Cat Island & Glass Wind Chime Painting Experience Day Trip

Imagine an island where cats reign supreme. Ok, so we could be describing any part of Japan, a country notorious for its appreciation of felines of all stripes. But within easy reach of Fukuoka, there’s one place in particular where cats are truly — ahem — top dog.

It’s the “cat island” of Ainoshima, and thanks to JTB’s guided tour, you can spend an unforgettable day exploring it — as well as local history, cuisine and craftsmanship besides.

Fukuoka Now contributor Jessica Phelan recently did just that. Read about her experience below. You too can go on this trip! Full details here.

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Tour details
• Just ¥10,000 /person!
• Sun., Tue. & Fri. (May 2016)
• About 8 hrs
• Min. 1 person
• Pick up and drop off in Tenjin or Hakata
• Includes English or Chinese-speaking guide
• Craft experience, boat fees, lunch and transport included.
Read more and book online here.

I love cats. My friend Mindi loves cats. My boyfriend, Lucas? He’s more of a dog person.

Luckily for him, there’s plenty more to see on JTB x Fukuoka Now’s tour of Ainoshima — or, as it’s become renowned worldwide, Cat Island.

Ainoshima is actually the last stop of the trip, which began bright and early at 9am when the three of us arrived at the Hotel Okura in Hakata to find our guide and driver waiting to greet us. Introductions made and bows exchanged, we headed outside to the private minibus that would be our transport for the day.

transport collage

As we set off, our delightful guide, Mayumi, ran through what we had in store: first history and spiritualism at Munakata Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, then lunch at a traditional restaurant, followed by a visit to a glassware workshop where we’d get to try our hand at decorating our own ornaments. Only then would we take the ferry over to Ainoshima and as many of its furry inhabitants as we could lure.

Leaving the city behind us, we drove north through rice paddies, wheat fields and what we first took for low hills, but that Mayumi explained were burial mounds for ancient chieftains. A native of Fukuoka — and an excellent English speaker — Mayumi was a trove of information on everything from the local flowers in season to the streamers we saw strung up for an approaching holiday.

She soon had Lucas, who’s a history teacher, gripped with her explanation of the legend of Munakata: strategically located on Kyushu’s northern coast, the area is where the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom Japan’s emperors are said to descend, is believed to have dispatched her three daughters to protect royal ships as they set sail for Korea and China. Two of them reside on nearby islands, the story goes, but one remains based on Kyushu in the main shrine — the “branch office,” as Mayumi put it.

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The shrine is also a spot to worship Susanoo, god of storms. Originally the patron of sailors, his role has since expanded into a general protector of all travelers — which is why many people bring their new cars to Munakata to be blessed with safety on the road.

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Mayumi’s insights made the 45-minute journey fly by, and we were soon pulling up in front of the shrine’s stone gate. On a sunny spring day, with the wisteria in full bloom over the koi pond, the garden was as pretty as a postcard.

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Having explored the peaceful grounds and, under Mayumi’s guidance, performed the correct bows and claps in front of the shrine, we headed for the treasure house: a collection of offerings and artifacts found at Munakata and its two sister shrines. The entry fee isn’t included in the price of the tour, but if time allows, it’s well worth paying the extra ¥500 to admire the ancient mirrors, gleaming swords, intricate gold jewelry and even a suit of samurai armor on display.

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By then it was approaching lunchtime and we hopped back in the van for a short drive to the restaurant where we were to eat, Mikazukian. Hidden down a country road, it was the kind of place we’d never have come across without a local to guide us.

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Having seen us seated in the tatami room with a complimentary cup of green tea, Mayumi left us to our food: the biggest tempura set I’ve ever seen.

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A stomachful of delicious deep-fried seafood and vegetables, udon noodle soup, cabbage salad, chawanmushi (savory egg custard), pickles and several cups of tea later, we rolled ourselves back out front to where Mayumi and the driver were waiting.

