Everyone has a weakness. One that will make them abandon the common sense ingrained from years of primary school doctrine and follow random strangers into situations from which they could not possibly escape.
For some, it is candy.
For others, it might be drugs.
For us, it was cats.
This was not supposed to be a life-defying experience. We had even brought along a toddler. The plan was to visit Aoshima Island; a mile long blob of rock on which the resident cat population outnumbered the humans 6 : 1.
Dangerous? Not so much.
While acquiring fame as a 'cat island', Aoshima is far from being a tourist mecca. The nearest serious city is Matsuyama; an undeniably urban joint that boasts an impressive castle, but is nevertheless tucked away on Japan's smallest main island of Shikoku. From Matsuyama, it is a further hour to the coast by a local train so small that it only has a single carriage. Then it is another 30 minutes by boat.
Assuming that was, that the boat would take you.
Travelling to cat island just twice a day, the boat's capacity is limited by the people it must bring back. The morning ride turns around directly, leaving visitors from both this and the subsequent afternoon trip to travel back on the same ferry. Therefore, if the morning ride fills the boat, no one can travel out in the afternoon.
In our case, there were two spots free on the afternoon ferry. This was unfortunate since (a) there were three and half of us and (b) two other people were already sitting pointedly by the ferry signpost.
We felt short changed.
The original plan for this holiday was to take the morning boat ride the following day. However, with only the haziest idea as to how to reach the harbour, we had decided to try for the previous afternoon trip. In theory, we had done this to prepare for exactly this eventuality; unable to board the ferry, we could return to Matsuyama and have another shot at it the next morning. In practice, making this ferry had involved catching the 6am Shinkansen bullet train from Osaka and none of us felt like turning back now.
As we looked around the deserted harbour to see if we could pretend this trip was still exciting, a woman appeared from the boat moorings around the corner. There was a boat that would take us to Aoshima for an hour's visit if we paid ¥3000 each.
A dubious ride to a far off island for cash in hand? What could go wrong?
Clearly, it was an excellent idea. While the woman had actually approached another couple who had arrived behind us, we thought this sounded too much like good, honest fun to miss. We signed ourselves up as well.
Had this been New York, this blog post would never have existed. Instead, a new 'Kill Bill' style box office hit would appear in twenty years, based on the true story of a half-Japanese girl who sought revenge after her family were mercilessly slain after being used for drug smuggling while she was a baby.
Fortunately, in this version of events, we were left on a small island with a large bag of what transpired to be whiskas cat biscuits.
The island of Aoshima has no hotels, no cafes or even vending machines. There is a just a small cluster of houses and a metric tonne of cats. Most of the island residents are between 50 - 80 years old and --according to a Japan Times article-- are pensioners who did not join the flood to the cities after World War II. While we saw signs of the island's working life in the form of drying seaweed and fishing boats, we did not see any locals around the streets. Most likely, they were tired of visitors during the strip of national holidays in Golden Week.
Slightly more strangely, we also didn't see the crowds of tourists who would be filling up the official ferry on the ride back to the mainland, although presumably there were at least thirty. A few were dosing in the shade by the island's shrine and a few more may have wandered deeper into the island. The rest were presumably eaten by cats.
In an effort to keep the cats and tourists under control, a sign near the pier requested feline feeding stayed close to the water. The cats flocked around this area, forming a furry mass of multicoloured mog. While a decided number came to check out our bag of dried food, it seemed smaller flock than many of the pictures I had seen. This again, might have been due to the popularity of the island (and so abundance of food) over the holiday.
While most of the cats are stray, a small number do wear collars. These were often the ones whose coat colour marked them as outside acquisitions, while the majority of the feral population were different degrees of orange and white. Most seemed in good health, although we did see the odd gummy eye and respiratory problem. Articles I read on Aoshima suggested that vets do visit the island, which is likely why the majority of cats appear well cared for.
Despite being the ride your mother always warned against, our alternative transport worked out well. The main ferry leaves its morning passengers on the island for a full day and even the most ardent of cat lovers might struggle to count tails and paws for so long. Not to mention forgetting sufficient sustenance would be a mistake. Our hour-long visit meanwhile, was just about perfect.
As we returned to our dubious ride, a fishing boat pulled in. This caused the dry food to be swiftly forgotten in the hope of a real catch. A gaggle of cats hovered by the edge of the pier, but seemed to know that jumping onboard would be an unwise move. Their patience (such as it was) was rewarded by a handful of small fish tossed onto the land. The cats, it appears, retain the hearts of the locals.