An island full of cats

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Tashirojima, in Ishinomaki, Japan, is home to clowders of cats that surpass the area’s human population. A writer and feline lover embarks on a trip to the famed “Cat Island,” and reflects on the aftermath of unavoidable calamities.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) One day in 2011, the city of Ishinomaki in Japan almost disappeared. Eighty percent of port houses was swept away; 46 percent of the city was flooded; more than 3,000 people were dead; and more than 2,700 were missing. Refrigerators were floating down the flood river at bicycle speeds. People driving automobiles fell into tributaries to the nearby sea, their choices slowly narrowed down to the least gruesome of multiple deaths. Locals watched from the nearby hilltop — and they will never forget to tell you how the snow fell gently that day — as the Earth, without mercy or malice, began seizing, and seizing, and seizing.

It was jarring to learn about all this in a pink 1960s Dodge Dart. It was a Sunday in 2016, and my friend Harvey and I were being driven around the city by Kazuya, a middle-aged local we met in a snack bar. Wrong as it may be, our minds tend to simplify complex human existences into stereotypes. And to me, Kazuya was the epitome of working class Japan. He put up his own painting company, disillusioned by the rigid systems of Japanese companies; he slurs his words, even before finishing his first highball; and at one point, after he took us to the top of Hiyoriyama — where the city folk fled during the tsunami — he looked toward the land, the sky, the sea, and told us that, man, the Chinese are awful people.

After the quake, Kazuya’s house was half-filled with debris in murky water. His family couldn’t go back for two weeks, and by the time they did, their home couldn’t be recognized, and the things most precious to them were gone.

“There are bad people in Japan too, you know? But, well, most of them are probably Chinese.”

On top of the hill, overlooking the nearly barren neighborhood, Kazuya lit a cigarette, leaned against the railing, and said: “You’re from the Philippines, right? You know those disputed islands where China’s been building runways and stuff? Why couldn’t the tsunami have hit those instead?”

cat island Cat Island is home to more than 500 cats, including this sleepy-eyed feline who appears to have wholeheartedly accepted his regal crown. Photo by GIAN LAO  

Only his children and his dogs were home when the water filled their streets. Thankfully, they made it out in time. “Looking back, that was scary, wasn’t it?” He says this casually, because how else could he say it? Here was a man who had lost everything and nothing: the sentimental tug and the ironclad shackles of the past, the prosperous tomorrow that awaits us, and the terrifying unease that always accompanies our greatest hopes. I began to ask myself if it was true — if the only way to cope with such tragedy is to hold the shell of the current world into your ear, and listen only to the now.

After taking one last drag, Kazuya looked at us and asked: “Do you eat raw fish?” Then he made a call and started walking back to his car. “I’ll take you to my classmate’s restaurant,” he says. And we hop into the Dodge Dart and make our way down the hill.

***

Here’s a confession: I went there for the cats. And here’s an excuse: Everybody does. I knew the tragedy that befell the port city. I read about the devastation, the fleeing, traumatized citizenry, and the long, arduous recovery, and I went there for the cats. But the city indulged me. On their many respective surfaces, the locals reveal no specter of the tragic recent. The taxi driver, the ferry ticket booth man, the old lady at the pier — all had only one word for us: Neko? To which Harvey and I smiled and nodded, and said that, yes, indeed, neko.

In 2014, on a slow day in the office, I clicked on a link to an article about an island of cats — Tashirojima, which had 85 people, and more than 500 cats. I sent it to my then-girlfriend who loved cats. I hardly ever keep secrets, but this is a desire I could never express through words, for fear of it never happening: I imagined the rustic island, the never-ending music of crashing waves, the dim sunlight of fall, and myself kneeling down, asking someone to walk with me into old age. The moment I had those thoughts, I lost all choice in the matter. I had to go. And, under different circumstances, I went.

I arrived on a cold day. The gulls were chasing our boat for what seemed like the greatest prize in their short, seagull lives: prawn crackers from the hands of tourists. The ocean wind felt like winter, and it was difficult not to lean against the boat railing, look at the new and reinforced seawalls, and think of the city’s troubles with water: how they ask so much of it, and how much it’s given back.

cat-island.jpg A couple of curious cats (left) approach a photographer, while three of them stay put. A tourist (right) poses for a souvenir shot with two seemingly unwilling kittens. Photo by GIAN LAO  

At the Nitoda Port — the more feline dense port in the island — the pillars featured two cat drawings and the word yokoso, which means “welcome.” It looked like it had been done by the best artist among 85 people — a suggestion that the island itself was ill-equipped to handle the boom in cat pilgrims. The tourists immediately flocked to a poor black cat who was randomly chilling at the pier. It tensed its shoulders, strutted toward the edge, and zipped the other way, past the tourists, back into the island.

The walk that followed was difficult — difficult and bereft of cats. The word “island” actually fails to capture the hilly landscape of Tashirojima: the steep hike, the maze of a seemingly person-less town, the old paths ruined by the tsunami. I could count the cats with my fingers. I could talk about each of them at length. The white cat scratching its neck; the two cats fornicating on a beaten path; the cat sitting by the picnic table, who had a Japanese grade schooler balancing flowers on its head. The island is peaceful, and the rustling leaves and the summer cicadas will always beckon you to sleep. I found a high spot and looked out to the sea. I thought about things that I’d assigned much meaning to: my aimless millennial existence, the elusiveness of happiness, and the girl I loved but could not be with, and I reflected upon the good fortune of my crises.

