Aoshima (or Ao island) is worldwide known as a cat island. It actually became full of cats accidently, as they were introduced to the island to hunt mice during the village period of glory, when was operating as a fish village.
In fact, mass media had a huge impact on the island’s popularity, that even my father in Switzerland knew about this place, so I decided to pay a visit. And between us I need to confess that I’m not a cat lover, I’ve never been, but when people talk about it and you’re already in Japan, why not?
Therefore, I added the place on my wish list and I secured a full day to visit Aoshima. Now, if it was a good or a bad idea, you can later decide.
First of all, you have to plan in advance to get to this island as it’s not easy. Aoshima is not a touristic place and without the right information and preparation, you may not get there as planned.
The closest big city is Matsuyama, and must probably you’ll start your journey from there. If you’re relying on public transportation get prepared, as this will be a long day with a very early start. The itinerary you should follow should be this one:
- From Matsuyama station take the JR Yosan line at 05:51am until Iyo-Nagahama Station (770¥ one way ticket). You will get there at 07:14am,
- From the station walk straight to the port, where you’ll see a small ferry waiting for you (slightly on your left),
- Take the ferry at 08:00am to get on the island at 08:35am (700¥ one way ticket per adult, 350¥ for children),
- Your next and only chance to return to the main island is with the 04:15pm ferry, which will bring you to the initial departure point at 04:50pm.
- Finally, take the 05:33pm train back to Matsuyama to complete your day.
As you can see, the transportation is a real challenge, as there are only 2 ferries per day to support the remaining locals of the island. To be more accurate, this is the official schedule of the ferry:
- Departure from main island to Aoshima:
- 08:00am arriving 08:35am
- 02:30pm arriving 03:05pm
- Returning to the main island from Aoshima:
- 08:45am arriving 09:20am
- 04:15pm arriving 04:50pm
If you decide not to take the first ferry in the morning and rely on the one at 2:30pm, you will only get to spend about 1h on the island. But is not this the issue. The problem is that the places on the ferry are limited as they have to ensure the people leaving in the morning have a return place in the afternoon. That’s why the numbers are limited and prioritized accordingly. So if you don’t wanna risk, you should better get on the first ferry and secure your spot.
Once you get on the island get mentally prepared, as you have no escape for about 8 hours. It is tough as you don’t have much to do, but here are my 2 suggestions (and most probably your only options).
Once you arrive, follow the other people as they usually go towards the feeding place. In case you are all new on the island (which I doubt), follow the street to the left and below the shrine gate you will find the feeding place. There are a few benches you can sit on while playing and feeding the cats.
As there are no shops, restaurants or even vending machines on the island, come prepared. Bring enough food and water for yourself, and also some food for the cats if you’d like to feed them directly. People often come with toys too. If you have none, there are a few you can borrow from the waiting room close to the ferry. With that in mind, enjoy the cats till you had enough!
As I mentioned before, there is not much to see and do on the island apart from feeding and playing with the cats. Speaking to a local, I was told that are currently only 5 people living in Aoshima, all of them old. The majority of the houses are empty, as people died and young people moved out. That’s the reason why the island will (most probably) become uninhabited in a few years. And with no locals on the island, the ferry will stop operating. The result? The island will soon become a ghost island.
But what about the cats? As locals won’t be here to feed them anymore, what will happen? Well, a few years ago, volunteers started to came to the island to sterilize the cats. By avoiding increasing the cats population, they ensured the current ones will be taken care of till the end.
In the good days (like 2 years ago) were around 200 cats playing around in a joyful atmosphere. Today, there are only about 70 remaining, basically the result of sterilization and aging. So what you may saw on TV a few years ago and those pictures on internet with tens of cats eating and playing together are no longer relevant. At least not at the same proportions for sure. So be good and manage your expectations from the beginning to not leave disappointed.
If at some point you get tired of cats, as 8 hours may be too much for many of us, you have only one “escape” option. Follow the path through the forest that leads to the lighthouse, to the other side of the island. I actually had no clue about it until I spoke to a man that came to see the lighthouse, and not for the cats. Apparently this is a hobby I never heard about it before.
The route is not easy as it’s not a standard route for hiking. It is very narrow, as it follows a single railway as you can see in the images. But overall, follow the railway till the end and from there there is a visible path you can follow till the lighthouse.
On your way there, be careful of snakes as I saw one by myself. Also, avoid touching the railway to not damage your clothes (as mine became black!).
After spending around 8h on the island, it was finally time to say goodbye. And even if I got extremely bored and felt like in a prison that day, it was an interesting experience I’ll never forget. The cats were all kind and nice, and for the first time in my life I got no scratch after playing with them.
But once on the ferryboat instead of being happy for going home, I suddenly started to feel sad. I knew I will never come back there, and even if I wanted to I will most probably find nobody. An old lady was waving goodbye to us from the island, one of those few locals. It was a heartbreaking moment for me, a reminder of how short life is and how everything comes to an end sooner or later.
But I really don’t wanna end this article with a sad tone. There is still a great opportunity for you to visit Aoshima and I will totally encourage you to do it as soon as possible. Even if things come to an end, we have to learn how to appreciate them while still having them around. Therefore, prepare your luggage and go for this trip. It will must probably be: once in a lifetime.
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