Japan (2019)

Wakayama – Ramen, fish and a very special cat

The port city of Wakayama is rarely found in the classic Japan travel guides. After our detour to Koya-san we wanted to go to Shikoku Island and because this would be a long trip for one day, we decided to make a stopover in Wakayama, where the ferry to Shikoku left. The next step was to find out what to see and do in Wakayama. In addition to a castle in the city center and a beautiful zoo, which we unfortunately didn’t manage to visit, there were three things that were special for Wakayama, the first two of which had to do with food: a large fish market and supposedly the best ramen in Japan. Third, there was the train to Kishi Station. Kishi Station was a small train station in the small town of Kinogawa on the outskirts of Wakayama. Rural exodus is also a big issue in Japan and so Kinogawa became more and more unattractive over the years, so that the Nankai Electric Railway withdrew in the 2000s. From then on, Kishi Station was only served by the private railway company Wakayama Electric Railway. The money ran out quickly here too, as so few people drove to Kinogawa that the route was simply no longer worth it. The grocer Toshiko Koyama, who had his shop near the train station and was recruited by the Wakayama Electric Railway due to financial difficulties, set the ball rolling. So he took care of some stray cats in Kishi Station. One of these cats, Tama, stood out because of her good character and her closeness to people. And that’s when the decision-makers came up with the decisive idea: Tama was appointed station master of Kishi Station. Since the Japanese obviously have a weakness for mascots, the story quickly got around. Suddenly, numerous people traveled to Kinogawa to meet Tama. The first tourists from abroad soon came. They all had in common that they took the train from Wakayama to Kishi Station. This not only saved the railway line, but also brought in so much income for those responsible that the trains and the station building could be completely renewed. The trains got a funny comic look, the highlight of which was of course the Tama train, which was provided with comic pictures of Tama and with cat ears. The station building has the shape of a cat’s head. In addition to an “office” for Tama, a glass box with a scratching post and litter box, there was a souvenir shop and a café with a Tama theme. In 2015, this real fairy tale seemed to come to an end when Tama died after a long and truly extraordinary cat life. The funeral was like a state ceremony, and as great as the mourning was, Kinogawa had made provisions. Another cat Nitama (Translation: Tama 2) was hired while Tama was still alive. Nitama officially became Tama’s successor and completed her “training” at Idakiso Station, a train station between Wakayama and Kishi Station. With Yontama (Translation: Tama 4), Nitama has now also received a successor in training. Some are probably wondering what about Tama 3. Sun-Tama-Tama is in Okayama, where the stationmaster has grown so fond of her that he didn’t let her go to Kinogawa.

Of course we really wanted to visit Nitama and Yontama. Since they are formally employees of Wakayama Electric Railway, both cats have official working hours, which can be checked online. So we had to find out with horror that the two of them had the next few days off. But if we went to Kinogawa instead of our accommodation, we would be able to see them. We resolutely put on our backpacks and followed the paw prints stuck to the floor of the train station in Wakayama, which guided us to the track of the train to Kishi Station. Here we had to buy a separate ticket as it was a private train line before we started. We were on a train full of pictures of colorful cartoon trains. We got off at Idakiso Station. The station was really very small. There was a small ticket office with a few souvenirs and a glass case in the depths of which Yontama hid and slept curled up. After a few photos, which unfortunately didn’t turn out really well due to the reflection of the window, we noticed that our train was still standing on the track. So we jumped back in shortly afterwards and we went on towards Kishi Station. In the heart of the station building, Nitama was already waiting for us, dozing in her “office”. After a few photos we went in front of the station building. While I stayed outside with our luggage and shot one photo after the other, Kevin looked at the souvenir shop and came out empty-handed shortly afterwards. We changed tasks and I was so excited about the history of this train station that I completely stocked up on souvenirs for myself and my family. So I bought Nitama postcards, a small plush Tama and magnets with Tama and Nitama. Next, we went to the station café for a little refreshment, where we got a few small treats in sweet Tama cups. From our seats in the café we also had a great view of Nitama. We ran out 1-2 times to take more photos of Nitama. This also resulted in a very cool selfie from Nitama with me. There were other souvenirs in the café and while I was buying a cool sports shirt, Kevin reached out and bought a prayer tablet with Tama on it. Finally we said goodbye to Nitama and returned to Wakayama. Our train back was then even the Tama train, which again led to a series of photos. This was a perfect start to our stay in Wakayama and retrospectively it is one of the highlights of our Japan vacation.

Soaplands and ramen with extra meat

After our detour to Nitama, we finally went to our accommodation. It was a small apartment in a typical residential building. The house was very central, but it was also in the red light district of the city. In any other country in the world that would probably be a bit unsettling, but in Japan, the safest country in the world, you feel safe even in the red light district. Prostitution is actually forbidden in Japan, but of course people get creative with something like that. The brothels in the area were not labeled as such, but instead there were large illuminated signs with the inscription “Soapland”. The brothels are officially registered as bathhouses. In practice, this is implemented in such a way that there are large bathrooms in the premises and the prostitutes wash their customers before the actual act. This is likely to benefit them as well, as it allows them to ensure that their customers are clean enough. The actual city center began directly behind the red light district, where we entered a small ramen restaurant for dinner. Of course, we foreigners were immediately given an English-language menu. I wanted to try the pure Wakayama ramen, so I chose the simplest of them all. Keven ordered ramen with beef. At least that’s how it was written on the menu. In the end, both ramen were with beef, but there was extra meat in Kevin’s bowl. The large amount of meat almost made him cave in, but he did well, even if he only ordered the normal ramen from then on.