***

After buying us chirashi dons for lunch, Kazuya drove us around his neighborhood, which was flattened by the tsunami. “Look at all that grass,” Kazuya said. “Look at all that land. They all used to be houses.” At each stoplight, he’d point to a spot and say, “Here it was two meters,” or “Here it was one meter.” I wondered how many people had the devastation mapped out so clearly in their heads. In some areas, Kazuya breathed a little heavier and said, “This is the river where the people fell.”  

Maybe he knows all this because — after assuring his family’s safety — he navigated the flood in a gum boat. Tasukete means help in Japanese. And Kazuya-san waded through the floodwater, listening for the faintest tasukete he could hear. Ten people, he says, when we ask how many he rescued. He didn’t gloat; he didn’t ask for praise; in fact he might have grown a little quiet.

Here’s a confession: I went there for the cats. And here’s an excuse: Everybody does. I knew the tragedy that befell the port city. I read about the devastation, the fleeing, traumatized citizenry, and the long, arduous recovery, and I went there for the cats.

 

I’m unsure if he sensed the gloom in the car, but after a while, he asked us to go to his place and have beers. He called his wife and his three dogs and introduced us. Inside Kazuya’s room was a Rising Sun flag. Of course. We went inside and talked about our small lives. And throughout the afternoon, Kazuya talked about how Japan is so peaceful, how there’s no place like it, and how he wants to keep working to make it a little better. At one point, he was glowing: talking about his daughter, who’s studying architecture, whose dream is to teach and to be a builder of dams.

Moments later, his high-school age son came down shirtless from the second floor, nursing what seemed like a black eye. We didn’t ask. We talked about rugby and Pokemon Go, and before we knew it, we were taking pictures together before leaving. Then it was the push and pull of hospitality: visit me in the Philippines, come back to Ishinomaki. We get in the car, and Kazuya’s wife, who wasn’t drinking, drove us to our ryokan. The son was there too, and right before we leave, he says: “There’s a Mewtwo that comes out near the school between 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. Good luck!” And then we say goodbye. I wonder if this really is the case: if the happiness that comes after great loss can sometimes be as pure and quiet as the happiness before.

***

There is no food for sale in Tashirojima. At least that’s what we thought after circling the island, only to find closed down minjukus (informal lodgings for visitors), small gardens enclosed by red nets, and cigarette vending machines. Near the port, Harvey saw some Japanese tourists with something to eat, and he asked them where they got it. Apparently, they walked across a tent that sold food, and they bought the last five hamburgers on the island. We followed the directions to that tent and met three of the 85 citizens of Tashirojima, and it was just our luck that they had a few more cups of instant ramen, which we devoured. Cat island lessons number one and two: bring food for yourself, and maybe also bring food for the cats, who unsurprisingly had an informal gathering at the food tent.

Disappointed at the dearth of cat encounters, we asked anyone who would listen: where are the cats? And at the food tent, we met Yuki, who works at the cottage-for-rent nearby, who told us to cancel our mainland bookings because the stars in Tashirojima are beautiful at night, and who told us that there’s a cat family that lives in the park. When we got to the park, we found out that Yuki went ahead, and was hanging out with the cat family. “That one’s the dad, and that one’s the mother, and that other one’s not really part of the family.” We nodded, took photos, and talked about the surrounding islands. It was after Yuki left when our cat luck began to turn. In the town proper, there were seven cats who seemed to have a mutual cuddling agreement; near the rusty vending machine, we saw nine cats sleeping, before organizing a line to have a drink from a bucket filled with water. It was nowhere near the photos we found on Google images, but it was good enough.

cat island The cats in the island don’t come to you and ask to be petted. They teach you how to be solitary in a world of solitary creatures. Photo by GIAN LAO  

Perhaps what I’ll never forget were the moments that came after — Harvey asleep on the bench, and myself looking at the water and the surrounding mountains after the cats finally came out of hiding. The cats don’t come to you and ask to be petted. As cats do, they walk; they meow; they sleep; they act cute; they look at your chest and check if you’re dead, to see if they can eat you; they teach you to be a solitary creature in a world of solitary creatures. If that’s all you ask of them, they never disappoint.

***

Almost all buildings in Ishinomaki look new. Ask directions and people will help, but they will completely forget about a block or a turn. I don’t know if it’s because their map’s been modified by the magnitude of the disaster, or if it’s because the Japanese don’t see alleyways as alleyways, but as mere spaces between houses. The entire city, however, was alive. The cafes were well designed, the food was strangely cosmopolitan, and there were art exhibits and posh pottery stores. It was hard to imagine that less than hour away was an island with hardly any food, hardly any lights, and several clowders of cats. It was even harder to imagine the ruin of the city five years prior.

There is no dramatic symbol of recovery in Ishinomaki. In a sense, that makes their recovery more meaningful. One of the things the locals will tell you to visit is a manga museum, celebrating the guy who made “Kamen Rider.” And it’s strangely appropriate that one of their symbols of hope is a life-size “Kamen Rider,” which remained standing after the tsunami. How easy it is to forget: after grief, we often find comfort in the comical, in the mundane, in the hard work of each day.

cat island Before settling down to sleep, the cats form a tentative line to drink from a bucket of water. Photo by GIAN LAO  

On our final morning in Ishinomaki, Harvey and I walked up a different hill with a view of the city. There were buildings, homes, and open spaces. There was an event near the water; the children were watching people pull off jet ski stunts in the river; there were megaphones and music and the joy was pure and fearless. The world, with all its complexity, was happening.

The poet Matsuo Basho once wrote:

 

“Even in Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo’s cry,
I long for Kyoto.”

 

I am grateful — and afraid — that I have found my Kyoto.