Thursday 9 June 2016

Volunteering at Japan Cat Network

Oh Japan, it's only been a week but I miss you already. A little over a year ago when I was working out how to get back to my favourite place in the world I realised that my ideal volunteer gig would be in Japan (duh!) and would involve cats - a quick google search later and I discovered Japan Cat Network. I'd never heard of Inawashiro but I knew that I'd be able to live in Japan for free surrounded by cats - what could be better?

Japan Cat Network existed as an organisation prior to the Fukushima disaster but the Fukushima shelter itself was formed in 2011 after the Tohoku area of Japan was devastated by the Tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster. One of Japan Cat Network's founders began rescuing animals who were left behind in the area as well as fostering cats for evacuees who were unable to take their animals with them. Japan Cat Network are a true no-kill shelter and whilst they don't take in many new animals right now they do assist local people if they find that they need to re-home an animal.

As a volunteer a typical day at the shelter involves dog walking, cleaning cat rooms, cat socialising, doing laundry, cleaning the kitchen, bathroom, and living areas, updating social media, planning the next open day, and working on projects around the house. Pretty fun right? It certainly didn't feel like work on an average day.

Nick and I were managing the shelter whilst we were there so we were also in charge of masterminding fundraising ideas, updating the volunteer info books, getting everyone working to a schedule, making daily and weekly schedules, and getting the place ship shape again after a long cold winter. The volunteer who arrived before us described the shelter as "feeling a little abandoned" and it certainly wasn't in the best state when we arrived. Nick and I worked a few 10 hour days scrubbing every inch of the place, from the cat rooms to the bathroom, and even the shed until it felt like a real homey and welcoming space again.

I made a cat book using pictures a previous volunteer and pro-photographer had taken of all of the cats with info about them in Japanese and English.

Before we had the cat book it was always tough when we had Japanese visitors because we were almost completely unable to communicate with them in a helpful way. Realistically, because of Japan Cat Network's off of the beaten track location, it's Japanese people who are most likely to adopt or foster the cats so working on this was super important to me. It was actually something I wanted to do at Lanta Animal Welfare but they wouldn't let me. I think that at any shelter run by Westerners in another country it's of upmost importance to have as much information available in the language of the country you're in as possible - at some places I've volunteered there's been no info at all and the staff wonder why locals never visit!

I also made a snazzy new sign for the front of the building so that people walking past could read a little bit more about the work we were doing. It was nice to put my time learning to write Hiragana and Katakana to good use!

There are twenty three cats living in the three cat rooms at the Fukushima shelter but there are also two dogs, Addy and ChaCha, who live in the main part of the house with the volunteers. They sleep in the living area (or on one of the bunk beds) and act like part of the family. In reality they probably find the constantly changing cast of volunteer carers quite stressful and both myself and everyone else working at or with Japan Cat Network would love to find them a forever home. They come as a pair and they are suer friendly as well as ridiculously cute.

The cats at the shelter range from almost unbelievably affectionate to timid and from playful to wary. There are cats at the shelter who, despite mine and Nick's best efforts, will not let humans touch them, but we were able to make amazing progress with some of the cats. When we arrived Fay would literally back into a corner and hiss at you if you came within a foot of her. If you reached out a hand so that she could sniff it she'd swipe at you with her claws out and we were told not to go near her by our fellow volunteers. Of course we ignored that advice and Nick made her his project cat. By the end of the month she would climb onto his lap to take treats from his hand and on our last day we spent 25 minutes playing with her and a little ball. It felt like the perfect reward for all of our efforts and we spent the first few minutes of playtime just looking at each other unable to believe that it was happening. She's lovely and I would totally adopt her tomorrow. Even if she never let me stroke her that'd be cool. Some cats, like some people, probably just don't enjoy being touched or perhaps they really have to trust you before they'll let you go for a little pet. Either way it'd be worth it to get to see her grumpy little face every day!

Three of the cats at the shelter, Charlie, Tom, and Nikki have few or no teeth and have to eat a special diet and visit the vet regularly. These cats clearly had a tough life on the streets after the Fukushima disaster and are still struggling. Charlie is the oldest cat at the shelter and whilst the volunteers at the shelter give her the best care possible I hope that neither she nor any of the other cats have to spend the rest of their lives there. Nikki similarly would love to find a fur-ever home, she's very much a lap cat and is without a doubt the most affectionate cat at the shelter. If you even kneel down in cat room A, even for a second, she'll jump onto your lap ready for cuddles. Isn't she adorable? She has super soft fur too!

During our time at the shelter I set up a Big Cartel store so that it would be easier for people to order merchandise. Before it was up and running people had to happen upon a blog post with pictures of what was for sale and then fill in a slightly too complicated google doc to order. In this day and age when shopping is so easy nobody was doing that so I'm hoping that the store will make things easier for people.

As well as cute tote bags like the one pictured above they also have long sleeved t's in loads of different colours and sizes. I have a grey and black 3/4 length sleeved one that I looooove. It's totally perfect for when Nick's blasting the air-con in our hotel and I need to warm up! If you'd like to support Japan Cat Network you can buy some merchandise, make a donation (thank you so much to all of my wonderful readers, IG buddies and Twitter friends who took part in the donation drive last month), or send some treats, food or cat litter from the Amazon wish list their way.

I'm not sure where my travels are taking me this winter but I'd happily return to Inawashiro to volunteer at Japan Cat Network again. When the hardest thing about a job is having to say goodbye at the end you know for sure that it was a positive experience.

If you'd like to read more about volunteering at Japan Cat Network then check out this post. If you're interested in how I survived as a vegan in a small Japanese town read my Vegan in Inawashiro post here.


  1. Japan and cats - it's a great combination, and looks like it was well worth your time, and the cats, to stop there. Hope it's not too long til they find new permanent homes.

  2. Excellent work by you and Nick. You've really made a difference. Hope you manage to get back there sometime. Would love to get an update on Nikki and the other cats and dogs.

  3. You guys did such a wonderful job while you were there, I can only hope the next volunteers follow in your footsteps. They were so lucky to have you there. <3

  4. Oh my gosh I would have wanted all of them! always a good deed helping out :)

  5. Hello!

    I am going to volunteer in Inawashiro cat shelter this month. Any advise or recommendations for me? :)


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