ねこみち or Neko Michi. I love the word. The translation is: cat path. My mother-in-law taught me this word and it perfectly describes the endless maze of narrow paths that slice and dice the neighborhoods of Kamakura. Most likely, you will find them everywhere in Japan, but ours have some unique surprises. They are a great idea - shortcuts used mostly by the locals that bypass the congested streets. I followed one in Yuigahama that was barely as wide as my shoulders, others are big enough for two bicycles to pass each other. They are a quiet route to walk your dog or a safe way for kids to get to school. Everyone uses them.
I don’t see the Neko Michi as a shortcut, but rather as a connection. It links neighborhoods, temples, shrines, cafes, guesthouses, shops, and people. If you take the time, the Neko Michi will also connect you better to what literally lies around the bend, whether you are a local or a visitor.
In some ways, the Neko Michi elicits more questions than answers. How do people build their homes where there is no access to a road? What happens if there’s a fire? How do visitors find your house? How are large items delivered? Who would start a business off the beaten path? I guess the Neko Michi encourages people to get creative.
On the Neko Michi, you’ll be more likely to say hello to a passerby than on the crowded sidewalks of Wakamiya Oji. On the busy streets you become anonymous. The Neko Michi is more personal, more intimate. Studies on aging reveal how important social interactions are for staying healthy. Perhaps the Neko Michi allows that connection between neighbors. Remember the days when we used to go next door to check on a neighbor or borrow a cup of sugar?
Does anyone explore their neighborhoods anymore, or is everyone so busy that they don’t take the time to simply take a walk? Time is a luxury. Wandering without direction might sound like a life of leisure. The philosopher, Walter Benjamin, wrote famously about the Parisian flaneur - a person who walks and observes the city around them. In English, we might say, “stop and smell the roses.” It’s all about appreciation.
I have lived in Kamakura for almost a year now and I think I’ve walked every Neko Michi I could find. The next day I might walk it again in the opposite direction. It often amazes me what I miss the first time. We don’t have Neko Michi in America, so these are fun for me. They give me a sense of adventure. I always come home having seen something I had never seen before and I always feel like I’ve learned one more thing about this interesting town.
Take the time to go for a walk. Get lost. Expand your perspective. The Neko Michi is a mysterious network of paths that may lead nowhere in particular or to somewhere wonderful. It’s a metaphor for living one’s life. Follow your nose. New things will be discovered. Become the alley cat.