I have two passions in life: cats and cemeteries.
Okay, maybe I have three: cats, cemeteries, and gluten-free baked goods that don’t taste like sand.
Of those three passions, the first two are relatively easy to satisfy on vacation. Go to almost any place in the world, and ask the locals, “Where are the cats? Where is an old cemetery?” and most people can point you in the appropriate direction.
Unfortunately, ask someone in a foreign locale, “Where are your gluten-free baked goods that don’t taste like sand?” and they will tell you to go home.
That’s fine, I’m more than content to satisfy the first two of my three worldly endeavors. And no place I’ve visited satisfies quite like Yanaka in Tokyo. Yanaka is often called the “Cat Town,” and for good reason.
Here, there, and everywhere, are cats. And graves! Cats and graves!
A short ride from the commotion of Shibuya (think Lost in Translation), Yanaka is the little town that time forgot. Walk its narrow streets and gaze at its pre-war architecture that survived the 1945 air raids, and it’s easy to forget that the rest of Tokyo bustles and rumbles only a few miles away.
In Yanaka, life is simpler, life is quieter, and life is full of cats. The main shopping street of Yanaka Ginza is dotted with artisan stores selling pottery, tea, sweets, and tourist tchotchkes. It’s easy to wonder if you’ve wandered into a Miyazaki cartoon.
Every sweet shop offers a variation a “cat cake.” Every tea shop sells hand-painted tea pots and cups with neko frolicking or snoozing on the glazed ceramic.
The banners that line Yanaka Ginza feature two Lucky Cat-reminiscent felines welcoming you to Yanaka.
Of course, as you walk the town it is impossible to miss the various Yanaka cats strutting around, or stopping traffic, like they own the place (because they do).
Just look for a crowd of “oohing” and “aaahing” humans, and in the center, you’ll find a cat soaking in the adoration. The town and its people are protective, so the Yanaka cats are friendly and bold. When a tourist got a little too aggressively friendly with a little black cat lounging outside a shop, the shopkeeper came running out and shooed the tourist away, barking, “That’s enough! She needs quiet time now!”
I think I may have found my people.
Then there’s the cemetery — and the cemetery cats.
Yanaka is really mostly cemetery. From almost any part of the main street, you can spy one of the more than 7,000 Yanaka Bochi, or Yanaka Cemetery, graves. Covering approximately 25 acres, Yanaka Cemetery was officially founded in 1872, but it holds temples that go back to the Edo Period, between 1603 and 1867.
You can spend an entire day weaving in and around the rows and twisting lanes of graves old and new. Some are well-maintained monuments, some are crumbling stones ravaged by time. I highly recommend visiting the Tokugawa family plot of the cemetery, where you can see the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Japan’s last Shogun, whose grave dates from 1913.
All this history is atmospheric and fascinating, but you know who doesn’t give a whisker’s lick about “those old dead guys” (their words not mine)?
You’ll find the cats of Yanaka sprawled all over the cemetery. Literally sprawled. Lounging on graves, soaking up the sun in the middle of a rutted path, bathing in the shade of a headstone.
More than once as I tried to decipher the names and dates on a huge monument, a curious kitty would meow at me from his perch up top.
“Your Japanese is lacking,” the kitty would mew at me through sleepy, blinking eyes.
But are the cats healthy? Is the population under control? To the best of my knowledge, yes.
The cats of Yanaka are under the care of the town of Yanaka and the army of volunteer “cat caregivers” roaming the cemetery and town. Many signs detail how the Yanaka cat population is monitored and controlled by a trap-neuter-return program, and on multiple visits to Yanaka I’ve seen devoted caregivers feeding, grooming, and ministering to the cats.
Walking down a shady side path, I turned into a grassy, overgrown part of the cemetery. As I picked my way down a lane, I came upon a small older woman and a large orange cat. The woman nodded at me (I swear the cat did too), and proceeded to feed the orange cat, as well as inspect his feet. I moved off to give them some privacy, and from a distance, I watched the woman gently apply some ointment to the cat’s paw. He crawled onto her lap after she was done, and they quietly enjoyed each other’s company.
My favorite cat at Yanaka Cemetery is a large black-and-white cat with a crooked tail.
His “territory” seems to be a tidy, walled, family grave near the main cemetery thoroughfare. On a sunny afternoon I found him spread out on the smooth concrete, not a care in the world.
“Oh, hello there!” I said softly when I noticed him. Lifting his head from a lazy bath time, he seemed to smile and got up to say hello.
Sitting down on the grave’s raised concrete slab (most Japanese graves house the cremated remains of multiple family members, making certain graves quite large), “Shirokuro” as I came to call him (black and white) came right up to me, gave me a sniff, and crawled onto my lap. If I stopped scratching his head, he’d reach a paw out as if to say, “Did I say you could stop?”
I could have stayed for hours with Shirokuro purring in my lap, the peace of the cemetery around us, watching the sun dip below the trees. The only thing that disturbed our moment was when Shirokuro’s true love meandered down the way.
As an older gentleman dressed in a rumpled blue suit approached, Shirokuro needed only to hear his light footsteps before springing up to greet him. As the man neared, several other cats popped up from behind graves and bushes to mew and purr at him.
He retrieved a little comb tucked behind a large headstone, and one by one he spoke softly to his cats as he lovingly brushed their fur. Surrounded by about five or six cats, the older gentleman brushed them, looked at their ears, ran his hands over their bellies, and looked into each of their little faces.
The man nodded politely at me, I nodded at him, and the cats ignored me. It was a thing of beauty.
Yanaka might be my favorite place in Japan. Every time I visit, I leave a little cheerier than when I arrived — which I realize may sound odd when you consider that most of my time in Yanaka is spent in a cemetery.
Beyond the numerous cat cafes of Japan, I’d wager to say that this might be the cat lover’s dream destination. Purring inside a bubble, safe from the chaos of Tokyo, Yanaka is a peaceful oasis where it’s okay to stop and pet the kitties.
Featured Image Credit: SAND555UG, Shutterstock