Ultimate Caturday: My Visit To Tama, The Super Stationmaster Cat

November 18, 2010

INTRODUCTION

I wrote my personal essay for the JET Program on Haruki Murakami, citing his unique storytelling…something junior-high me had never encountered before…as my gateway to wanting to live in Japan.

This was kinda a lie. Though his novels have certainly impacted me in all sorts of way (I always notice stray cats now) and did certainly influence my desire to see Japan, it was far from the only inspiration for me actually taking the undertaking of filling out the JET application. The moment I realized I truly wanted to give Japan a chance came sometime in my junior year of university…the moment of revelation still very vivid in my mind. The location: the heated halls of The McCormick Tribune Center with its heavenly free printing capabilities. The soundtrack: No Age. My hair: idiotically long if old Facebook pictures the social network keeps forcing on me can be trusted.

I’ve recently been struggling to write two specific entries for this blog, both related to the major reasons this even exists in the first place. One would be about Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, a soon-to-be major motion picture and probably in the running for my favorite book ever. I recently re-read this book, and wanted to expound on its themes of youth, growing up and memory. It was going to be an emotional affair, simultaneously dissecting Murakami’s story while threading it with my personal history. I downloaded a god damn PDF of an academic paper on the book for this purpose.

I’ve abandoned that entry to instead write about the experience of coming face-to-face with the very being I laid eyes on back in that land of free printing that cemented my goal of getting to Japan. I speak of course…of the stationmaster cat.

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One of the biggest letdowns upon arriving in Japan for the first time is how normal life here actually is. Western media treats Japan like an island constructed out of pure weirdness: a popular “in lighter news” go-to is the cooky story coming out of Japan, whether it be the latest weird development in the world of robotics or a report of a hyperactive anime giving kids seizures. Despite being, at one point, the second richest country in the world, America tends to treat Japan as a giant Hello Kitty factory. The internet, as it’s done for nearly every topic, has managed to make it worse – panty vending machines! Weird flavored candy! People dressing as babies seemingly inspired by Tim Burton! TENTACLES TENTACLES TENTACLES! The GDP of the country might as well be batshit insanity.

Spending time in Japan…more than a week, and preferably away from Tokyo, the least “Japan” like part of the country…results in the sobering realization the streets aren’t actually paved with Sonic The Hedgehog sex comics and Pocky. It’s kind of an average place. More than that…it feels eerily similar to America, something that shouldn’t be a shock considering how much of a hand the U.S. had in shaping post-war Japan. Various blogs, manned by academic types who love graphs, even make it a point to shine a light on “weird Japan” stories flowing out of the Western world and then discrediting them.

Spend an extended time in Japan, though, and a third revelation manifests itself into your head – this country actually is weird as hell and your charts won’t convince me otherwise. Though resembling America in a lot of ways, Japan shocks by actually embracing this culture so many other nation’s reject to the point of actually taking it to insane lengths. See the insane work ethic here, people standing in line two hours to eat Krispy Kreme donuts, KFC chicken becoming such a staple of the Christmas dinner here that McDonald’s is actually releasing a rival “chicken set” this year. It would be dumb to label everything foreign to an American as “weird” – a fair amount of it is just a different culture yo – but stuff like maid cafes and AKB48 are legitimately bizarre.

Then…there is stationmaster cat.

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Before 2006, Tama the calico cat was just another cat owned by a grocery store owner in the city of Kinokawa, in Wakayama prefecture. Today she, along with the annual dolphin slaughters shown to the world in The Cove, pretty much defines the region.

Four years ago, the Wakayama Electric Railway, losing money and desperate to stop the bleeding, made all stations on the line unmanned, meaning there would be no paid position as station master but rather a local would sort of check in on the place to make sure nothing was out of whack. They selected the owner of a grocery to be the station master for Kishi Station. This guy took in lots of stray cats, and he began feeding them at the station.

Then…history.

In 2007, the company (maybe in a moment of desperation, but almost certainly in an instance of “why not?”) decided to make the grocer’s cat Tama the official station master of Kishi Station. The cat’s role was mostly to welcome and see off the trains arriving at the station. In a moment of pure brilliance, they gave the cat a little station master’s hat. Her salary – cat food.

The Electric Railway deserve credit for tapping into Japan’s deep love for cute stuff, because within the year the train line saw a 17 percent jump in use in March 2007…mostly because people wanted to see the station master cat. Business started swelling and the media started covering Tama…first Japanese news agencies, followed shortly by the usual “ain’t Japan wacky!” clips popping up on morning shows across America. Tama saved the railway and actually turned a big profit…she’s contributed about 1.1 billion yen to the local economy (millions of dollars, people).

In 2008, to celebrate her money-making powers, the Electric Railway made Tama a “super station master.” To sum up feminism in Japan at this point – she became the only female to attain a managerial position in the company. The success kept on coming in…in Spring of 2009 a new “Tama densha (train)” featuring cartoon renderings of the cat began running, and in 2010 she not only got another promotion (“Operating Officer,” which Wikipedia notes makes her “the first cat to become an executive of a railroad corporation”) but also saw her station renovated.