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Ten minutes down the road and we were already at our next stop: the Sui Glass Studio, where you can see ornaments made from scratch. First head for the workshop, where lumps of molten glass are shaped into delicate cups, vases, paperweights and chopstick rests; then admire the finished product on display in the store. We were particularly taken by the bulbous glass owls, frogs and — predictably — cats.

glass studio

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Then it was our turn to have a go. The staff presented us with a box of acrylic paints and a plain glass wind chime each, which we did our best not to ruin. Having lingered longer than planned over lunch and with a ferry to catch, we found ourselves short of time to get our designs looking quite as perfect as the professionals’. That’s our story, at least, and we’re sticking to it.

windchime

We’d already packed so much into the day that it was hard to believe it wasn’t even 14:00. We were due on the 14:30 boat to Ainoshima, so our driver headed us south down the coast to Shingu, a small port about 11 miles north of Fukuoka.

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From there, it was on to the ferry for the 20-minute crossing. Between admiring the views — on a clear day like ours you can see the Fukuoka Tower in the distance — we got the Cat Island lowdown.

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At the latest count (and who knows how you begin to count cats), Ainoshima has around 100 feline residents to 500 human ones. The island’s cat community is divided into at least four separate groups, according to researchers from Kyushu University who have studied the animals’ behavior.

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Mayumi drew us a map to show us which area each kitty gang controls: there are the scavenger cats who live on a garbage patch on the southern point, the reclusive mountain cats of the north, the cats who patrol the central port for fish, and the cats who are fed, or at least tolerated, by people in the central residential area. The various groups fight each other fiercely for territory, but come mating season, females are known to sneak off for covert liaisons with rival groups’ males. It’s like the feline Game of Thrones.

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And then there we were: Cat Island. As we disembarked amid a crowd of fellow cat seekers, Mayumi handed us a map and wisely left us to explore at our own pace.

There’s more to see on Ainoshima than just cats: stroll around the edge of the island and you’ll come across shrines, rocky beaches, stunning views over the bay and, all the way to the northeast, some rare stone tombs. So imagine my surprise when, as Mindi and I climbed the path around the coast, I turned to find that Lucas was no longer behind us. Instead, having commandeered the camera, the one dog-lover among us had turned back to the port to take pictures of cats.

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If, like him, it’s cats you want, the port area is definitely the place to stay. This tour gives you just over an hour on Ainoshima, so you may well come to the same conclusion that we did: scenic views are nice and all, but who were we kidding? We were there for the cats. Mindi and I soon abandoned our walk and headed back to where the boat first came in to maximize our animal encounters.

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Black cats, ginger cats, white cats, gray cats, tabby cats, playful cats, sleepy cats, shy cats, friendly cats, cats with little bow ties… There were plenty of cats to go round, even when you find yourself sharing with a bunch of other ailurophiles (cat-lovers). We might have seen more had we disobeyed the signs firmly forbidding visitors from feeding the cats but, being rule abiders, of course we refrained from illicit bribery.

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The other golden rule is, naturally, not to try and take any of the kitties home with you. That’s a little easier to resist thanks to the local artists who have created a range of cat-themed ceramics that you can adopt instead. You’ll find them for sale at an outdoor stall by the port; neither Mindi nor Mayumi, a cat-fancier herself, could resist picking up a souvenir or two.

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Before we knew it, the return ferry had pulled in and it was time to head back to the mainland, where our driver was waiting for us. Forty minutes later we were back in Hakata — pleasantly exhausted, still a little full, and practically purring with contentment.

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Want to go on this day trip? You can take the same tour with JTB:

Cat Island & Glass Wind Chime Painting Experience

• Just ¥10,000 /person!
• Sun., Tue. & Fri. (May 2016)
• About 8 hrs
• Min. 1 person
• Pick up and drop off in Tenjin or Hakata
• Includes English or Chinese-speaking guide
• Craft experience, boat fees, lunch and transport included.

Full details here.

Text & photos: Jessica Phelan, for Fukuoka Now.

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