Most people travel to Wakayama because it is the gateway to Mt Koya and the origins of Shingon Buddhism. Many come to taste the world famous tonkotsu broth with ramen noodles. Some come to see the beautiful Edo-period castle. We came to see a cat. 🐱
In Japan, cats are deeply ingrained in popular culture. They have a Cat Island (Aoshima) where hundreds of cats live in a quiet fishing village, cared for by roughly 15 humans. There are also plenty of cat cafés, where city dwellers can spend quality, leisure time with the felines if they haven’t the space to keep their own cat. Some of the cafés differentiate themselves by breed, e.g Maine Coons, Abyssinians, or black cats only 🐈⬛.
Because Geoff and I are also big fans of felines, we visited Gotokuji Shrine in Tokyo that is dedicated to cats and the origination of the sacred Maneki Neko with the raised paw, inviting good fortune and wealth. Read more about our visit here.
Hello Kitty originated in Japan in 1974 as part of kawaii culture and is now world famous.
Kawaii developed from a sense that being small, weak or vulnerable is not a bad thing, and that innocent creatures such as tiny animals and babies are precious and should be nurtured and protected. Kawaii is that weird feeling when you want to “squish” a sweet kitten, or snuggle a puppy so hard, or pinch a baby’s chubby cheeks. Over time, Kawaii has grown from a simple descriptive word to a significant cultural trend, encompassing various forms of media, fashion, art, and consumer products. Kawaii has deeply influenced Japanese culture, social norms, aesthetics, as well as the economy.
Kishi Station on the Kishigawa Line has taken the passion for cats to the next level. It has become famous for it’s Station Master cat. The original feline stationmaster, Tama, was a calico cat that belonged to the owner of a shop right beside Kishi Station. Tama passed away in 2015 but not before ‘grooming’ a successor.
The story goes that Wakayama Electric Railway had been experiencing a downturn in the early 2000’s. A major factor was the decline in the population along the train line, reducing the number of commuters and thus the main source of income for the company. On April 1, 2006, the Kishigawa Line, was to be closed down permanently due to this reduced demand.
A letter was sent to the president of Wakayama Electric Railway explaining that the stray cat who lived at the station would lose his home if the station was to be demolished, and a request was made that he be allowed to live out his days at Kishi Station. Apparently the president took one look at Tama, the cat, and appointed him as Kishi Station Master as from January 5, 2007.
Staff didn’t use the term ‘mascot’ when it came to the new Station Master. Tama wasn’t some prop. As Station Master, she had a fully fledged job. She wore an official uniform. A blue badge dangled from Tama’s collar. She posed for photos. People called the old ticket window her office. Mostly, she slept there. The employees loved their boss. She didn’t cause trouble. In fact, with so few tasks to do at this slow station, her presence improved staff morale. As a marketing ploy, she worked wonders. Word spread and soon people started visiting this remote station just to see her. They took photos. They oohed and ahhed and shared the photos online. Combining Japan’s love affair with cats, and the spruced up Railway suddenly had a gold mine on their hands.
(Photo credit: BBC News)
Tama’s work ethic impressed customers both in Japan and abroad. Before long, Wakayama Electric Railway’s name became known not only in Japan but all over the world. Due to her remarkable work, she served as a Section Manager, Super Station Manager, and as an Executive Officer, Ultra Station Manager, and even served as Acting President. When she passed away, she was given a Shinto ritual funeral at Wakayama Electric Railway in recognition of the great achievements during her lifetime. An estimated 3,000 people, including railway officials, attended Tama the cat’s Shinto-style funeral on Sunday, days after she died of heart failure aged 16 – the equivalent of about 80 human years.