Somewhere within this story…I came across the story and decided “I must see this cat.”

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Somehow, the people running JET also wanted me to see this cat. Kishi Station can be generously said to be in the absolute middle of nowhere…given the pure randomness of JET’s placing procedure, the odds of me being anywhere near not just this station, but Wakayama prefecture seemed remote. And yet…I ended up in a city only three hours away from Tama. Dumb luck or destiny, you decide…but I had to see this cat. And after a year of putting it off, I finally made the trip.

Getting to Tama turns out to be a surprisingly easy affair. Once you get to Osaka…an hour from my home…you hop on the Japanese Rail loop line to Tenoji station. There, you get onto a train…a surprisingly nice one given JR’s reputation…bound for Wakayama station. It’s the longest stretch of the journey and isn’t that bad as long as you have a book or a fully charged smart phone.

Once you get off at Wakayama, Tama starts appearing. First you see her cat-adorned self in posters set up along the concourse as you mosey on over to the Tama train track. Once you go up the steps and get to the top you see it…the Tama train itself.

Words can’t really describe the bizarre rush of seeing this thing. Even pictures sorta fail. Japan features plenty of weird “theme” trains – I live right next to the Iga “Ninja Train” for example…but this one ups everything considerably. To a pathetic nerd like myself, it’s like seeing Santa Claus in your living room drinking a bottle of Coke…after years of seeing video footage of this train on CNN and YouTube (more accurately, CNN on YouTube), there it was, inches from me. It’s absolutely covered in cartoon cats, a sticker sheet come to life and turned into public transportation.

Yet the inside ends up being the most bizarre part of the experience. Imagine gutting Totoro, converting his body into a train and decorating the interior with whimsical furniture. That’s the Tama train, except with cartoon-Tama wallpaper. One train looks like a relatively normal mode of transportation save for the amount of cats adorning the walls…the other train does away with the typical bench in favor of a padded sofa-like thing. On one end of the train sits two bookcases, full of magazine and books devoted to nothing but cute animals. Anyone can read them. Sitting awkwardly in-between two sofas is a wooden bird cage that seems to have no purpose. And I can’t stress this enough…so many cartoon cats.

It’s also on the train ride you realize just how much of a tourist draw Tama really is, even a full three years after she first put on the hat. Save for the few high school students and locals who have one of the weirdest daily commutes I can possibly imagine, everyone on the Tama train boarded with the express purpose of seeing this cat. They wander around the wobbling vehicle…Tama might boast cuteness, but her train line doesn’t deliver a smooth ride…snapping photos of every feline-detail like paparazzi. Kids, predictably, seem the most wowed by this train, exclaiming “cute!” at every single inch of the car. Even better is coming to a new station and seeing the people on the platform react to the cat train’s arrival. Nobody ever looks bored by this train car…they always look awed.

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The ride to Kishi Station takes about half-an-hour and, save for the bumpiness, ends up being quite pleasant. Once the innards of the Tama train become slightly less enchanting…though it never feels normal…your eyes turn to the outside world. Despite being very backwater, the Wakayama Electric Railway runs through a very gorgeous stretch of land full of imposing mountains and small towns reminiscent of models zoom by. Late autumn is persimmon season around here, meaning plenty of chances to gaze at rows of trees sporting orange fruit during the ride.

Eventually, we reach Kishi Station. Tama, the station master, isn’t waiting for us on the platform to greet us. I initially figure, “oh, she must be doing very important super station master duties.” I’m an idiot. It’s important to keep in mind Tama, despite being worth millions of dollars, is also a cat. An especially old cat at that. When we walk into the main waiting area of the station, we see Tama’s display box area…behind a layer of glass rests the famous cat herself. She’s asleep…like any old cat probably would be at one in the afternoon. Her hat rests on a little hook near the bottom. She’s out cold.

Strangely enough, the actual cat plays a very small role in the rest of my day at Kishi Station. At one point, Tama wakes up and stretches, before licking herself. This causes a flurry of activity, tourists like myself dashing from wherever we were before to marvel at this pet’s face and snap as many photos as possible. Soon after, she goes back to sleep, though she actually faces us this time. She never leaves the box…just naps away comfortably.

Doesn’t matter…it’s not so much the cat that’s fascinating as it’s everything around her.

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Unrelated cat in town

Unrelated cat in town

Before spending time in the station, a little bit should be written about the actual city of Kinokawa. As mentioned, Tama has pulled in millions of dollars for the local economy. Walking around, it’s tough to believe. Kinokawa looks like any other old, rural Japanese city dotting the island – worn down and without much activity. Save for a few small businesses and ramen stands, this place looks like it has seen better days. Like a lot of Japan.

A friend from America who visited Nabari this summer remarked how that city looked like Flint, Michigan to him. I’m glad he didn’t venture even further out into the country.

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Back to the actual station….which looks like an actual cat.

No really, once you wander outside for a bit, it hits you as you edge closer back to Kishi…this building has cat ears. A Studio Ghibli drawing come to life, a Disneyland prop delivered to the wrong end of the country. Though it mostly serves as a tourist destination, it still sees a second life as a actual train station and thus comes equip with all the necessary features of one (vending machine corner, bathrooms).

