The Coolest (or at least the Cutest) Train Car in the World: Wakayama Electric Railway’s Tama Densha Cat Train

One of my more crazy missions when I was in Japan was to see the feline Station Master Cat, Tama. Everybody pretty much loves Tama. When Wakayama Electric Railway was on the verge of bankruptcy, Station Master positions were eliminated, and the stations left unmanned. The decision to make a stray calico cat the honorary Station Master may have been the best decision the company ever made. Tama gained quite a following of fans. Many folks began taking the train: to see her! A study by Osaka University was conducted, which found that Tama brought at least one billion Japanese Yen into the local economy… or around 10.8 million US Dollars. The Wakayama Electric Railway is now thriving, and in her honor a special train car was designed. It is called the Tama Densha. Densha is a Japanese word for train.

The Tama Densha operates on Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa Line, running from Wakayama Station to Kishi Station over a track of 8.89 miles. It is a narrow gauge railway, powered by overhead catenary. The train car was designed by Eiji Mitooka (picture at left), an Industrial Designer and Illustrator from Okayama, Japan. He has designed many trains in Japan, including the 800 Series Shinkansen. Mitooka is the Design Advisor for Japan Rail (JR) in Kyushu. The train car is a 2270 Series EMU, originally in service on the Nankai Electric Railway, which underwent an overhaul, interior redesign and exterior repaint in 2009. The cost of the whole redesign cost about 35 million yen, or around 380 thousand US dollars.

Concept sketches for the Tama Densha, by Eiji Mitooka

In order to lure tourists, many local railways have resorted to decorating train cars. When designing cars Mitooka especially considers children, and whether they would enjoy seeing and riding the train. As a child himself, he always drew the trains the passed by his home, and dreamed of being a train designer. Considering the number of trains he’s designed, it seems Mitooka has achieved that dream, and has become quite famous at it. While waiting for the train to Kishi, I rode on one of the normal undecorated trains (in addition to the Tama Densha, there is also the Omoden, or Toy Train, as well as a Strawberry-themed train, all were designed by Mitooka). Several children were in front of me in line to buy tickets, and we left them behind on the platform as the train departed. They wanted to ride the Tama Densha, and waited for the next train. I suppose that is evidence that Mitooka has also succeeded in the part of getting children to enjoy trains. Most children tend not to be patient… yet here they were, waiting to ride a special train!

When riding the Tama Densha on the way back to Wakayama, I figured out why the children wanted to ride it so much. The absolutely gorgeous train is completed with a library full of children’s books and manga. The whole train is truly unique, seats take the form of benches, cat backed chairs, and plush sofas. Cat and calico patterns cover the seats, walls, and curtains. The sideways seat arrangement, with various rings in which extra passengers can hold on, is subway-style and typical of Japanese trains that run short distances. Most surfaces, from the grasp rings to the floor, is made of wood. Not only does it look classy, it creates a warm and welcoming environment for passengers. For the youngest passengers, the also train includes a circular playpen, next to the cage that was created for Tama when she rides.

A short video tour of the Tama Densha can be viewed below. Note that most of the footage was taken at Kishi Station, which is undergoing construction. So if you hear construction equipment in the background, that would be why.

Anyways, that tour was an absolute joy to ride. I was a bit bummed that Tama pretty much slept the whole time I was there, but riding this train certainly made up for it. If I didn’t have places to be, I certainly would have rode that train back and forth up the Kishigawa Line. I just wish we had something like this back in the states!!

Sources for information about Mitooka: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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Train Cats: Sadie the Subway Cat

You may not know it, but across the globe there are several working cats that reside at train stations. One of the most famous is named Tama, she is the “Super Stationmaster” at Kishi station in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. In New York we too have a “working cat” – you can call her the Subway Cat. Her name is Sadie, and she resides at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn.

When I first encountered Sadie I was downstairs at the museum taking photos of all the different subway cars. When I entered the money car they have on display, I saw a cat lounging on one of the shelves. I leaned out the door of the car and shouted to my friend, “Hey! Get over here now! There’s a cat inside this car!” I must admit I was surprised, as I wondered where the cat came from. But then I noticed a tag on the collar, which read “Sadie, Transit Museum”. Sadie was adopted from a shelter by the museum, and is not the first feline resident. Previously there was a cat named Token. Token disappeared one day (one museum employee I talked to is convinced Token was just taken home by somebody, as opposed to disappearing on his own). Sadie stays at the museum, though on long weekends or holidays she goes home with one of the employees.

But as I said, Sadie is a working cat. Sadie’s job description is rodent control. Though I’ve never been able to get a straight answer from anyone whether she has actually caught a subway rat before. Some people are disgusted by that. “She catches the RATS in the SUBWAY and you TOUCHED her?!?!” She has a bell on her collar, which apparently scares the rats away. If you go to the museum to see Sadie, be sure to note that she is grey and white. She is not brown. If you see something large and brown running around, it is probably a Sadie-size subway rat.

Upon a visit to the museum, I had this conversation with the ticket collector:
Me: So is the rat catcher around today?
Him: The what?
Me: The cat. Sadie. Is she around?
Him: (Laughs) She’s around somewhere, probably catching more Z’s than rats though!

Whether she catches rats or not (I have been assured that she has at least caught some pigeons though), Sadie has become somewhat of a mascot of the Transit Museum. In the gift shop you can purchase a stuffed cat, with her picture on the front of the package, that comes with markers so you can decorate her. If you ask me though, they ought to play up the mascot role a bit more for her. Maybe get her a mini cat-sized conductor’s hat to wear (yeah right). Or maybe even use her in some advertising, or the educational programs for children.

Supposedly the aforementioned cat, Tama, brought a million dollars into the local economy just by being cute, and encouraging people to ride the train. Hey Sadie, want to go save the W and Z trains? I hear the MTA could use a little money.

In other news, I continue planning my own trip to Japan in April. I will be posting my train adventures, and hopefully I will be able to go to Kishi station, and meet the “Super Stationmaster” herself!

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