Island of Rabbits & Island of Cats
by Jordan Mounteer
Okunoshima – The Island Of Rabbits
Although the island has gained a somewhat notable following when a video became popular on Youtube featuring a young woman pursued by a horde of rabbits, the tiny island of Okunoshima has remained more or less of the radar of most people who come to Japan. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the most obvious is that the island is very difficult to reach since no major train lines intersect it – rather, you have to rely on a smaller local train which is notoriously infrequent, and even then it takes awhile (and if you don’t know the exact stop along the way, you can easily miss it!). Nevertheless, for those who put in the time and effort to get there and do some savvy planning ahead of time, it’s got some great appeal.
Located near Hiroshima, the island of Okunoshima actually played a vital role in Japan’s military history. During the Sino-Russian war, it was taken over by the Japanese government and became the site of a number of experiments aimed at creating new chemical weapons and munitions. Today the relics of these buildings still exist as hollowed out and gutted buildings, a reminder of the somewhat darker chapter in its history. In fact, some of the ruins, including a gas factory which produced chemical agents, is still off-limits to tourists. Nevertheless, if you’re a history buff there is some interesting culture to be gleaned, and the island sports a museum that looks both at the role the island played in warfare and in general.
And while the fortifications are still present, what really hallmarks the island now are of course its current inhabitants.
Once you reach the city of Takehara, there is a small ferry that takes you across to the island and the main landing site. From there, you can already see hordes of rabbits. In a somewhat dark twist of irony, it should be noted that there were a number of rabbits on the island during its heyday, but they were used (unfortunately) as test subjects to see how well the gas worked on living creatures. But don’t worry – post-WWII the island became a park where rabbits were freely introduced, and none of them have any connections to the grisly experiments that took place here.
Nevertheless, it is quite amazing to see just how many rabbits there are. They come in all sizes and shapes, from large adult males with black and white fur coats to spry young ones with almost reddish fur. After having so much exposure to tourists over the years, they’ve also grown quite accustomed to humans and are very friendly and docile. It is quite common for several dozen at a time to hop towards you with hungry eyes and clamber onto your feet.
While there are places on the island where you can buy food, if you’re thinking ahead (although it may be frowned upon if someone catches you) it’s a good idea to bring some food for the rabbits as well – avoid junk food if you can, but they love fresh greens like lettuce. When I went there during Japan’s Golden Week it was warm enough out that you could sit on the ground and the adorable creatures would crawl into your lap to get a snack.
Tashirojima – Island of Cats
Something about Japan lends itself to isolated eco-systems, and just as Okunoshima is famous for bunnies, there’s another island that is inhabited mainly by cats. Located farther north in Ishinomaki in the Miyagi Prefecture, it is considerably larger than Okunoshima and actually has a permanent resident population there of about 100 people. And of these, most are elderly, prompting some to call it a ‘terminal village’. Nevertheless, the surviving inhabitants are far outnumbered by the amount of stray cats that call the place home. In the Japanese mythos, cats are often seen as being lucky, and this belief still survives across Japan – even in bigger mainland cities, feeding cats is thought to bring luck, and as a result Tashirojima boasts a very particular ‘Cat Shrine’. This affinity for cats is probably traced back to the Edo era when cats were employed in households, castles, and warehouses as a way to get rid of vermin like mice, especially among silk producers and traders. Rats and mice are notorious for eating the silk worms, and the cats kept these pests at bay. The Cat Shrine, also known as Nekojinja, actually has its own unique history. According to legend, the cats here would often come and beg at the inns, and as a result the fishermen developed a fondness for them, and even began to rely on the cats to predict weather patterns and fish behaviour. When a falling rock killed one of the cats, a fisherman honored it by burying it and building a shrine.
Today the population of cats to people is about 6 to 1, but this is nothing compared to the thousands of tourists that come here every year, both to visit the shrine and pay their respects, but also to get their daily dose of “fuzz therapy” with the hundreds of tame and affectionate felines. Many people from other countries are often baffled by the intricate relationship that people on the island have with their cats – old customs generally dictate that keeping the cats as pet is inappropriate, so they are definitely strays according to every definition, but they are extremely well fed and healthy and that probably comes out best in their demeanor. Many people when they first get off the boat report being swarmed by mewling black, white, orange, and tortoiseshell cats who are eager to be petted or fed – or both.
Whatever your take on cats versus dogs, Tashirojima is definitely a unique excursion, where the present and past seem to converge – and while the future of the villages on the island may be in doubt, there’s a good chance the cat population will be there a long time after.
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