The Cat Who Runs A Japanese Train Station

And the tourists who just have to visit him, because #CatLife

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.

In her first year as Stationmaster, Tama generated $9.2 million dollars. During her eight year term, passengers on this rural train line increased 17%, which transformed this aging train from a failing suburban route into a lucrative tourist destination. The company redesigned the station to look like a cat: two raised sections on the roof for eyes, the west entrance for the mouth. On the roof, the word “Tama.” And the gift shop added pens, notebooks, and pins featuring Tama’s face to their souvenir offerings. By extension, Tama transformed Wakayama.

Before Tama, Wakayama was more like Waka-what? The 364,000-person city had shrines. It had shopping. It had trails along the nearby Kishi River, and its Mediterranean-type climate produced some of Japan’s most famous oranges and apricots, but it wasn’t a city known for its attractions. In fact, it had attracted negative publicity for its bloody annual whale hunt. It is the kind of city tourists had no reason to visit, the kind that, when you tell Japanese citizens you visited it, they look at you in shock and say, “Wakayama? Really?” It lies between places.

But after Tama died, Osaka University determined that Tama’s visitors put $10 million into the local economy. People made pilgrimages, kooky people like Rebekah and I who didn’t even live near Wakayama. All of which is to say: A cat saved the rail line. Not Japan’s best ramen, a cat. It was so brilliant that marketers couldn’t have dreamed it up if they tried. Carefree and lethargic, lounging in a glass box, Nitama performed his duties well, carrying on the tradition in a way that would make his predecessor proud.

As our coastal train approached Wakayama, I started to wonder what I’d gotten us into.

While planning our honeymoon back in Oregon, I had showed Rebekah Nitama’s photo. “We have to visit this cat,” I said.

“Oh my god,” she said, pulling my phone closer. “Yes, absolutely,” as if the suggestion was sane. I’d planned everything else on our Japan honeymoon: the Osaka hotels, the white sand beach, our night in a three hundred year old inn in a small West Coast hot spring town. When I added this cat to the itinerary, Rebekah didn’t flinch.

Now on the train to Wakayama, she said, “So we’re really going to see a cat?”

“Yes,” I said, excited and ashamed. “We really are.”

My logic felt sound. To get back to Osaka from Shirahama Beach, where we’d spent the last four days of our honeymoon, we had to pass by Wakayama anyway. All we needed to do was get off the train for a few hours, slurp some famous ramen, then hop back on. Since we were already close, it wasn’t a big deal to ride the 17.2 miles to Kishi Station and back. In fact, wouldn’t we regret missing the cat if we didn’t go?

Rebekah didn’t shake her head. She didn’t roll her eyes. She was into it, but my conscious shook its head. We were adults on our honeymoon. Riding to see a cat? In the middle of nowhere far from home? To my Western sensibility, this seemed childish, like I should feel embarrassed. I was 41 years old. But in Japan, there was a cute character for nearly everything, and the Shinto view is that everything has a spirit.

On the surface, the idea of a Stationmaster Cat was the sort of kawaii narrative that Japanese marketers love: an animal performing human duties in human clothes while remaining magical and cute. Underneath, Japan’s ancient animistic tradition made it a very adult practice to assign human features to non-human creatures like trees and fish and inanimate objects. Everyone from Japanese companies to government agencies gives places, products, and objects anthropomorphic characters to help guide people through directions or help them choose a product. There was a walking, talking lighthouse to get people in Yokohama to vote, for instance. Suntory had their Uncle Torys character to connect its whisky with salarymen’s lives. As characters, everyday objects like taxis and keys become living things. It’s good business.