(Photo credit: BBC News)
“This “Stationmaster Tama” played an unbelievable role, as if she had been sent by God to be the saviour of local railways, and contributed greatly not only to the revitalization of Wakayama Electric Railway but also to attracting tourists to Wakayama Prefecture. In recognition, she was awarded the title of Wakayama Prefecture’s first `Order of Merit,” and in later years was awarded the title of `Tourism Invitation Daimyojin,” and is currently inducted into Wakayama Prefecture’s `Wakayama Hall of Fame.” The “matchmaking” made through a rare connection through Station Master Tama, the “prosperous business” that resulted from the successful revitalization, the “academic success” and “promotion of good luck” that led to rapid advancement from station master to acting president, all of which have continued ever since the opening of Wakayama Electric Railway. It is said to be particularly miraculous as it prays for safety without accidents. “Tama Daimyojin” (Mitsunobu Kojima)”
Catching the train is part of the fun. The platform indicates the direction with paw marks and pictures of Tama, grace the subways.
Running through beautiful farmland and rural towns, the Wakayama Kishigawa Line now operates special themed trains featuring an Omocha (toy-land) train, a Tama (cat) train, an Umeboshi (pickled plum) train, and an Ichigo (strawberry) train, Wakayama’s local specialty fruits. Our Wakayama Electric Railway One-Day Pass, gave us unlimited travel on all the aforementioned trains.
We took the strawberry 🍓 train to Kishi station, passing green fields of rice and abundant persimmon trees bearing it’s bright orange fruit.🍊
The Tama Densha Museum train is by far the sweetest of the themed trains and is adorned with cute images and motifs of the original stationmaster Tama. Photos and illustrations of Tama and Nitama are arranged all over the train carriage, and the plush interior space could compete with the Orient Express, complete with a library of cat books and a comfy wooden enclave for Nitama to travel in comfort in between the stations of her kingdom.
When we arrived at Kishi station we were confronted with a rather pompous notice that formally advised “The Stationmaster, Nitama, is out on business today.” We were so disappointed. What! We’d come so far to see him! A further official notice advised that Nitama was working a “Special Schedule” and was officiating at a festival at Idakiso station. We recalled passing the Tama train at that station and wondered about the multitude of people, especially kids, thronging the platform. Bloody hell, we’d just missed him!
The paparazzi throng the station for a glimpse of the newly announced Station Master, Nitama (Tama 2) in 2015.
(Photo credit: Sora News 24)
We explored the Kishi station and Tama museum while waiting for a train back to Idakiso.
The Kishi Station building has a unique design. The cat-like exterior was built in traditional Japanese style, with a thatched roof and stained-glass windows. It has ‘ears’ and cat-eye shaped windows. Souvenir goods, and food and beverage menu inspired by all things “cat” are available at the Tama Café and Tama Shop inside the station. I liked the idea of a “hot cat” using fish instead of Vienna. 🌭
We took the plum train back to Idakiso, where there was still plenty of hustle and bustle, but no obvious sign of a cat performing his duties on the platform. We decided to hop back on the famous Tama train that has just pulled in bound for Kishi again. Perhaps he was on board? As we sped back to Kishi, It dawned on us that we should have explored Idakiso more thoroughly, so we made the decision to remain on the train until it turned back to Idakiso and arrived back once again just in time to see the organisers wrapping up the festivities. Finally we located Nitama. 🐈
Nitama, when she is actively going about her duties.🐾
(Photo credit: Live Japan travel guide)
Among Tama’s responsibilities that Nitama perpetuates, is the seeing off and welcoming of passengers at the ticket gate; checking the safety of the platform, and so on. However, when we tracked her down, she was fast asleep on the job in her glass fronted “office”. It consisted of a discreet ‘downstairs’ where her litter tray was kept and a cat gym with a few levels for climbing and scratching.
As soon as I took out my camera, without opening an eye, she covered her face with a paw. So very cat! We reflected on how Jango would be dreadful at this job. Missing in action for days at a time. Inky would probably enjoy darting from train to train. Hobie would possibly be the best at living up to Tama’s respectable reputation. And he’d look cute in a station master’s hat.
The afternoon light was quite spectacular and we took some shots of the colourful JSPCA train before catching the strawberry train back home to Wakayama.
Pursuing cats by train is a tiring business.😻