The cat that saved a Japanese train station

The cat that saved a Japanese train station

Meet Tama, Japan's cutest stationmaster, and her adorable cat-shaped station home
Look carefully, this station is shaped like a cat.

Some 30 minutes from central Wakayama City in southeast Japan is the quiet, rural neighborhood of Kinokawa.

Despite the area's un-remarkableness, its train station attracts no shortage of visitors, most under the age of 12.

These tourists may not know what there is to see or do in wider Kinokawa, nor do they seem particularly interested -- all they want to do is visit Kishi train station, which serves Kinokawa.

Tama, the hero of Kishi Station.

They come seeking time, and hopefully a photo, with Kishi's stationmaster, a calico cat named Tama.

Tama’s duty is napping in her office (a converted ticket booth) and her salary is practical -- an unlimited supply of cat food.

Another lazy-looking cat in relatively comfy digs. So far, like the area she resides in, Tama seems unremarkable.

Except that this feline has actually saved the station from financial ruin.

It's a 14-kilometer train ride from Wakayama City to Kishi Station in the outskirts of the city.

Sadly, on the day of our visit, Tama pulled a personal day. Her assistant, Nitama, took over duties.

For years, the journey was lightly traveled. As a result, Nankai Electric Railway, which managed the route, closed down in 2004 due to financial difficulties.

Wakayama Electric Railway took over the Kishigawa Line.

As a way to revitalize the station, in 2007 the company appointed Tama -- a cat owned by a local shopkeeping family -- to serve as stationmaster.

Seats on the Strawberry Train are covered in strawberry patterns.

Dolled up with stationmaster cap and badge, Tama soon became famous not simply as the mascot of the station, but the entire area.

It proved quite the catcall -- Tama pulled in the crowds.

Since her appointment, the station has witnessed a healthy growth of visitors arriving just to see Tama.

More importantly, the train line was able to continue service for local residents.

English-speaking staff work Kishi Station's Tama cafe.

Kishi station currently houses a Tama-themed cafe, as well as a souvenir shop with items ranging from the usual array of pens, staplers and other supplies to Kishi Station uniforms.

Tama’s cuteness is exploited wherever possible -- from the chairs to the cakes in the cafe to the cat-shaped station building itself.

Wakayama Electric Railway now operates three adorably themed trains: Strawberry Train, Tama Train and Toy Train.

Cat train purrs away from the station.

There's also a cat stationmaster apprentice, Nitama, who shoulders some responsibilities for Tama. Sleeping and doing nothing is hard work, you know?

Tama works from Tuesday to Thursday; Nitama substitutes for Tama on weekends. Cat working hours are a very agreeable 10 a.m.-4p.m.

Done with Tama and the station? Fruit picking and visiting local shrines are also popular family activities in the neighborhood.

How to get there

Get a direct ticket to Kishi Station at platform 9 at JR Wakayama Station -- follow the cat paw prints on the floor. A timetable is available for visitors to look up departures of special trains to Kishi Station.

This website (In Japanese) has more details.

READ: Tama the cat, Japan's cutest stationmaster, has died

Hiufu Wong is CNN Travel's staff writer.

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