is transport on the mainland, though).
So if you’re visiting Aoshima, keep in mind you’ll be relying on your own two feet to get around - so make sure you pack some comfortable walking shoes!
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7 Things to Do on Aoshima
Before visiting Aoshima, it’s worth knowing what activities will be available to you out there. As we already mentioned, Aoshima Island is a great place to take a break from the world, and disconnect. It’s an opportunity to recharge your spiritual batteries, meditate, and spend some time in nature, which seem to be the island’s main focuses.
Below, you can find a list of activities you can take part in on Aoshima Island.
One of the biggest attractions of Aoshima Island is the eponymous shrine. Known for its stupendous red torii gate, Aoshima Shrine is actually a hot destination for young couples, as well as single women, as it is traditionally a shrine dedicated to love and marriage.
It is believed that visiting and praying here can mean good fortune in your love life, whether that means finding a partner, or blessing your existing union with happiness and prosperity. You can also seek out your general fortune at the Aoshima Shrine.
The shrine is made even more popular for tourists by its many heart-shaped and love-themed artworks and motifs. Here, you can write down your wishes of good fortune, and then, have an ema wooden plaque hung up, to honor that wish. Alternatively, you can try your luck with a fortune-telling slip that is said to predict your luck in love, and in life.
Last but not least, viewing the sunrise or the sunset at the Aoshima Shrine is a must, while on the island, since the light shining down (or up) on the red gate definitely makes for a sight to remember (not to mention some pretty cool photo opportunities!).
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Surfing the waves
Aoshima Island is also really popular as a surfing destination. Thanks to the generally constant wave that surrounds the island at any given time, surfing off the Aoshima coast is relatively easy, and always good fun.
Of course, the constant wave level also designs the island as an ideal sailing destination, where you can kick back and enjoy the waves. If you’re looking for a quiet, off-grid surfing holiday, then Aoshima Island is definitely the right place for you.
Meditate on the beach
Another fun opportunity while on Aoshima Island is to take the time here to close your eyes, and think about the world. Understanding who we are, and what we’re supposed to do with ourselves is one of man’s greatest, most compelling mysteries in this life, and what better place to think about it than the sun-soaked beach?
Thanks to the quiet nature of the island itself, you can enjoy your yoga practice of choice right on the smooth sand, without being bothered by flocks of tourists strolling about - though you may encounter one or two cats!
If you enjoy spending time on the beach and wish you could do that in Tokyo, check our Ultimate Guide to Visiting a Tokyo Beach!
Take in the sights at the Devil’s Washboard
The Devil’s Washboard is a fascinating scenic spot on Aoshima Island, known for its striated, layered rock formation. The Devil’s Washboard has been created by years of erosion, thanks to the rising and falling sea-level. So that now, you can walk around the rocks, and take in the mirific sea glass and shells, nestled inside the nooks between rocks.
This is another spot on Aoshima Island where you can take in the beautiful sunset, and think about life.
Try the seafood
What would a fishing village be without its traditional seafood? If you’re on Aoshima Island, this old and revered fishing island, then it stands to reason you’d try some of the specialty seafood dishes that once fed the island’s economy, and allowed it to thrive.
Chill with the cats
Obviously - obviously!- how could we talk about our favorite things to do on Aoshima Island, without at least mentioning the main attraction? While Aoshima Island may not be such a great idea for a holiday destination if you are allergic, or otherwise indisposed towards cats, this cat-lover’s paradise is worth the visit for the feline population alone.
Since the cats on Aoshima Island have been cared for and pampered down many generations, they are docile and friendly. You can feed, pet, or just straight up chill out with them, and who knows, you might even discover a thing or two about yourself, in the process.
Bonus: Aoshima Beach Park
We’re adding this one as a bonus, since it’s not located on Aoshima Island specifically, but rather on Aoshima mainland. However, since you’ll probably be in the area, if you do decide to visit Aoshima Island, we thought it might be worth having a look.
Aoshima Beach Park is a great place to sit on the beach, with a cool drink in hand, and enjoy the smooth sand, and light breeze. One of the newer additions to the area, Aoshima Beach Park is a great tourist stop to rest your feet, and why not, snap some sweet pics for your Instagram feed?
6 Things to Know Before You Visit Aoshima
If what you’ve read so far about the cats on Aoshima Island has got you packing your bags, and hitting the road, that’s great news! As we’ve seen, one of the few remaining interests in Aoshima Island is generally from tourists and cat-lovers worldwide, who simply have got to visit this feline hotspot at least once in their life. However, before you hit the road, there are one or two things about Aoshima Island that are worth keeping in mind.
