On our honeymoon in Japan, my wife Rebekah and I stopped at the coastal city of Wakayam to see a cat. Thousands of people voted the savory tonkotsu shoyu broth at Wakayama’s Ide Shoten as Japan’s best ramen. And on our train ride back to Osaka, we stopped for that ramen, but we really came for the cat.
People referred to Nitama as the Stationmaster Cat. He spent his days inside the small rural Kishi Train Station among the low houses and flooded rice fields, snoozing on a cushion in the old ticket window.
Nitama translates as “New Tama.” He succeeded Kishi’s original Stationmaster Cat Tama, who died in 2015 after eight years of lounging and wearing a stationmaster hat. Tama’s calm calico face and enviable sloth endeared her to locals. She’d lived outside a nearby grocery store in Kishikawa, where the shop owners fed her. When she started spending time around the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishi Station, people started coming to visit. That gave employees an idea: appoint her their official mascot to draw visitors to its far rural terminus.
Opened in 1933 to service suburban and rural areas, fewer and fewer people rode this train line. In 2004, declining ticket sales forced the railway’s owner, Nankai Electric Railway, to close the Kishigawa Line. When Wakayama Electric Railway bought it, they searched for ways to increase ridership. If few commuters needed their train service, they wondered, who would? Then this cat appeared.
The company appointed Tama as their Stationmaster in 2007. Staff didn’t use the term ‘mascot.’ Tama wasn’t some prop. As Stationmaster, she had a job. She posed for photos. She wore an official uniform. A blue badge dangled from Tama’s collar. Staff called the old ticket window her office. Mostly, she slept there. Outwardly, employees loved her. She didn’t cause trouble. In fact, with so few tasks to do at this slow station, her presence probably improved staff morale. As a marketing ploy, she worked wonders. Word spread. Soon people started visiting this far-out station just to see her. They took photos. They oohed and ahhed and posted photos online. Japan loves cats, and the Railway suddenly had a gold mine on their hands.