Professor Sadashige Aoki traces Japan’s love of characters to Kojiki, the oldest Japanese book in existence, from 712 AD. “Japan is said to be a country of eight million kami,” Aoki said on the show Japanology Plus, “a huge number of spirits. These supernatural entities put a human face on natural phenomenon. That became the basis of Shinto, a form of folk spirituality that the people of Japan embrace to this day.” The combined influence of Shinto and Buddhist art turns brands’ cartoon characters into what Aoki calls “minor spirits,” characters that are “not big and powerful, but they are comforting to have around.” People rely on these characters when they’re lost, or sad, or anxious. “That treatment makes them something more than mere toys.” Although this seems overly complicated for a honeymoon diversion, cultural context shows how the idea of a Stationmaster Cat who has a job is not just a funny gimmick, as funny as it is, and why a cat would be popular enough to draw adults — not just children — from all over the country.

Passengers stepped onto the small local train in downtown Wakayama. As Rebekah and I parked our rolling luggage along a bench seat and sat, we eyeballed all their faces and wondered which were traveling to see the Nitama.

As if to offer proof, there were no kids on the train. The youngest passengers were two teenage girls dressed in blue and white school uniforms, with backpacks set on their laps. They sat among twenty-something couples, multiple solitary middle-aged travelers, and us. One other Westerner in her early forties rode the train, too. The adults’ presence comforted me. It also created a lot of pressure that this feline diversion better be worth the effort. I’d already lowered my expectations to protect me from criticism in case the whole thing was boring. Oh, I said, it’ll be fun but goofy, while deep down I was like Woohoo! Look at that friggin’ cat!

Cats decorated every part of the Wakayama train, from the exterior door panel to the blue banners hanging from the ceiling to the stickers on the glass, including a protruding tail. It was lots of fun.

The car was old and well kept: wooden bench seats, old school wall paper, clean white plastic loops that hung from the ceiling, much simpler than the busy Osaka trains. One car even had wooden shelves filled with books and magazines, and a circular wooden crib for intant travelers. Ours wobbled along the 8.6-miles of track from downtown. It was a quiet trip. Densely packed little houses passed outside the window, set surprisingly close to the train. With time, the apartments thinned and rice fields and gardens sprawled between them. The old train had charm. It also had a cat peering down at us from the wall.

I swore to Rebekah that I wouldn’t buy any cat stuff during our honeymoon in Japan. I only bought one cat thing on my first three-week solo trip to Japan two years earlier. It was a small cat statue. This time, I broke my vow and bought tons of cat fabric, cat statues, cat stationary, two different t-shirts with cat faces on them, pens and notebooks featuring Nitama the famous local train station cat, and a can of Japanese cat food originally meant as a gag gift, but I grew to like it too much to give away. The list goes on.

Besides the feline mementos, there were the experiences, like riding to a distant rural train station outside a city we would have never otherwise visited.

As you many know, Japan’s modern commuter rail lines are one of the most efficient and extensive in the world. Because their national JR Railway feeds into cities’ local subway lines, you don’t need a car in urban Japan. In fact, cars are often handicaps. Under 20% of daily commuter trips into greater Tokyo — the biggest city in the world — are taken by car, which tells you something. Japan used to have many privately owned electric train lines serving rural and suburban communities. People with city jobs needed to return home way out in the sticks, or inaka. As the system has evolved and consolidated over the last century, many shorter local lines fell on hard times. Suffering declining ridership, some have closed. Others have used unusual means to generate income to keep the electricity on, so to speak, and attract passengers. That cat worked for Wakayama, and others older dying trian lines followed suit. The struggling Chōsi Electric line east of Tokyo sells a special rice crackers to make itself a destination. Less exciting than a cat, but an interesting gimmick to employ when transportation alone is not enough to sustain itself.

A cat and a rice cracker — what a strange capitalist world we live in.

Three thousand people attended Tama’s funeral on June 28, 2015. The company erected a bronze statue by a cherry tree in Tama’s memory. By the time Tama died, Kishi Station had their game dialed in. They already had a trained replacement ready to go.

Born in Okayama City 250 kms away, staff “found [Nitama] under a car on a rainy day before being adopted by Okayama Electric Tramway.” After five years working a stationmaster at Idakiso Station, “further along the same track,” Wakayama Electric Railway president Mitsunobu Kojima appointed Nitama as Tama’s assistant at Kishi in 2012, and apprenticed under Tama. As he told CCN, “The reason I appointed Nitama as a successor to Tama is that she had teaching experience from Tama directly,” says Mitsunobu. “Tama was very mild and she seldom got angry, though she was strict with her subordinate Nitama.”