Then there are the unique additions.

I came to Wakayama most excited about the gift shop, what I imagined would be a sprawling room full of whatever the company could slap a cartoon cat on and charge a lot of yen for. I arrived ready to spend big bucks. Unfortunately, the Electric Railway doesn’t approach this like Disney…the gift shop was surprisingly small given the money making potential, half of its space serving as a convenience store selling drinks and snacks. The Tama section didn’t include half the gaudy merchandise I expected to find…no t-shirts boasting anime cats, no limited edition thermos, no replica hats. It stocked simpler items like Tama pencils, badges (bought one), folders, sticker sheets and so on. A few stranger items cropped up – I had to plunk down the eight bucks for the Tama playing cards, and for thirty dollars I could have had a German documentary about the cat. They also sold statues of Tama, but they looked expensive. Kishi Station decided to be kinda tasteful about making (more) money off people, and I felt a little let down…but left with a much fatter wallet.

This year’s renovation might not have brought Tama-approved coasters, but it did herald the arrival of the super station master cat museum and cafe on the opposite side. The museum felt more like a timeline, a few shelves laying out the short history of Tama alongside some fanciful cartoon drawings of the kitty. The cafe, meanwhile, sold smoothies and gelato made from a selection of fruits grown in the area. This part of Japan especially prides itself on its strawberries, so I opted for strawberry gelato. It was delicious. They also sold jam, but no strawberry flavor. I grabbed a small jar of grape jelly.

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While sitting around in the cafe waiting for Tama to show signs of activity, a man wearing a suit and carrying various bags settled in at the table next to our area. He looked professional, carrying a fancy camera I usually associate with journalists. After a while, he started talking to us with rather strong English. Turns out he’s a (unemployed at the moment) professor of tourism studies, according to the business card he gave me. He whipped out an Apple iBook to share with us photos of Tama he took two years ago when he first visited this station…along with shots of another stationmaster cat in Japan.

Tama, the original stationmaster animal, became such a media and money success that a horde of other train stations across Japan looking for a boost in visitors installed various animals as the heads of their stops. A bunch more cats got appointed stationmaster, as did a dog and, in truly “what the fuck” fashion, a goat. Recently, a couple of monkeys were given tiny outfits and made the masters of a station a little bit from Tokyo. Our new tourism friend had visited one other stationmaster cat besides Tama, a feline named Bus manning a station in Fukushima. Bus…named after the famous “cat bus” in My Neighbor Totoro…seemed to operate a much smaller station, which drew far less visitors. The professor said, unlike Tama, Bus was very mean and was prone to hiss at visitors. He liked Tama a lot more…and so did the visitors it appeared. Even if she slept.

The professor acknowledged the Tama of two years ago was much more alert than the Tama of today, but he expected that. He noted she’s getting old and will probably soon die. This thought hung around in the back of my mind well before we even got into Wakayama prefecture…when this kitty croaks, how do you move on when you’ve made EVERYTHING about this particular feline. I wanted to ask him but I doubt he’d know…maybe they’ll just find a similar looking cat and throw a hat on him/her. After finishing our gelato, we took one last look at the resting cat worth more money than I’d ever make in my lifetime, and began the long trek home.

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About three hours from my hometown in California, one can visit the world’s biggest thermometer in the desolate desert city of Baker. As a kid, the prospect of seeing a giant temperature-reading device seemed really awesome and something to look forward to. Of course, after surviving the boring drive to get to Baker (usually as a gas stop en route to Las Vegas) and seeing the actual thermometer, you suddenly feel a wave of disappointment sweep over. That’s it? It’s less a thermometer, more a giant metal stick digitally telling you how hot it is today. It’s the inevitable first brush with one of life’s harshest lessons…roadside attractions always disappoint. You buy a snack at AM/PM and move on.

Super station master cat Tama isn’t like the Baker thermometer despite being an obvious tourist trap. Yes, the cat I saw that day wasn’t the cat I expected…though having previously owned a cat I should have known those animals love to sleep…but oddly enough the actual animal isn’t central to the stationmaster (sorry for the inconsistent spelling on this word, deal with it) cat appeal. It’s everything around the cat, quite literally…such as the cat-themed train, cat-shaped building and other cat-tastic stuff sprung into existence because people are willing to pay money to see an animal dress like a person (or even just a cartoon of one).

More importantly, Tama the cat stands as one of the most unique things going for Japan today. Japan may not be brimming over with weird stuff on every corner, but there certainly exist extremely bizarre places and things that do reveal Japan…and the Japanese mindset for that matter…as extraordinarily unique/insane. Despite what many “thinkers” want to say, stuff like this give Japan a certain (weird) charm…a charm I admit helped draw me here in the first place. I wouldn’t say it’s a must see spot if you are on vacation here…but it’s something special alright.

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Throughout all of Murakami’s works, stray cats play a pivotal role. In Kafka On The Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, missing cats trigger all sorts of bizarre events. The New Yorker puts it best – “cats frequently figure in Murakami’s fiction, as delegates from another world.” Cats, to Murakami, seem capable of very strange things.

Maybe he’s onto something.

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