OKAYAMA, Japan >> In Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture, a feline “lord” of Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is drawing visitors. That’s a welcome relief, following a heavy hit from natural disasters last summer.
Sanjuro, a brown and white male cat thought to be 3 or 4 years old, is the cat lord of the popular castle, nicknamed “castle in the sky.” He settled in the precincts of the castle in the wake of torrential rains last July.
Sanjuro’s love of people has generated social media attention, which in turn has increased the number of tourists coming to visit the castle. Attendance fell after the rains but has been recovering rapidly thanks to the friendly cat.
In fact, Sanjuro is now referred to as a living “beckoning cat,” the auspicious cat statue often displayed in stores and other businesses.
“We want to liven up the whole city with Sanjuro,” said one upbeat official with the Takahashi City Tourist Association.
Last July, castle janitor Ryoichi Motohara found the cat wandering the grounds.
“I thought he was an abandoned cat because he was very skinny,” he recalled.
After watching the cat for several days, Motohara started feeding him. From that point on, Sanjuro began appearing in the main area of the castle, mingling with tourists. The cat didn’t mind people touching him and even purred. He became widely known through word-of-mouth and online.
The tourist association named him Sanjuro in tribute to Tani Sanjuro, a samurai warrior of the Bitchu Matsuyama clan. Sanjuro served as a troop captain of Shinsengumi, a samurai squad in the last years of the Edo period (1603-1867).
As media coverage of Sanjuro grew, his owner was eventually found in October. Megumi Nanba, 40, who lives in the city, said she had been searching for her cat, who ran away on July 14.
Nanba initially intended to take the beloved pet back home, but her family discussed the matter and decided to give their cat to the tourist association.
“I was really relieved when I found out he was alive. If he likes living in the castle, it is good for him (to stay there),” she said.
In November, an association official took Sanjuro home to groom him for a media presentation — but he ran away again. For more than two weeks, the association tried in vain to find him. Finally, 19 days later, Sanjuro reappeared.
Since then, officials have kept him inside the castle’s administrative office building.
In December, the association officially appointed Sanjuro to the post of “castle lord cat.” His duty: to stroll around in the castle twice daily, with officials holding him on a leash.
Sanjuro is highly popular for his displays of affection towards visitors, such as rubbing against people’s legs and neatly sitting down on their knees.
Following July’s torrential rains, visitor counts had fallen 20%, butin February numbers surpassed 4,000, 40% higher than those of the previous year.
The association designated March 16 as the “Day of Sanjuro,” using a play on words — 3 (san), 10 (ju) and 6 (roku) — and held an event. Tourists from across the nation swarmed to see Sanjuro that day.
Miho Hatanaka from Otake, Hiroshima Prefecture, visited with her daughter.
“He is so friendly and tame. I wish I could hug him a long time,” she said.
Her daughter Nanami, 9, echoed her sentiment: “He’s so cute. I hope he keeps playing the role of castle lord.”
The association has produced official Sanjuro items bearing his photo, such as key chains and postcards, as well as digital stamps that can be used on LINE, a free communication app.
Hideo Aihara, manager of the tourist association, said the group hopes to build on the cat’s popularity.
“With Sanjuro at the core… we want to expand this positive trend,” he said.