Japan is world-famous for cuteness, from Hello Kitty, to Pokemon, to the fact that certain characters in its Katakana alphabet (which pre-dates Emoji by a dozen centuries) strongly resemble the emoticons that were to follow. So, it should come as no surprise that the Land of the Rising Sun is home to the cutest islands on the planet.
Okunoshima, located off the southwestern coast of Honshu, is bursting at the seams with bouncy bunny rabbits, while the northeastern island of Tashirojima is crawling with cuddly kitty cats. Both of these places have interesting stories to go along with the adorable animals you’ll find on them, so whether you’re looking to travel to Cat Island and Rabbit Island, or simply need some cuteness in your day, I hope you’ll continue reading.
Rabbit Island, Japan (Okunoshima)
After being left emotionally vacant by war paraphernalia in Hiroshima, I was eager to be uplifted, so I hopped (get it?) on a train bound for an island filled with rabbits. Actually, there were a couple more steps in that process, but more on that later – let’s talk about bunnies!
Okunoshima is literally crawling (hopping?) with rabbits, but the reason for this is less than adorable. Specifically, Okunoshima was a center of poison gas manufacturing prior to and during WWII, a fact Japan publicly denied until many decades later, which prompted the vast majority of residents to evacuate, save for a couple rabbits which, well, bred like rabbits – here we are.
To reach Japan’s Rabbit Island, hop onboard a Mihara-bound Shinkansen from Hiroshima, then transfer to the local Kure line for Tadanoumi (use this website to check schedules, or simply inquire at Hiroshima station, where you can also make JR Pass reservations). Walk five minutes to the ferry terminal, from which it’s just a 12-minute ride (again, schedules here) to Okunoshima.
People around these parts don’t speak a lot of English, but they’ll know exactly why you’re here and point you in the right direction. Although the island is home to a (pricey) hotel, I recommend simply taking a day trip to Rabbit Island from Hiroshima like I did.
Cat Island, Japan (Tashirojima)
One thing you probably don’t know about me is that my mother is a crazy cat lady and that my sister (not to mention many of my female friends) are well on their way. As a result, when I discovered the fact that Japan was also home to a “Cat Island,” I felt it was my emotional duty to visit, my own fondness for felines notwithstanding.
Like Rabbit Island, Cat Island’s namesake animal significantly outnumbers humans in population, although in the case of Cat Island it’s due to Japan’s ongoing demographic crisis, rather than chemical weapons. While less tropical than its southerly sister, Cat Island boasts comparably mountainous landscapes and captivating coastal views.
Another way Cat Island differs from Rabbit Island is that it offers camping (in cat-shaped cabins, no less), so if you want to stay longer than a day, walk up the hill to said cabins (trust me, they’re impossible to miss) and ask if one is free. It’s important to do this soon after arriving on Cat Island, as the last ferry back to the mainland leaves relatively early, and you’ll want to make sure you have a place to sleep before you miss it.
The nearest big city to Tashirojima is Sendai, which is easily accessible from Tokyo, Kyoto and the rest of Japan by Shinkansen and plane. From Sendai Station, take a local train to Ishinomaki (FYI: For reasons I’m about to state, you should try and catch the 6:22 a.m. express service) and then a ferry to Tashirojima’s Nitoda port.
The train will get you to Ishinomaki (which, fair warning, was devastated by the 2011 tsunami – it’s really emotionally difficult to walk through) at around 7:30 a.m., while the first ferry to Cat Island leaves around 9:00. Keep in mind that the ferry port is quite far from the train station (a ¥1,000 taxi ride or a 30-40 minute walk through the aforementioned devastation), which is why getting to Ishinomaki early is so important.
Only two ferries per day return to the mainland – one at 10:45 and the other at 14:15 – so if you don’t plan to stay the night, it’s absolutely essential that you catch one of them back. The 9:00 will get you Nitoda around 10:00 and four hours is plenty to explore Cat Island, so I recommend taking that one.
Which is Better – Cat Island or Rabbit Island?
I would liken comparing Cat Island and Rabbit Island to apples and oranges, were it not for that fact that both fruits were depicted as being equally cute in Japanese pop culture. To be sure, I recommend you visit both Cat Island and Rabbit Island if you have the time. They’re both easy day trips that add fun and whimsy to any Japan itinerary.
To my knowledge, all animals on both islands are free of disease, although you should use common-sense precautions when dealing with them. As for allergies? I’m moderately allergic to cats, but I kept my petting to a minimum and I was completely fine. I guess fresh air really is the cure for everything!
Fresh air, or islands filled with extremely cute animals.