Welcome to this tiny station epitomizing laidback countryside charm. Stationmaster on a catnap? That’s just part of her job.
Once upon a time, in a tranquil town surrounded by strawberry fields and orange groves in a little station built with cat-shaped eyes, there lived a calico, four-pawed stationmaster. But wait, before we go further — this is no fairytale fantasy, but a sweet story of a cat rescuing a failing countryside railway line that’s become a cute tourist spot in Wakayama Prefecture.
A cat’s tale
Gently winding through Wakayama Prefecture farmlands and towns, the 14.3-KM-long Kishigawa railway line was on the verge of bankruptcy when it was literally saved by a cat. Starting at Wakayama city and stopping at 12 small stations before culminating at Kishi, this regional line did not have enough commuters to make it sustainable. It was at this point in time that a calico cat sort of “adopted” Kishi station.
A typical Japanese mikeneko, a tricolored white with orange and black patches, Tama spent her days lolling around Kishi station. She soon became such a permanent feature, that the then part-time station worker (also the neighborhood grocer), perhaps tongue-in-cheek, nicknamed Tama “stationmaster.” Her guileless charm and languid catlike ways endeared her to all, and word spread about Kishi’s unusual stationmaster.
A Cat in a stationmaster’s hat
When the privately owned railway company changed hands, the new owners, Wakayama Electric Railway, rightfully recognized Tama’s significance. In 2007, Tama was officially appointed stationmaster of Kishi station.
Tama’s story of rescuing and revitalizing a dying local railway line enthralled not only the nation but caught worldwide attention.
In her first year, Tama increased passenger numbers by 10 percent, and she is credited to have brought in more than ¥1 million to the local economy during her tenure. Tama’s story of rescuing and revitalizing a dying local railway line enthralled not only the nation but caught worldwide attention.
Photos of green-eyed kitty with her jauntily placed stationmaster’s hat have adorned many newspapers. News of her sad demise in 2015, her funeral attended by 3,000 mourners, her enshrinement as “Honorable Eternal Stationmaster,” and the consequent take-over (after an appropriately deferential mourning period) by her apprentice Nitama, or Tama II, has all been closely followed by the media.
Cute designer trains
Tama’s true legacy, however, lies in inspiring Wakayama Electric Railways to commission legendary train designer Eji Mitooka to design the Kishi station building, and four quirky themed trains that ply the Kishigawa train line.
Unlike Mitooka’s futuristic Shinkansen designs, these charming two-carriage trains are bound to evoke a sense of nostalgia in passengers. Done up in hardwood floors, bookshelves stacked with comics and themed fabric cushions that exemplify rustic country style, you’ll find yourself reminiscing childhood tea parties at Aunt Agatha’s cottage.
Aptly inspired by the Kinokawa countryside known for its delicious fruit farms, there’s the Ichigo or Strawberry Train, which fittingly plays the iconic Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” when pulling in to and leaving Kishi station. On the brick red Omoden (or toy-inspired) Train, pick up a capsule-toy from throwback gachagacha vending machines. Washi paper screens, bamboo blinds, and wood paneled ceilings make up the interior of the Umeboshi or Plum Train, an ode to the biggest produce of the region.
And of course, there’s Tamaden or Tama’s Train, a tribute to Wakayama’s savior cat, festooned with 101 depictions of Tama, a library of cat books and Tama memorabilia for commuters to peruse.