People got off the train, crowded around him, oohed and ahhed while taking excessive amounts of pictures, then they ate matcha ice cream in the Nitama Cafe. It had air conditioning, and the summer outside was hot. Many overheated visitors spent more time in the gift shop than they did looking at Nitama.

We got matcha ice creams and stamped my journals with a few of the official Nitama and “We Love You Tama!” stamps. I felt like a kid. Maybe that’s why people liked it. Also: biophilia, which is sociobiologist EO Wilson’s term for the innate affection for other forms of life. Translating literally to love of life, biophilia is why we go to zoos. It’s why we create parks. It’s why strangers photographed Rebekah and I at the station, dressed up as Nitama in matching black hats and Stationmaster jackets.

I guess it’s why we took photo standing outside a Kyoto cat cafe a few days later.

Our ice cream was delicious.

In the words of my Japanese buddy Doobie: “Cats! Too many cats!”

The history of cats in Japan is rich and deep. Unfortunately, I have nothing more to offer than this grand, obvious pronouncement because I’ve done zero research into that history. I can offer my own experience, which itself is limited and surely less interesting. And I can say that cats prowl the books of Haruki Murakami. The protagonist in Kafka on the Shore compulsively pets cats. A lost cat drives the plot of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami wrote a whole story named “Town of Cats” and an essay called “On the Death of My Cat,” which is like saying whiskey appears in Faulkner’s stories.

Although I no longer live with a cat of my own — we have a dog —I feel a deep kinship with the drive of a car I once saw with a “Crazy Cat Lady” sticker on it, just like I felt a kinship with all these other visitors at Kishi Station.

I love going into our basement at home and seeing the Japanese cat tapestry hanging from the wall above my guitar amp. I love sitting down at my writing desk each morning and seeing the two Japanese porcelain cat statues that rest on a bookend there: one is sleeping, one is standing staring at me. And I love the small plastic cat that lays flat on its back so you can rest your chopsticks on his belly. Rebekah and I eat ice cream and yogurt out of two matching cat bowls we bought in a tiny shop in old Kyoto. The simple blue line drawings of cat tails and faces emerge through the melting pool of cream as we eat. It’s like a disappearing pen in reverse. The world is more fun with cats.

In Kyoto, we found entire shelves full of cat items. Since I couldn’t buy them all, I photographed them:

Here’s a random sign in Osaka saying something profound but confusing about cats.

Here’s a department store toy dispenser filled with hats for cats.

In another Kyoto store, we found a display of cat stationary that blew our minds. The display had a sign that said “Cat Life.” As one of my Japanese cat shirts says under the image of a cat in sunglasses: “Elusive Feline.” Not elusive enough. After our trip, cats found their way into nearly every room in our house, and those are just the fake ones.

This is why we had to visit Nitama.

Back in Oregon, the actual neighborhood cats come to crap in our backyard. They patrol the planters early in the morning while we sleep. They scratch around in the fresh top soil we laid in our garden boxes, and we find their little dried up, fur-filled turds between the ferns and hydrangea — “Assholes,” we grumble. Whenever I see them from my home office, I rip open the window to shoo them off. Between all the poop and pawing around, you’d think I’d be trying to get rid of the cats in my life. Instead, I keep inviting them in. Cats can be such assholes. But animals bring joy, so in my life, all are welcome, even the jerks.

I recently visited my parents back in Arizona, and I sent Rebekah a photo of their cat Red snoozing on the bed with the caption: “Big lazy lump.”

She wrote back: “Worthless cat.”

“Lazy worthless lump,” I wrote. Then I pet him while talking in a baby voice. Rebekah would have done the same.

In Japanese, cats meow by going nyaa nyaa. In America, they crap in our backyard.

But cats, man. Cats. Even on the other side of the world, who can resist?

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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