OKAYAMA, JAPAN (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A feline "lord" of Bitchu Matsuyama Castle in Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture, is contributing to a recovery in tourism that was dealt a heavy hit from natural disasters last summer.
The name of the cat lord of the popular castle, which is nicknamed "castle in the sky", is Sanjuro. He settled in the precincts of the castle in the wake of torrential rains in western Japan in July last year.
Because Sanjuro is super-friendly to people, he has attracted attention on social media.
The number of tourists coming to the castle, that fell at one point after the torrential rains, recovered rapidly, thanks to Sanjuro. He is now serving as a living "beckoning cat", the auspicious cat statue often displayed in stores and other businesses.
The Takahashi City Tourist Association is upbeat, with an official of the association saying: "We want to liven up the whole city with Sanjuro."
Sanjuro is a male with white and brown fur. He is thought to be three or four years old.
On July 21 last year, castle cleaner Ryoichi Motohara found the cat wandering in the castle's Sannomaru area. "At the time, I thought he was an abandoned cat, because he was very skinny."
After observing the cat for several days, the cleaner started feeding him. From then, he began appearing in the castle's Honmaru main area, mingling with tourists.
The cat never got angry when people would touch him. He responded to people with cute manners while purring. He became widely known through word of mouth and via online sites.
The tourist association gave the cat the name Sanjuro in tribute to Tani Sanjuro, a samurai warrior of the Bitchu Matsuyama clan who served as a troop captain of Shinsengumi, a samurai squad in the last years of the Edo period (1603-1867).
As the number of newspaper articles and TV programmes reporting about Sanjuro grew, his owner was identified around October last year.
Ms Megumi Nanba, 40, who lives in the city about 6km from the castle, said that she had been searching for her cat, who ran away from their home on July 14.
As she loved her cat and he was also was attached to her children, Ms Nanba at first wanted to take him back home. Eventually, though, Ms Nanba and her family members discussed the matter and decided to hand over 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 last year, an official of the tourist association took him home to prepare for a media presentation, and Sanjuro ran away again.
Although the association tried to find him by distributing leaflets and other means, Sanjuro could not been found, which made officials of the association increasingly worried.
Sanjuro was finally found 19 days later. Since then, the officials have kept him inside the castle's administrative office building in the Honmaru area so as not to have such a painful feeling again.
In December last year, the association officially appointed Sanjuro to the post of "castle lord cat". His duty as the castle lord is to stroll around in the castle twice a day, with officials holding him on a leash.
Sanjuro is highly popular for his friendliness towards visitors, such as rubbing against people's legs and neatly sitting down on their knees.
According to the tourist association, the number of visitors in July last year in the wake of the torrential rains fell to about 20 per cent compared with that in the previous year. But in February this year, the number passed 4,000 - 40 per cent higher than that in the previous year.
The association designated March 16 as the "Day of Sanjuro" as a play on words - 3 (san), 10 (ju) and 6 (roku) - and held an event.
Tourists from across the nation swarmed to take photos of Sanjuro that day.
Ms Miho Hatanaka, 44, from Otake, Hiroshima Prefecture, said: "He is so friendly and tame. I wish I could hug him a long time."
Her daughter Nanami, a nine-year-old elementary school student, said: "He's so cute. I hope he keeps playing the role of castle lord."
The association produces official items with his photo such as key chains and postcards, as well as digital stamps which can be used on LINE, a free communication app.
Manager of the tourist association Hideo Aihara said: "With Sanjuro at the core, new movements including developments of items and event plans have been occurring.
"We want to expand this positive trend while cooperating with various entities."