This week was an interesting rehearsal because none of the Yonemotos were in attendance, which gave me the opportunity to see how things are done when the cats are away. Speaking of cats, because I had to make an unexpected trip to Kyoto this past Monday, I took the opportunity to visit the nearby Manabeshima, one of Japan’s 11 Neko-jima, or cat islands.
When I arrived at rehearsal on Saturday, I learned from Tsuchimura that Tarō and Bunmei were going to be absent because they were doing a special performance at the nearby cultural center, called Saikōtei. This is the first rehearsal I have been to in which neither of the Yamamotos were present, so I was curious to see how it would be handled.
As I kind of expected, with the two gone, Tsuchimura, being the senior member, took charge. Since a lot of people showed up late, he began by rehearsing the Busu dance with the actor playing Tarō Kaja and then the traveller roles of Hone Kawa with the three men who played these roles. Unlike the Yonemotos, Tsuchimura seems to be a bit of a detail-oriented task-master, and he spent a lot of his time trying to get actors to understand very minute details of movement and vocal patterns. While the Yonemotos, Bunmei in particular, choose to focus on specific details for the actors to work on after watching the rehearsal of a play in its entirety, Tsuchimura more frequently stopped rehearsal to spot check various moments.
After more people arrived, the group worked on Busu, Miyagino, and Hone Kawa (though again, because Jirō wasn’t there, they could only do parts of Hone Kawa).
I also noticed that without the Yonemotos, the moments in which notes were being given seemed to be more of a group conversation, with many of the actors contributing their opinions on what is correct and what is not. That being said, Tsuchimura was quick to shut a few people down when he didn’t think they were giving helpful advice!
On Monday, as I said, I had to go to Kyoto for some prospective job stuff. I took the opportunity to stay overnight and, the following day, head out to Manabeshima, which is one of Japan’s cat islands, while on the way back to Yamaguchi.
Japan has a serious love of cats. You have probably at least heard of the cat cafe, in which people pay a small fee to enter a cafe where they drink tea and pet various cats. While this didn’t start in Japan, it quickly became synonymous with Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture. Today Japan has over 150 cat cafes and its residents are either cats who are up for adoption or permanent residents of said cafe. In the case of permanent residents, you will often find rare breeds of cats you may not see anywhere else.
Along with the cat cafe, cats also play a major role in popular Japanese culture. One of Japan’s most famous cartoon characters, Doraemon, is a robotic cat from the future who, using his magical tools such as his dokodemo door (the anywhere door), gets his human partner, a boy named Nobita, into all sorts of trouble. Pizza Hut has the Pizza Cats, who are live cats that supposedly run the chain (badly, because they’re cats, after all) and there are no shortage of famous cats serving honorary positions in train stations and public service locations across the country.
What’s the big deal, you might ask, with cats? Well, in a country where having a pet is often a luxury, due to strict landlords and, in the city, tiny living arrangements, having a pet cat (or any animal for that matter) is a difficult and often very costly. If you go to a pet store you might be shocked to see how expensive it is to buy an animal. I saw a chinchilla being sold here in Yamaguchi for 2000 USD! The result of this is cats (if not all cute animals) have a certain mystique about them and people want to soak up all the kawaii they can.
Now cat islands, while they have been around for a long time, are a relatively new fascination- and the Japanese have been keen to capitalize on it. Essentially, these places are small islands in which there are a limited number of residents and a boatload of (typically) feral cat colonies which the residents collectively support. Tourists from around the globe flock to these locations to see parts of Japan not typically visited and to encounter numerous felines. The most famous of these islands is probably Aoshima, in the Ehime prefecture (south west of Yamaguchi), where the cats outnumber the residents 6-1.
Manabeshima is located in the Okayama prefecture, which is northeast of Yamaguchi, closer to Hiroshima. In order to get to the island I had to take a local train from Fukuyama to Kasaoka, then a ferry from nearby Kasaoka port (a five minute walk from the train station), which runs about 8 times daily. Depending on which ferry you take, you get to Manabeshima in either 45 minutes or 1 1/2 hours.
Upon arriving I was struck by two things. The first thing was there seemed to be no cats. Secondly the island, although it had a densely packed number of houses, seemed to have no residents. It was like a ghost town. However, it wasn’t long before one cat after another began popping up and, after a few tourists emerged from what I assume was a seafood restaurant, suddenly a bevy of cats materialized. It was then I realized that if I wanted to find the cats of Manabeshima, I really should have brought food. The cats were definitely on the feral side, but some were very friendly and all of them were a quirky bunch, with groups of cats lording over specific areas.
I also came across an interesting park, called yuuki no minato, which used to translate into ‘port of the spirits.’ While the kanji for yūki used to be 幽鬼, I learned that they changed it in the Edo period to yuki 雪, or snow, because of the locals fear of the mischievous spirits who would hide amongst the rocks and cause trouble for incoming sailors. That being said, everything I saw around the island still called itself ゆうきの港, so maybe the locals have gotten over the fear of the ghouls- or maybe the cats deal with them?
I have never been to Aoshima, so I don’t know how I would compare it to the human-to- cat ratio of Manabeshima- if seeing a plethora of cats is your goal. However, if you want to see a truly unique old fishing village and you don’t mind a mangy cat sneezing on you, Manabeshima is certainly a good choice.