Fukushima’s ryokan cat warms guest slippers

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sei, a “poster cat” at Okina Ryokan in Fukushima City, is popular for curling up on guest slippers and warming them up.

FUKUSHIMA — A cat named Sei is a drawing card for a long-established ryokan inn. She curls up on the slippers lined up for guests by the ryokan’s entrance, warming them while waiting for their arrival.

“She cheers me up,” said Katsunori Kaneko, the fourth-generation owner of Okina Ryokan inn at Anabara Onsen hot springs in Fukushima City. Sei was voted first place in the travel magazine Jalan’s “poster cat ranking” in February last year.

The ryokan was opened in 1923 and began allowing guests to bring their pets about 30 years ago, saying, “We have cats too.” Its reputation spread by word of mouth, and more guests started staying at the ryokan in order to meet the cats.

After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the number of guests decreased due to rumors about the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. However, the ryokan’s regular guests who loved the cats provided support. Immediately after the earthquake, the ryokan received a number of phone calls asking if the cats were okay, and some traveled from afar to stay at the inn.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Okina Ryokan inn’s owner Katsunori Kaneko holds Sei in his arms.

Sei came to the ryokan in September 2019. Kaneko, 54, took Sei in when he saw her meowing on a nearby bank. At the time, the ryokan had four cats who were over 20 years old. Sei followed around a cat named Gureko. Sei would see off guests at the entrance with Gureko around checkout time, and the two would go to a nearby mountain together around noon. Sei started warming up the guest slippers after copying Gureko.

Even after the spread of the novel coronavirus, new customers kept coming to meet Sei. Some contacted the ryokan, saying, “I’ll come to meet Sei once the infection situation settles,” and these people just recently began coming to stay.

“The cats act as a bridge between us and our customers,” Kaneko said. “When we talk about the cats, our relationship changes from that of staff and guests to comrades. I think our guests support us because we have a close bond.”

Sei, who is almost three years old, has become more accustomed to her “job,” riding the lift with guests and “escorting” them to their rooms, and showing up in the communal bathrooms. “Our ryokan has been helped by the cats in these really tough times,” Kaneko said.

The ryokan’s business has suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Kaneko doesn’t have a successor secured. Still, Kaneko says he felt a sense of destiny when Sei came to the ryokan just as the ryokan’s cats were reaching their 20s. Kaneko said, “I feel like I’m being told by the gods to continue the ryokan for at least 20 more years.”