Wednesday, April 14

Dreaming of the cat island


Houses on Okishima.

A RECURRING theme of recent dreams involved a cat island. It was not just any random island. I recognised the cat island in my dreams.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and travel restrictions everywhere, it is still uncertain when international travel will fully resume.

To quench the wanderlust, I have been looking through old travel photos often.

This affected my subconscious as I began to dream of those faraway places.

The island in my dreams was one I have visited before. Being a cat lover, it was in my list of places to visit in Japan. There are many Japanese cat islands but this particular one is unique because of its location on a lake.

One autumn some years ago, I found myself stepping off a passenger boat at Okishima (Oki Island). It was the only inhabited island on Japan’s largest freshwater lake Biwako, home to a small fishing community.

One of the many furry residents on the island sits on a breakwater.

The ride took 10 minutes from a wharf in the outskirts of Omihachiman City in Shiga prefecture.

I remembered how my senses were assailed by the fishy smell wafting through the morning air. Other passengers alighted, mostly residents, but there were also leisure anglers with their fishing rods.

While they headed to their respective destinations on the island, I lingered at the jetty, my eyes scanning the surroundings.

As if responding to my scrutiny, there was a sudden mewing coming from the fishing boats moored nearby. I turned to see a white and grey kitten making its way from boat to boat.

It got over the side of the boats with ease and jumped onto the jetty in one swift movement. The tiny creature stood in front of me and mewed loudly as if welcoming me to its island abode.

The building in front of the jetty was the Okishima Fisheries Hall. A stall outside it was selling funazushi, Lake Biwa’s famous fermented fish sushi with a very strong odour and taste. The woman stall operator could be heard explaining this stinky delicacy to three young men who got off the same boat as I did.


White cat

Walking along the waterfront, I saw a white cat dangling itself off the side of a boat. I took a closer look. A dead fish floated on the water’s surface, the stench of death apparent. It was a very bloated dead fish. The cat was attempting to get it out of the water with its paws.

It seemed unafraid of the water, so bent on getting hold of a free meal. Unfortunately, after several unsuccessful attempts, it almost fell in. Its paw touched the water and the ripples caused the fish to float further from reach. Defeated, the cat plopped itself down on the boat and started to groom its wet paw.

Welcome by a grey and white kitten.

I passed a few residents on bicycles. The roads were small and there were notably no other vehicles. Cats and humans were free to roam without fear of being run over.

Houses dotted the lakeside path. A cloudless sky gave the lake a calm scene of blue. Off the shore, fishermen in their boats were casting nets into the water that sparkled in the morning sun.


Quaint eatery

During my walk, I came across a lodging house, the local Shinto shrine, a primary school, and a mini post office.

A curious handwritten sign that read ‘Ippukudou’ beckoned at the start of an inconspicuous alleyway. It was incredulously narrow, really just a gap between two houses. I followed the signs and was soon standing in front of what looked like an eatery.

Lifting the doorway curtain, I called out a greeting. A woman appeared from a small kitchen to the left of the entryway. She introduced herself as Ogawa. I could not discern her age although she looked about late 40s.

She gestured at me to enter the cafe, which was an old house with its ground floor converted into a dining space. After a quick look at the items listed on a chalkboard menu, I ordered a slice of homemade butter cake and black tea.

A cat tries to get hold of a dead fish in the water.

There were only three chabudai or low tea tables inside. Sitting crosslegged at a table closest to the door, I looked around. It was somewhat dark. Belatedly, I realised the shop had just opened for the day. Wooden stairs in a corner led to more intimate living quarters on the upper floor.

Ogawa-san appeared from the adjacent small kitchen with my order. We started chatting as I took occasional bites of the cake. I asked if she had been residing on Okishima for long.

“I was born and raised on this island. This place used to be livelier back when I was young. How things have changed,” she sighed and went on to describe her childhood.


Cats of Okishima

On the cat population on the island, she said they have been there for as long as she could remember.

A grey tabby trails behind a couple of leisure anglers.

She then showed me a photo book by a photographer called Manabu Minaki. It was titled ‘Cats of Okishima’.

“I think more people are made aware of this island by his photos. They are really nice,” she said.

I flipped through and agreed.

I tried to learn more about her and island life in recent times, but she steered the conversation away by asking about my trip to Japan and where I was from. She was curious about Borneo and said I could be her first customer from Sarawak.

Time passed quickly and soon I had to get back to the city to catch an afternoon train to Kyoto where I had a dinner appointment. I bade goodbye to my kind hostess, wondering if I’d ever see her again.

It was a brief encounter, but memorable.

I remember it vividly even now, years later.

A resident cycles along a lakeside path.

I caught the noon boat out before the boat operators’ lunch break. It would be nearly two hours to the next one.

From the wharf on the mainland, I had to take a public bus to the train station. I examined the bus schedule. To my dismay, I had just missed one. Looking around, I saw a stand for private shuttle buses bound for Omihachiman Station and decided to take a chance.

I was in luck but what came was more of a van, with a capacity of 12 passengers. It operated on a first come, first served basis and the fare was only 200 yen one way! That was a bargain compared to the public bus, which had cost me 710 yen.

The shuttle van took longer to reach the station, winding through narrow roads of the Omihachiman countryside and stopping where the big buses could not go but I did not mind it at all.

Looking back, I realised how precious those encounters in rural Japan were. As this year comes to a close with no end to the pandemic in sight, I wonder when I could return to the remote corners of my favourite Asian destination.

For now, I can only dream, figuratively and literally, of the day when everything is possible again.

Alighting at Okishima.