Though the “Panda Train” that runs between Kyōto and the beach resort town of Shirahama in Wakayama Prefecture has been around for a few years, Japanese netizens recently have been making quite the hubbub over photos of its panda seats. Online reactions range from “Kawaiiii!” to “It looks like it’ll hug me to death!”, but most agree that they’re simply confused by the presence of polyurethane pandas on a train heading to a former honeymoon Mecca.

While Shirahama (lit. “White Beach”) is famous for its beautiful sand, hot springs, and remarkable rock formations, many in Japan are surprisingly unaware of its other claim to fame: pandas. Read on to learn more about the crowd-pleasing train and a theme park complex called Adventure World, which has a panda-breeding and research facility with an impressive track record that’s second only to mainland China. If you’re already tired of the cold this winter, this article may give you some ideas for next summer!

From oldest to newest, the “Kuroshio”, “Super Kuroshio”, and “Ocean Arrow” are the three limited express trains that run between Kyōto and Nanki-Shirahama (南紀白浜), so called because it lies on the southern end of the Kī (紀伊) Peninsula and to avoid confusion with Izu-Shirahama in Shizuoka Prefecture. The one dubbed “Panda Train” is actually the Kuroshio, which means “black tide” and is named after the ocean current that carries warm water from the south as it flows past the eastern side of Japan.

▼ “Welcome to the Panda Train” — a handy poster for confused travelers!

Image: goo Blog

▼ Eyes… eyes everywhere…

Image: Twipple

The ride from Ōsaka to Shirahama/Shingū Station aboard the Kuroshio is a reasonable two and a half hours. There are only four of the special panda seats on the entire train and though they’re placed in car #4’s reserved seating section, these seats are open to all.

Despite the online cries of “They won’t stop staring!” and “I wouldn’t be able to relax”, the googly-eyed seats with their Mona Lisa smile are extremely popular; proper etiquette is to not stay in them for too long once you’re finished taking photos. The limited express Kuroshio doesn’t always install the seats though, so one website recommended contacting the station ahead of time.

▼ On the poster in the back, a panda named Wakapan (derived from Wakayama and panda) says: “Please be nice and take turns. It’s everyone’s panda seat.”

bd93cced5706dfce1d5ef235388d564e-1Image: goo Blog

▼ They kind of remind me of the black-suited henchmen from The Triplets of Belleville

Image: excite Blog

Once you reach Shirahama Station you’ll be greeted by, yup, panda statues! In fact, panda-themed sculptures and goods can be found all around town thanks to Shirahama’s Adventure World—an aquarium, safari park, and amusement park all in one. Though the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo tends to hog all the panda glory, in actuality Adventure World is currently the facility with the largest population of resident giant pandas in Japan, numbering at five. Not only that, its breeding center has successfully birthed and reared 12 pandas so far, including two sets of hard-to-raise twins, making it the most flourishing center in the world outside of mainland China.

▼ Say hello to… Rauhin? Yōhin? Rin Rin from Polar Bear Café would be able to tell the difference.

Image: goo Blog

Residing in the breeding center are Chinese-born father Eimei (永明) and mother Rauhin (良浜, signifying “nice beach”), who was born in Shirahama 14 years ago. Twins Kaihin (海浜, “seashore”) and Yōhin (陽浜, “sunny beach”) were born at the center in 2010 and now live in an area of the park called Panda Love, along with Yūhin (優浜, “gentle beach”) who was born in August 2012. And as you may have noticed, the “-hin” in the pandas’ names is the same kanji character as the “-hama” in Shirahama. If you want to be bombarded by cuteness, scroll to the bottom half of this official Japanese page and click on the photo gallery link for each roly-poly resident; there are pictures from birth to present day!

▼ Little Kaihin pestering mom Rauhin during mealtime at Panda Love.

▼ Watch as protective Rauhin hugs baby Yūhin at the end!

If you’ve had your fill of safari rides and dolphin shows, then head to Shirara-hama (Shirara Beach), which has been enjoying a Goodwill Beach City relationship with Waikīkī Beach since 2000. Like most beaches, though, this one is crowded in the summer so locals and those in the know prefer to visit during the off-season.

▼ A view of Shirara-hama.

Image: All Shirahama

▼ To augment the shoreline that had been shrinking due to erosion and urban development, white sand similar to the original has been imported from Australia since 1989.

Image: Wikipedia

Other popular nearby sites include the Sandanbeki (meaning “three step cliff”) and Engetsu-tō (“round moon island”), a natural arch that was created by marine erosion.

▼ A view of Sandanbeki, which is thought to have been a lookout post for schools of fish.

Image: Wikipedia

▼ Pirates from the Heian period called the Kumano Kaigun are said to have lived in its caverns.

2004-08-15_jp-shirahama_03_cavern_bImage: Seikatsu

▼ Takashima, commonly called Engetsu-tō because of its eye-catching form, is a popular place to watch the sun set.

Image: Hiro-chan no Photo Gallery

If this has inspired you to hop aboard the Kuroshio train before going on a panda- and nature-filled romp through southern Wakayama, some useful information can be found on Adventure World’s English site as well as the West Japan Railway Company’s travel page. Already been there? Share your experiences with fellow readers in the comments section!

Sources: Hamster Sokuhou, goo Blog 1, JR Odekake Net, Wikipedia 1, 2, 3, Adventure World, Nanki-Shirahama Kankou Guide, Kinan Jouhou Station
Feature Images: Twitter, Hiro-chan no Photo Gallery, All Shirahama, goo Blog 2
Videos: YouTube 1, 2