Kevin’s Ramen with extra meat 😉

Kuroshio Market

One advantage of our accommodation was that there were free rental bikes. So the next day the plan was to get on the bikes and go to Kuroshio Market. Wakayama is right next to the ocean and Japanese cuisine has a number of really excellent fish dishes. Kuroshio Market is a big fish market in Wakayama and even if Kevin isn’t the biggest fish fanatic, I really wanted to try the fresh fish. The market was about 10km from our accommodation. Admittedly, I underestimated the exertion of the journey. Right at the beginning we had to turn around because my flip-flops have finally surrendered after all the exertions of the last few days and have fallen apart. Fortunately, we didn’t get far so we could turn around to change shoes. With the second attempt it worked, but the hot summer sun of Japan slammed us mercilessly on the head and the humid air made us stop at numerous vending machines and empty the bottles in one go. After a much more strenuous drive than expected, we finally reached an amusement park on the grounds of which the fish market was located. The amusement park was incredibly bizarre because it was as good as deserted. As is customary in Germany, you could pay an entrance fee at the entrance and use all the rides. In the same way, you could also enter the amusement park for free and, similar to the fair, pay individually for each ride you wanted to use. Since our goal was not the rides but the fish market, we decided to go for free entry. The bizarre thing about the amusement park was that, although the sun was shining, there were absolutely no people around. At each ride there were employees whose eyes briefly lit up as we walked by in the hope that we would add a bit of variety to their probably incredibly boring working day, which was not the case. Finally we reached the fish market, which was a stark contrast to the rest of the park. For one thing, it is strange enough that such a market was in the middle of an amusement park. On the other hand, there were actually quite a few people here. Most of them belonged to Chinese tour groups, whose buses lined up in the parking lot behind the market. The market itself was exactly how you imagine a fish market in Asia. In addition to fresh fish in ice displays, there were also numerous aquariums with specimens still alive. However, Japan is not exactly the good guy here, because not only was there fish and seafood in the displays, but there was also an area with whale meat. Shortly after we got an overview of the market, a young man stepped onto a small stage near the entrance. This was probably the biggest attraction of the fish market. The area in front of the stage quickly filled with the Chinese tourists, who pulled out their mobile phones immediately. The man on stage had a large tuna in front of him and was now showing in a kind of live show how he was taking the fish apart. The fish was later processed and sold in the market. Since it was now time for lunch, I decided to go straight for tuna sashimi. Sashimi is raw fish that was served on rice with a few spring onions and a kind of sponge-like thread and wasabi and soy sauce. Kevin couldn’t be convinced by raw fish, so he opted for fish meatballs and an ice cream for dessert.

Pet shops in Japan – This country has its downsides too

On the way back from Kuroshio Market we passed a large pet shop. We took a short break here with the idea of ​​bringing our beloved cats some souvenirs from Japan. So we found what we were looking for and bought a pack of treats, a cat-shaped cuddle pillow and a fish in which to hide rewards. As you know from some German pet shops, there was also an area with live animals here. Instead of rabbits and hamsters, the exhibition of which is already controversial enough in pet shops in Germany, there were much too small cages and glass boxes with baby cats and dogs, all of which were so small that they should actually still be with their mother animals. In addition, they were all expensive pedigree animals. For example, there was a small Bengal cat and even a Siberian cat, as well as a small Shiba Inu puppy among the dogs. The age of the animals raised an uncomfortable question, the answer to which, unfortunately, was even more uncomfortable: What happens to the unsold animals when they get older? The unsold puppies and kittens are gassed and disposed of like goods. It’s amazing how such a progressive country like Japan is so lagging behind when it comes to animal rights and welfare. The problem has been known for a long time, so I found an online petition from 2012, which also describes the topic in more detail:
Since we are both big animal lovers, that still makes us pensive even today and casts a big shadow on the otherwise great and dazzling Japan.

Wakayama Castle

Our last stop that day was Wakayama Castle. Exhausted, we parked our bikes in a nearby parking lot and climbed the steps to the castle. Immediately a man came up to us with a large pump bottle (as is otherwise known from plantations where pesticides were sprayed with it) and started spraying us with cold water. After a short time we realized that this man was practically the air conditioner. In fact, the cold water felt incredibly good on the skin and we were happy to put up with it. In the castle there was a small exhibition with old samurai armor and similar artifacts. Once at the top of the tower there was a really nice view over the city. Behind the castle there was a pretty little garden and actually we could have visited another exhibition with our tickets, but it was quite late and so we managed to take a quick look into the garden, but we didn’t make it anymore to the second exhibition. Still, it was a nice final stop on our tour. We ended the evening with ramen again.

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