The Fe-Line (Nishi station, Japan)

Or:

The Cat in the Stationmaster’s Hat

Or:

Cat O’Nine Rails

Or:

The Cat and the EMU

Or:

The Railway that had Nine Lives

Or…all right. I’ll stop now. As long time readers will know, the festive season is when The Beauty of Transport likes to tackle something a bit more off-beat. I’m going to end 2015 with an animal story. So, without further ado, let me take you to the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishi station in Japan, with a building that looks like…a cat. Yes, really:

Kishi Station. Photo by By KishujiRapid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Kishi Station in 2012. Photo by By KishujiRapid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It didn’t used to look like that. It used to look like this:

Kishi Station before it was rebuilt. Photo by By Rsa [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Kishi Station in 2007, before it was rebuilt. Photo by Rsa [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It was rebuilt in honour of the station’s most famous (and at one time, only) member of staff, stationmaster Tama who was, if you haven’t already worked it out (or knew of this story already) a tortoiseshell cat. As you can see, the two dormer windows in the roof of the rebuilt station are the cat’s ‘eyes’, the arch over the main door its nose. On the roof, a sign proclaims “Tama”, not the name of the station but the name of the cat. At each end of the roof ridge, finials make the shape of cat’s ears.

Stationmaster Tama in 2007, soon after appointment. Takobou at the Japanese language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Stationmaster Tama in 2007, soon after appointment. Photo by Takobou at the Japanese language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tama was formally appointed in 2007 after being found as a stray, hiding under a car at the station, a couple of years earlier. She had a proper uniform, including a hat. She was latterly to be found occupying her special office, which was complete with bed and scratching post. Don’t tell the trades unions representing British railway ticket office staff; they’ll all want beds and scratching posts.

Tama's stationmaster office at Kishi Station. Photo by Twilight2640 at the Japanese language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tama’s stationmaster office at Kishi Station. Photo by Twilight2640 at the Japanese language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

She became a local celebrity after her official appointment and it was not long after that when the station was rebuilt in feline form. One of the electric multiple unit (EMU) trains serving the station has also been repainted in Tama colours:

The Tama Train. Photo by Rsa (日本語: Rsaが撮影) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Tama Train. Photo by Rsa (日本語: Rsaが撮影) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m loving the little renditions of Tama, by the way. While some British Railways diesel railcars of the 1960s were painted with so-called ‘speed whiskers’ on the front ends, this train has (and really is) the cat’s whiskers.

On the inside, the train has been refurbished with all sorts of unusual interior features, including bookshelves full of books and cat-shaped seats.

Inside the Tama Train: cat-shaped seat backs, tortoiseshell-coloured moquette, cats on the blinds, and - be afraid, be very afraid because this is definitely getting a bit weird now look carefully at the light fittings... Photo by as365n2 from Nara Prefecture, Japan (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Inside the Tama Train: cat-shaped seat backs, tortoiseshell-coloured moquette, cats on the blinds, and – be afraid, be very afraid because this is definitely getting a bit weird now – look carefully at the light fittings… Photo by as365n2 from Nara Prefecture, Japan (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Even the railway’s support vehicles are bedecked in cat colours, as you can see here.

There’s a serious point to all this though. The nine-mile Wakayama Electric Railway is operated by one of Japan’s multitudinous tiny independent railway operators.  Japan has a railway industry structure that makes Britain’s look like a Fisher Price My First Railway, an interesting point to bear in mind next time you hear someone complain that the fragmentation of Britain’s railway industry is the cause of whatever the latest ailment is that has been identified in it.

The Wakayama Electric Railway was, by the mid-2000s, struggling. It had been sold by the Nankai Electric Railway due to its poor economic performance, and was essentially in the last chance saloon. Tama was a publicity exercise that went shockingly right. The cat was estimated to have brought in additional revenue of 10% a year (see here), and no less than £5.7m to the local economy, as thousands of tourists flocked to see Tama in her uniform and have their photos taken with her. The library where I recently had a part time job also has an official cat called Froggy, and I’m beginning to think the staff need to monetise him a lot more seriously.

Anyhow, the future of the Wakayama Electric Railway is now a lot more secure. As well as various cat-related antics (there are several assistant stationmasters who are also cats), the Wakayama Electric Railway has instituted a number of other initiatives designed to increase visitor numbers to the line. Presumably because of the local area’s fruit-growing industry, there’s also a strawberry-themed train, and The Beatles‘ song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ plays when it leaves the station. But unfortunately, in summer this year, tragedy struck. Tama passed away. Sorry, there’s no easy way to say it. She was 16, a good innings in cat terms. However, neither we, nor the Wakayama Electric Railway are willing to end the story on a depressing note.

After the traditional Japanese 50 days of mourning, the Wakayama Electric Railway announced that a new feline stationmaster had been appointed. Nitama had previously been apprentice stationmaster, and had also worked at Idakiso, a few stations further up the line. She has now been promoted to stationmaster at Kishi, where no doubt she will continue to bring in tourists and additional revenue just as effectively as her predecessor, to perhaps the only railway station in the world designed to look like an animal.

Nitama in 2012, before her promotion to the role of stationmaster at Kishi. Photo by Takobou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Nitama in 2012, before her promotion to the role of stationmaster at Kishi. Photo by Takobou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tama and Nitama are just some of the latest in an honourable line of both real and fictional railway cats, including poet T. S. Eliot’s Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat from his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats:

You were fast asleep at Crewe and so you never knew
That he was walking up and down the station

…You’ll meet without fail on the Midnight Mail
The Cat of the Railway Train.

This website, meanwhile, has a long list of various real cats who have ‘worked’ (or more likely, quite a lot of the time, lazed about getting in everyone’s way) at British railway stations and depots.

Even my cat, an absolute expert in lazing about and getting in everyone’s way, has developed a keen interest in transport since I started writing this blog. Here she is, trying to eat a piece of railway industrial design:

My cat tries to eat a Type 140 third rail insulator. Stoopid cat. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
My cat tries to eat a Type 140 third rail insulator. Stoopid cat. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

…and here she is again, getting in the way of an illustration from this September’s article on Railtrack annual reports:

My cat shows its disdain for (a) the graphic design quality of Railtrack's later annual reports, and (b) me and my attempts to photograph such a report, by getting completely in the way. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
My cat shows its disdain for (a) the graphic design quality of Railtrack’s later annual reports, and (b) me and my attempts to photograph one such report, by getting completely in the way. Stoopid cat (again). Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

That’s it for 2015 then. The Beauty of Transport is taking a week off for the Christmas holidays. If you’re celebrating Christmas and the New Year, then I wish you every seasonal happiness. If you’re not, then bear with me and we’ll meet again on January 6th 2016 for, erm, something about transport design. Hopefully.

Further reading

A brilliant photo diary of a trip on the Wakayama Electric Railway, via the melissa dreams of sushi blog, here

…and anything linked to in the text above

6 thoughts on “The Fe-Line (Nishi station, Japan)

  1. Very many thanks for great crop of articles that you’ve posted since we discovered you this year. They’ve provided a powerful distraction from getting next year’s Moorsbus organised, so just remember, when that crucial connection doesn’t, it’ll be all your fault ……

    Have a wonderful break. you deserve it.

    1. Oh no…that’s too much responsibility to handle! What if I’ve ruined the bus service in your beautiful national park? Let’s hope not. Thanks for the kind words and hope you’ll continue to enjoy reading next year’s articles. I’d better start thinking some up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s