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Depictions of Lord Shimadzu's Cats on a wooden plaque at the Nekogami Jinja Shrine (AE, NGS)

The Cats of Kagoshima

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Do cats go to heaven?

Do you ever miss your dead cats?

Do you ever wish you could commune with them one last time? Let them really know how much you miss them?

I found out where you can—in Japan.

Nekogami Jinja (the Cat’s God Shrine) is part of the vast gardens at Sengan-en, the 17th-century estate of the dynastic Shimadzu family in Kagoshima, Japan. Like Shinto shrines throughout Japan, the cat shrine has a torii gate, a stone shrine for paying tribute, and a cleansing water fountain with bamboo ladle—only everything is much smaller. Also, at the very center of the stone shrine sit tiny ceramic effigies of two cats—two rather special cats.

Sometime around the year of 1592, Yoshihiro (the 17th Lord of Shimadzu) sailed from Kyushu to Korea on a military venture. Along with his entourage, he carried seven cats—not as pets, but as furry, meowing clocks. Yoshihiro’s cats were special because you could tell the time by looking into their eyes. Over the course of a day, the pupil in the cats’ eyes changed with the sun. Each cat was matched to certain times, specifically 6:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., noon, 2:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., and this is how Yoshihiro’s armada kept time with military precision during his long campaign.

Alas, not all survived the long journey to and from Korea. In the end, only two cats made it back to Kagoshima alive. In gratitude to these cats’ service and loyalty, the Shimadzu lord built a shrine to them in 1602. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the Shimadzu family relocated to their 75-room summer “villa” and the cat shrine moved with them. To this day, it is still an observed site of devotion dedicated to all cats—also, bizarrely, clocks.

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Toki-no-kinenbi (Time Day) is on June 10th and every year, watch- and clockmakers attend and pay tribute to these two “time cats”. Far outnumbering them though are huge crowds of cat lovers who gather at the cat god’s shrine to remember all cats, and especially, the cats they love.

Pet owners who have lost a cat in the last year enter the cat’s name into the registry, which is then read out by the Shinto priests as part of the ritual. The same goes for missing cats or cats suffering from illness. Or you can just come to celebrate your cat that’s still alive and well.

Throughout the rest of the year, cat lovers post messages to their pets that have passed on, written on painted wooden tablets that are hung from a board at the shrine. Visiting the shrine, I flipped through and read hundreds of good wishes written to pet cats. Most were in Japanese and Chinese but a few were in French and English, communicating heartfelt adoration for furry friends:

“Have fun in the paradise of cats . . . “ said one, or “You lived only two years but you gave me memories forever.” Mostly, visitors just missed their cats and wanted to convey that love and longing to them in the next life. Honestly, it was touching.

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Pet owners write messages to their cats, be they dead, missing, or still alive (AE, NGS)

Perhaps the greatest blessing of true travel is the gift of random discovery. After crossing the entire country in a day, I stepped out in the city of Kagoshima, at the very southern end of Japan’s southern island, Kyushu. I found many strange and wonderful things but among these discoveries was Kagoshima’s modest-yet-meaningful cat shrine.

As far as cats going to heaven, I really can’t say. All I know is that if it does exist, I imagine cat heaven looks a lot like the Sengan-en gardens: a forest of soft-bark trees for scratching one’s nails on, plenty of freshly-raked sand, lots of natural cool mountain water trickling all around, and a constant stream of humans coming to worship them.