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.
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!!