We heard about the village of Houtong (pronounced how-TONG), known as the Cat Village. And you know I had to go there before we leave Taiwan!
I consulted with our friendly hotel staff, and they said I needed to go to the main train station, get a local ticket to Houtong, and the train stops right in the middle of the town. (The general location of the town is marked by the star on the map.) Richard didn't want to go visit the cat town, so I took a taxi to the station, bought round trip tickets for $100 NT (about $3.30 US), grabbed a bagel for lunch, and caught my train. (Best bagels in Taiwan are Bügel Bagels at the train station - not excellent, but really good!)
It was about an hour trip out to Houtong - fortunately, there are signs at each station indicating what station it is, as well as what station is coming next in both directions. There are also announcements on the train in both Chinese and English. So it's pretty easy to know when to get off. On top of all of that, Houtong is pretty obvious - there are cat crossing signs as one approaches the town, even along the train tracks. There are cat signs all around the station. There's a happy (or lucky) cat conductor statue.
So it's pretty hard to miss Houtong!
This is a tiny village. Really, the business area is probably two blocks long, on two parallel streets and one tiny cross street. Plus the train station. And that's it. The residential area is mostly on the other side of the train station, up the hill from town.
Houtong was originally a mining town, one of Taiwan's biggest coal mining locations. But as the industry began to die out in the 1990s, people started to move away to look for more opportunities elsewhere, until the population dwindled down to roughly just a few hundred people. Unfortunately, many of those people abandoned their cats when they left.
In 2008, a cat lover in the community organized a team of people to take care of all the stray cats, some 100 or so kitties who were left behind. They started a feeding program as well as a neutering program, and made sure all the cats had regular veterinarian check ups. They also posted photos of the cats on the web, hoping to find new homes for the friendly strays.
Instead, people started coming to the village of Houtong to visit the cats and play with or photograph them right there.
So kitty tourism was born.
Weekends are full of both local and foreign visitors who come to play with the cats. Weekdays are a little slower, but the residents of Houtong seem to have adopted the attitude of, "If you can't beat them, join them."
This is Kitty Central. All Things Kitty. You want a cat tea towel, with a matching apron, tea cosy, and oven mitts? Come to Houtong. Cat tote, purse, wallet, all with the same cat breed? Of course, why not! Cat ruler. Matching pencils. Cat socks, hats, tee shirts. Kitty luggage tags, key rings, lucky cat ornaments. Cat cell phone covers. Toys for your cat at home.
And of course cats are featured on food. NOT THAT ANYONE HERE WOULD DREAM OF EATING CAT!!!!!! No no no. Just a sugar icing cat on a cupcake. (Yes, this was my snack.) Or cat-shaped tarts with fruit inside. (I brought these home for Richard, just so I could get the photo.)
Plus cats on signs at every café and coffee shop. Every tea shop.
Some cats also seem to have "jobs." There were two or three cats working at the train station, greeting visitors (or ignoring them), and eating from the kibble boxes around the station. Other cats sat under tables at cafés, and had their own food dishes nearby. One huge fuzzy cat was keeping shop at the Fat Cat Tea Shop. A small kitten (who went home before I could get a photo) was being trained at the ice cream stand. Most stores had a cat who seemed to think it was their job to lie on the floor and be cute. They were doing this job very well.
It was wonderful! I had so much fun wandering around meeting the cats, talking to them, and petting them on the head if they seemed willing and/or interested in getting a pat. Most of the cats were very friendly and happy to be pet; only one cat gave me an unhappy meow saying an emphatic "NO." One man, I think a resident of the town, did tell me not to pet the cats. But the ladies who were feeding them at the lunch station said it was fine to pet the cats. So I continued to do so, especially since a few cats walked over and meowed for a petting.
It really was cat-lover heaven! There's no way to walk around this town and not be smiling! Really, most of the people were walking around cooing at the cats in a variety of languages, buying cat knicknacks and paraphernalia, and posing with cats for photos. Few people picked up the cats, it seemed to be understood that the cats are okay with petting but being picked up by strangers wasn't okay.
So yes, I bought a few cat items. I've developed a thing for socks with cats all over them. Who can resist pink socks with grey kitties, especially having owned a wonderful Blue Russian for 17 years? Or white socks with calicos and roses. Seriously cute kitty socks.
For people who want to visit Houtong, it's an easy trip on the train. Although on the way back, I had to change trains unexpectedly. I asked some people if this was the train for Taipei, so when the conductor announced that there was a train transfer (announcement only in Chinese), these nice people let me know to follow them, and made sure I got on the right train. (Oh, a word of advice - if you do visit Houtong, use the restrooms in the train station - probably the nicest restrooms around, and a good place to wash hands after playing with all the cats.)
I had a wonderful day, and really am so glad I took the trip out there. It's a very pretty town in the midst of the hills, with a river walk and some small waterfalls.
But I went for the kitties, and spent all my time with them.