When Kishi Station in the Wakayama Prefecture of Japan was faced with closure, it took the only logical step: it employed a stray cat as station master.
Twelve months later, the financial intake had risen by 1.1 billion yen (6.3 million pounds), the cat was promoted to 'super station master' and everyone stopped pretending that the country cared about anything other than feline overlords.
The moggy in question is a fluffy calico named 'Tama'. Born in 1999, she was one of the stray cats who hung around the small rural Kishi Station, a couple of hours south of Osaka. When the railway line ran into financial difficulties in 2006, staff cuts were made that removed permanent station masters from the smaller stops. The job at Kishi was taken up on a part-time basis by the local grocer, Toshiko Koyama, who adopted Tama as his assistant. The idea was so adorably ridiculous that the previously dying station was suddenly flocked with visitors wanting to see the unofficial feline station master.
In 2007, the company who owned the line, Wakayama Electric, made Tama the official station master and provided a salary in cat food. Her keen business success saw the cat promoted to 'super station master' 18 months later and issued with an official station master hat.
In her dignified older years, Tama can still sometimes be seen sleeping in her 'office'; a converted ticket booth with glass walls and a litter box. Somedays her deputy, 'Nitama' (literally 'second Tama'), is on duty as she trains hard in preparation for her eventual succession to the role. Yet, spotting the feline-on-duty is only part of the fun of a visit.
To reach Kishi Station from civilisation requires a change at Wakayama Station. This is where the whole Tama experience begins, since the train that picks you up for the 30 minute ride is the 'Tama Train'; a locomotive and carriages decorated with 101 pictures of the station master herself.
The decor inside the train is even more unique. Different shaped seats run the length of the carriages, which are wallpapered with more images of Tama. Bookshelves contain volumes for younger passengers, there is a display of figurines from the manga Doraemon, and even the lights are cat-shaped.
The Kishi Station building was redesigned in 2010 to resemble a cat's face. It contains a small cafe and gift shop, selling notepads, tee-shirts, pens and postcards of the master mog.
And that's it. There is nothing in the station's neighbourhood apart from the surrounding quiet residential streets and fields. Visitors come to ride the train, photograph the buildings, see Tama and her deputies and then depart. And they love it.
To be honest, I loved it.
After the success of the Tama-themed line, Wakayama Electric added two more novelty trains on the same route. One of these is themed with strawberries to encourage visitors to pick their own fruits at a nearby stop, while the second has a toy theme.
When not substituting for her boss, Nitama has her own station just a few minutes down the line at Itakiso Station. The station is also close to a shrine, but it must be admitted we completely failed to locate this. We did find a giant Tama mascot who was substituting for Nitama, while she was at Kishi Station that day. Such is the way of hierarchy on this line: a human substitutes for the second-in-command feline.
As super station master, Tama also is the only female to hold a managerial role in Wakayama Electric company. I'm just going to leave that there as a statement about Japan, women in the workforce and possibly, the power of cats.