Maybe this one goes without saying, but a lot of visitors coming to Aoshima Island for the very first time are flabbergasted by the huge feline population. Keep in mind that on Aoshima Island, cats are literally everywhere. They will be at the harbor, as you come off the ferry, on the beach, inside old buildings, and just languidly crossing the street. Everywhere. So before you go, take a moment to prepare yourself, and acknowledge that you will be sharing this space with cats, and are, for the purpose of your visit, a guest on their turf.
For yourself, yes, but also for the cats, because one of the biggest reasons to visit Aoshima Island is, of course, to feed the roaming cats. One good thing about the cats on Aoshima Island is that they are not at all picky about their food. After years of a varied, tourist-led diet, they will eat anything you give them - rice balls, cat food, potatoes, and pretty much anything else you’ve got.
Caution - the residents of Aoshima Island have taken upon themselves the task of feeding the cats, so they may not agree to you coming in with your outside food, and feeding them. Bear in mind that there are designated feeding areas on the island, where the practice won’t be frowned upon.
Leave the residents alone, if they so wish.
Remember that the few remaining inhabitants of Aoshima Island are elderly and not a tourist attraction, either. As such, though they tend to be generally welcoming of tourists, locals are just going about their business, and are under no obligation to chat or entertain you. So read the room - if you come across friendly, chatty locals on Aoshima Island, feel free to sit down with them, but don’t expect they’ve got nothing better to do than to entertain you.
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Don’t smother the cats.
Just as you would be respectful of the human residents, make sure you also give the felines on the island their necessary space and privacy. While some cats may enjoy being petted and coddled, others will not. So even though you might love cats, and think there’s nothing you’d rather do on Aoshima Island than cuddle up with a dozen cats, give the animals their own space.
Pick up after yourself.
Granted, this should be non-negotiable wherever you’re traveling. But since Aoshima Island is a tiny universe of only a few humans, and a lot of cats that may ingest your leftover trash, try not to leave any. Bring plastic bags with you to clear up your leftovers and trash, and carry it with you back to the mainland. Don’t leave it on the island, as that would just force the residents to pick up after you later.
Understand that this is not a tourist attraction, per se.
While many tourists, both Japanese and international, visit Aoshima Island every year, the island itself is not a designated tourist attraction, but rather, a largely deserted island. Expect to find old, abandoned buildings, and places that have fallen into disrepair (often crowded with cats).
So before you go, keep in mind that Aoshima Island may not be as “prettied up” as you might expect from a normal tourist attraction. Also, take into account that there are no hotels, shops, restaurants, cafes, or other things you might expect in a normal tourist attraction. So make sure you bring anything you might need with yourself, including food, water, and other necessities.
Other Animal Islands Like Cat Island in Japan
Although Aoshima Island is definitely the most well-known “cat island” in the entirety of Japan, it is not the only one, and once you visit one, you might find you have a taste for them. These remote, animal-heavy destinations are a great retreat when you feel you’ve had enough of the world, and just want to spend some time in nature (or rather, in the animal realm). Here are some of our other favorite animal islands and destinations in Japan.
Manabeshima Island (真鍋島)
Although Japan is home to roughly a dozen “cat islands”, few are as well-known as Aoshima and Manabeshima. Located in the heart of the Seto Inland Sea, Manabeshima is a more tourist-y cat island for those of you who can’t deal with the barrenness of Aoshima. Another old fishing village, Manabeshima Island offers much the same attractions as Aoshima, with the added benefit of more locals, as well as popular tourist necessities, like hotels and restaurants.
Okunoshima Island (大久野島)
If cats aren’t really your “thing”, then you can head out to Japan’s only “rabbit island”, Okunoshima. Accessible from mainland Tadanoumi Station, the “rabbit island” is a beautiful, fluffy destination with a seriously dark past. It is rumored that the abundance of rabbits on the island first hailed from experimental scientific labs, during World War II, where various chemical weapons were tested. Though not everyone agrees with this theory, one thing is certain, today Okunoshima is a fluffy bunny-lover’s paradise.
There is a single hotel on the island, where you may eat and sleep, or you can just do a day-trip to see the rabbits (though make sure to observe the rules of the island!).
Itsukushima Island (厳島)
Last though certainly not least, Itsukushima Island is a tiny island in the Hiroshima Bay, in western Japan, where you can see many shika deers, (also known as spotted or Japanese deer).
Considered by many a sacred animal, the deers roam freely all over the island, and have learned to coexist with the locals, and tourists. The island is also a great destination for hiking lovers, and offers some breathtaking sights, most notable the red torii Itsukushima Shrine, which floats directly on the water.
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