Did you know that Shiga Prefecture has its own cat island?
This might seem surprising, as Shiga is technically a landlocked prefecture, but in addition to boasting the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa, Shiga also has the claim to fame of containing the only inhabited lake island in the country. And that island also just so happens to have a large feline population.
Okishima Island is located just off the coast of Omi-Hachiman City, and has a population of roughly 350 people.
Its main industry is fishing, and it is well known for the variety of fresh lake fish they bring in every day. Like many rural places in Japan, a large portion of the island’s population is elderly, and their slow, un-rushed island lifestyle is sure to be a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of mainland life. There are no cars, and most people seem to get around on foot or by bicycle, making the island an overall very quiet and peaceful place to be, give or take the occasional sound of a boat motor.
The majority of the island population are said to be descendants of samurai, who sought refuge on this island after losing a war in the mid-12th century. To this day, most of the island residents have one of the original seven surnames of their samurai ancestors.
The boat ride from the port to the island took about 6 minutes, after which Émilie and I began to wander around the island. First we visited Itsukushima Shrine, which is located on the edge of the island with a torii gate out in the water. Several butterflies fluttered about just in front of the torii leading up to the shrine.
Just walking around the island reminded us of a Ghibli film, with narrow pathways, abundant greenery, and copious representations of wildlife, particularly insects. *cough*cicadas*cough*
Despite the fact that this island is very well known for its cat population, we were surprised to see no cats for the first few hours of our visit. We walked around the pier and all the way down to Itsukushima Shrine and back before we saw our first kitty. We eventually figured out that the cats, not unlike humans, simply did not care to be out and about when it was so hot and humid, as well as raining off and on.
Despite the fact that it was mentioned in pamphlets and maps, we had a very hard time locating the trails for the viewing spot up in the mountain. When we did locate a trail just beside the elementary school, it was just a bit too muddy and overgrown for us to feel good about climbing it. We hope to be able to visit again sometime and try again.
If you decide to visit Okishima Island, be sure to go on a day with good weather! We saw surprisingly few cats this time, but I know that would have been different if the weather had been just a bit nicer. The cats we did see, however, were very friendly!
A shuttle bus is available from JR Omi-Hachiman Station to Horikiriko Port for only 200 yen. The boat ride to the island takes roughly 5-10 minutes.
For more information on the island and access: click here: https://en.biwako-visitors.jp/spot/detail/161
To see how Émilie and I fared on the island, as well as to hear a few stories about our early experiences as CIRs, be sure to check out our Okishima Adventure below!