This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of CONNECT.

Christopher Dedrick R. Conwi (Kagoshima)

As an animal lover, coming home to an empty apartment that didn’t allow pets was a bit of an adjustment. You don’t hear tippy-tapping on the floor getting louder and louder the moment you get home, you don’t get a hairball nuzzling your leg. Nothing. Living alone is not my cup of tea. And it wasn’t like in the Philippines, where I could just step outside and befriend a street cat or a stray dog; Japanese local governments are better at managing citizens’ safety than that, but at what cost? The crows and the falcons were not easy to befriend either. I needed an animal to care about soon or I would go crazy.

So I did what any sane person would do: swipe right on every Tinder profile with a photo of a pet and hope we matched so I could come over and pet their fur babies. Unfortunately, I don’t think I appeal to Japanese women, so that didn’t work at all. So I did the next best thing and looked for an animal shelter on Google Maps. I honestly just went to the closest one as soon as my free time matched up with their opening hours. I headed for Mauruuru, which was, thankfully, a short bike ride from my apartment. (And very close to Taniyama Station for anyone interested in supporting our cat café!)

I had no plan! I had enough Japanese to get me through konbini transactions and I could say “Hai” whenever I didn’t understand something. I thought of pretending to be interested in adopting, even though I knew my apartment wouldn’t allow it. (But honestly, I had already started looking for pet-friendly apartments and would move once my current contract came to an end.) When I got there, I met Kazuyo-san, a very accommodating Japanese lady who spoke very little English. I spoke toddler-level Japanese and we just managed to understand each other thanks to a charades-esque conversation and inaccurate translations from Google Translate. Nevertheless, she was very happy to hear that I wanted to volunteer and help out at the café-shelter on weekends when I was free. They did not have enough hands to pet all 25 cats and four dogs.

She started with what I think was lowkey an interview to check if I was a sociopath. She asked my name, where I was from, where I worked, and when I arrived in Japan. I answered in Japanese when my ability would allow it. I think it’s safe to say I passed the test. Next, she invited me into the cat café to see if the cats liked my vibe. Fortunately, I think I smelled friendly to the cats, and they very quickly became comfortable around me. Even Petty, the top-ranking boss of the 25 cats, seemed to approve of me. After a short conversation, Kazuyo-san bid me adieu and said that she was looking forward to seeing me on Sunday.

I was very excited, though I had no idea what I had gotten myself into, since I’d never volunteered at a shelter before, let alone in a foreign country. But, I had always been the type of person to jump right in and hope for the best, and it had  worked out for me so far. When I got there on Sunday, Kazuyo-san gave me a warm welcome and introduced me to her niece, Emi-san, who was a groomer at the shelter. They often tag-teamed to communicate with me whenever one of them felt like their English had run out. They were both very friendly and introduced me to almost all the cats in the shelter. There were too many names for me to take in and I could only remember the quirkiest and cutest ones. To this day, I still don’t know all of the cats’ names, but that doesn’t stop them from being very cuddly.

Some people come back to try and win the approval of Boss Petty.

After all the introductions, my first task was to hold the food bowl for Santa-san, a cat they had rescued who suffers from balance issues due to problems with his ears. Funnily enough, I arrived wearing a Santa hat so they thought it was very fitting for my first interaction to be with him. They said my hat was very cute and I replied jokingly, “Thank you, it’s my only hat and my head gets cold when I bike.” They laughed, and Kazuyo-san disappeared for a bit, only to return with a beanie that forms cat ears when it’s worn. I held back my tears as best as I could and asked if they were sure. I was very happy with my Santa hat but I love getting gifts! She insisted, and to this day I wear the beanie every time I bike. “This woman is too kind,” I thought. I didn’t know half of it. . .

I got to know the second-floor cats that day. The firstfloor cats, the café cats, were the pretty and friendly ones who, for the most part, loved people. They still had varying personalities which made the café very interesting for visitors, who had their own preferences. She said it’s like that so some people come back to try and win the approval of Boss Petty or the extremely shy black cat. This was a genius business strategy. There was  a rotation so that some of the secondfloor cats could come down to the first floor now and then, as long as they didn’t have any illnesses and weren’t aggressive towards the café cats. Just so they could get to experience “employee” life. To be fair, the employee life was pretty good. The café cats were  paid in food to get petted all day. What a life!

Kazuyo-san used to work at a pet hospital, so she takes in the cats treated at the hospital that don’t have any owners.

The second-floor cats held a special place in my heart though. A lot of them were abuse victims or had certain disabilities which made it hard for them to get adopted. Some had broken or missing legs, digestion problems, or other disabilities. Kuu-chan, a gray cat missing an eye, was my welcoming committee and instantly ran up to me and proceeded to lick my neck. The moment I found out he was the designated food finisher, I knew we would get along. But he was a bit of a challenge when feeding the other cats—you had to be mindful and keep him from sneaking in and taking a bite! 

Kazuyo-san used to work at a pet hospital, so she takes in the cats treated at the hospital that don’t have any owners, as well as cats she and her husband find injured on the roadside. The new cats are still a bit hostile and afraid of people, but I find it amazing that some of the cats who have been there a bit longer are very genki (energetic) and friendly towards humans, and it’s all thanks to her. Honestly, she might be a fae or a saint or something, she’s even friends with some local crows and falcons who come by to say hello and circle around her now and then. I definitely found myself a mentor in terms of kindness to animals.

I’m glad I went out on a limb and asked nicely if I could help out, because the experience has made my life here much more homey and has helped me decide to stay longer.

The next few times I volunteered, she was more comfortable with giving me more tiring tasks, which I was happy to take on! I really wanted to help out in a way that would make  their lives easier. So far, she had asked me to wipe and disinfect the walls, help set up our event sales, and give the genki dogs a walk, which I would describe as more of a sprint. She said they were  happy that I was tall and that she would take full advantage of it. She also lets me bring “guest stars.” I try to invite friends from a variety of countries to visit the shelter, since she’s very interested in hearing about different cultures. She sends us home with treats each time we visit, even though we’re happy just to be there. Kazuyo-san is extremely generous and, since I can never turn down any sweets, I always come home with a full stomach and a full heart.

I definitely intend to continue volunteering at Mauruuru for many weekends to come, and it’s something I look forward to at the end of my week. It has become an avenue for me to practice my Japanese conversation skills and helps me feel like I’m truly part of my small town. I’m glad I went out on a limb and asked nicely if I could help out, because the experience has made my life here much more homey and has helped me decide to stay longer. I encourage all ALTs to look for something in your local community that you’re interested in, and just ask if you can be part of it! I believe the universe runs on the “ask and you shall receive” system—you just have to know how to ask properly. Go for it! It never hurts to try. 

Christoph is a first-year ALT from Kagoshima. He majored in psychology and worked as a Montessori teacher in the Philippines before coming to Japan. He spends his free time gaming, playing sports, learning how to cook, and is a regular volunteer at まうる-る in Taniyama. He hopes to stay in Japan for another four years.