Julia Horton

We are sitting on the floor of a tiny apartment in Tokyo about half a dozen flights up, surrounded by sleeping cats curled up in an assortment of bowls and boxes. Their owner serves us a beer from a miniscule minibar in the corner with some complimentary nuts and explains that we can also buy food for the felines and help to feed them later if we like.

I wasn't really sure what a cat café would be like, but this one is a lot more about moggies than mochas.

I guess it's not surprising that this new craze has taken off in Japan, the birthplace of multi-billion pound marketing phenomenon, Hello Kitty.

The concept is designed to cater for people who love cats but rent flats where pets are banned. This one also acts as a kind of alternative rescue centre for those which have been abandoned.

Picking up a toy which looks like a Ken Dodd tickle stick I try to play with one of the few whose eyes are now open.

It has a hissy fit, which on reflection is probably what I'd do too if some strange creature poked me with anything when I'd only just woken up. It has probably detected as only a cat could that I'm actually more of a dog person.

Plus Japan is notoriously the most courteous country in the world, where almost every encounter can turn into a kind of 'polite-off' with a dizzying amount of mutual bowing and thank yous.

The legendary bullet trains also live up to their reputation, for being scrupulously efficient in every way.

I'm perplexed by the 'onboard' shop catalogue though, which advertises hundreds of random products including one scary-looking face mask which wouldn't look out of place on a gimp but is apparently some kind of diet aid for women.

Settling into my seat for a day-long journey south to Nagasaki I tuck in to a traditional bento lunchbox. Like virtually every meal here it is immaculately presented and delicious, each tiny compartment filled with a tasty morsel combining fish, rice and vegetables.

I'm unprepared for the seemingly endless supply of devine sushi - each almost the size of a whole fishfinger - which awaits me at the Garden Terrace Hotel. The chef beams as he conjures them up one by one, in almost magician-like fashion, until I reluctantly admit defeat.

The elegant new hotel overlooks Nagasaki's elongated harbour, which snakes darkly below the twinkling lights of the city at night.

Centuries ago this was literally the first port of call for any foreigners whose exotic goods and customs were gradually absorbed into the culture and cuisine.

One of the most influential outsiders was entrepreneur Thomas Glover, dubbed the Scottish Samurai after winning the respect of ancient warrior clans by eagerly crossing the cultural divide to learn their customs and language.

When the 21-year-old Aberdeenshire businessman arrived in 1859 Nagasaki had been the only Japanese port open to international trade for more than 200 years.

The resulting surging demand for coal to fuel a multitude of steamships sailing in and out of the harbour led Glover to establish Japan's first modern mine and Nagasaki's first slipdock.

Both developments helped to launch Japan's industrial revolution overall and Mitsubishi in particular, which today credits Glover as a "special person" in the firm's transformation into a global giant.

Glover's personal life is of greater interest to many visitors, however, thanks to speculation that his Japanese wife was the inspiration for Puccini's classic opera, Madame Butterfly.

The couple's former home, overlooking the remains of the dock he established, is now a museum called Glover Garden which has played up to the rumours by erecting a statue of the composer.

But Glover expert Brian Burke-Gaffney, who is currently working on redeveloping the museum, says there is no evidence to support the claim, which he says began as an "insensitive joke" by American forces who dubbed the property 'Madame Butterfly House' when they moved in after taking over following the devastating atomic bombing of the city.

The horrific history of the World War Two nuclear attack is documented in the famous Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which is a renowned example of what is now known as 'dark' tourism.

There is also a far newer and unlikely-sounding attraction just off the Nagasaki coast which could be described as 'dereliction' tourism.

Hashima Island was once a thriving coal pit where thousands of workers lived and worked cheek by jowel in a space less than 500 metres long and 200 metres wide.

When the mining industry collapsed in the 1970s and everyone left it fell into disrepair and became known as Gunkanjima, meaning battleship - which is what the abandoned concrete apartments looming out of the sea now made it look like.

A ban on visiting sparked a growing fascination with the island, which was fuelled more recently by news that it was the inspiration for the villain's lair in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall.

Today the Gunkanjima Concierge Company takes boatloads of tourists on carefully restricted visits to the island, which is bidding to become a world heritage site.

Among the guides is Tomoji Kobata, now a sprightly 76, who worked at the mine as a young man in the 1960s.

Pointing out the part of the concrete apartment block where he once lived on the fourth floor he shows remarkable good humour as he recalls unexpectedly: "There were three other workers in the apartment and at first I had to live in the closet because they said there was no space for me."

Thankfully he wasn't confined to sleeping in a wardrobe for good and later, as he got to know people, the island became "like a big family", he says.

Being higher up the apartment block was a relief whenever typhoons struck, he adds, a young Korean guide beside him translating his memories into English.

The ruins of the mining island's school, hospital, jail, swimming pool and shrine remain but access is still forbidden on health and safety grounds because it is so rundown.

Further offshore a 30 minute flight away from Nagasaki city, the island of Iki is also well worth exploring.

With beautiful white beaches, turquoise seas and the occasional single track road it looks a bit like one of the Hebrides - but with dual language road signs translated from Japanese rather than Gaelic into English.

It is also the birthplace of barley shochu, a little known Japanese spirit produced in a similar way to whisky.

It has a far lower alcohol content, however, and is reputed to be hangover-free and healthy.

I don't drink enough to be able to verify either claim, but the new annual festival is a fun way to see the island's seven distilleries.

Only one offers tours in English currently however and even with someone translating some explanations get a little lost in translation as we are bussed around from place to place.

At one, I'm told the secret of its success is apparently down to the 'supersonic waves' used in production.

At another, the Mona Lisa smiles down in her own enigmatic way from a poster on the wall. Appropriately no-one seems to know why she is there.

There are numerous Shinto shrines around the island, including one with a giant sculpture of a phallus said to bring fertility to childless couples.

On my last night I finally get a chance to try karaoke.

There are complimentary tambourines which you can shake to accompany, or presumably drown out, your friends as appropriate.

I'm relieved that there are no cats, but maybe that's only a matter of time.