By Kent Lindell-Ross, 2019 Japan Tour traveler
On the North American Post 2019 Japan Tour, 24 travelers were set with group activities daily, but this tour was unique for having free time to connect with Japanese relatives and friends – which most did – and to explore additional interests. Mine was cats. Like millions worldwide, I’m fascinated by animals and especially by cats, no matter whether real, fictional, historical, in cartoons, or in online videos.
I had read about Yanaka before our tour. Yanaka is one of Tokyo’s traditional districts with a reputation among cat lovers as Tokyo’s “Cat Town”, and I was eager to see it.
Let’s pause here to point out that I neither read nor speak Japanese beyond being able to utter a handful of standard phrases and hadn’t previously visited Japan. Before my retirement last year, I had commuted to work via Portland, Oregon’s bus and light rail system but expect for commuting via a massive, Tokyo-scale transit system, in my case New York’s subway system, I was 50 years out of practice. My Yanaka adventure was fueled by optimistic enthusiasm, multilingual Japanese transportation signage, the helpfulness of uniformed transit station staff and kind strangers, and by the tour leaders’ building of my confidence through having supervised group travel on public transportation.
Tour leaders, Misa and Yuki, advised me that if I wanted to go to Yanaka, my best chance was at the end of a busy tour day with the group riding the waterbus from Hamamatsu to Asakusa and then visiting Asakusa Nakamise, Shibamata, Tokyo Skytree, and Soramachi Shopping Mall. Energized by all we had seen and done, my 73-year-old body had energy left over to start on my adventure.
After consulting my iPhone’s “City Rail Map” app for Tokyo about how to get to Yanaka by rail, I set off from Tokyo Skytree. It was already late afternoon. Using the Passmo transit pass included in our tour costs, I took the westbound Tobu Skytree Line to Asakusa Station, transferred to the westbound Ginza Line to Ueno Station, then hopped on the northbound JR Yamanote Line to Nippori Station, just two stops away. Walking out of Nippori Station by its north exit, a friendly, English-speaking Tokyo resident pointed the way to the beginning of Yanaka Ginza, Yanaka’s main shopping street.
Many of Yanaka’s shops already were starting to close as the waning light of late afternoon gave way to evening darkness. I walked the length of Yanaka Ginza, taking in as many of its cat-themed sights as I could and going into shops that still were open. This was more than enough to give me a taste of what I had come to see and photograph: cat-themed signs, cat-themed items in shops, and, yes, at least one cat. Among the last customers of the day, I quickly purchased cat-themed souvenirs from the shops to remind me forever of this evening Yanaka visit.
As I headed back to Nippori Station to take the southbound JR Yamanote Line to our tour’s Tokyo base at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, I spotted one of Yanaka’s resident cats grooming herself while perched atop a stone wall near where I had begun my evening walk down Yanaka Ginza.
The next week, in Kyoto, I made a similar independent late afternoon cat-themed shopping trip using the JR Railpass included with the tour. At my Arashiyama destination, the shopkeeper kindly kept the store open for me even though I had arrived just as she was putting up her “closed” sign. I thanked her and had no trouble quickly finding a cat-themed souvenir to purchase for a keepsake.
Cats were not the only animals we enjoyed during the tour. We saw cranes, frogs, koi and large trout at Shirakawa-Go, friendly, persistently snack-seeking deer both at Miyajima and Nara, a praying mantis on a Nara walkway, animal-themed statuary at shrines and other locations, and in Shibuya, the popular statue of Hachiko, the famous faithful dog.
When I take my next trip to Japan, I look forward to seeing monkeys, sea life, deer, birds and other wildlife, and, yes, more cats!