It seems only appropriate to upload a post on Gotokuji Temple and its famous beckoning cat ahead of Japan’s National Cat Day.
Why is February 22 known as National Cat Day? The 2-22 sounds like “nyan nyan nyan” (meow meow meow), the sound a cat makes.
Japan’s fascination with cats is well known. It is, after all, the country that introduced Hello Kitty to the world. However, Japan’s love of cats goes back much further. The first cats arrived in Japan during the Nara period [710-794]. Their purpose was a practical one: they were brought on ships to safeguard sacred Buddhist scrolls from rats.
Those who adore cats – and those who are merely curious and looking for a bit of prosperity – can head to Tokyo’s Gotokuji Temple to discover the origin of the beckoning cat.
Happy Cat Day to all you cat lovers!
Legend of the Beckoning Cat (Maneki-Neko)
According to legend, an impoverished monk at a small temple felt pity for a stray cat and took it in. He shared his meals, provided the cat with shelter, and treated the cat kindly. One day he told his feline companion, “If you are grateful to me, bring some fortune to the temple.”
The cat dutifully went to work.
During a heavy storm, group of passing samurai warriors saw the cat holding out its paw in such a way that it seemed to be beckoning them inside. Whether they were fascinated by the cat’s invitation or simply eager to obtain refuge from the weather, the samurai followed the cat inside the temple. The monk took the opportunity to deliver a sermon, and the samurai were so impressed that the powerful feudal lord Naotaka Ii left the temple gifts of rice fields and crops. Thereafter, the temple prospered.
Thus, the maneki-neko came to be associated with household serenity, business prosperity, and the fulfillment of wishes.
Gotokuji Temple was built in 1680 by the fifth shogunate. It has many of the features you would expect a temple complex to have: a three-story wooden pagoda, Buddhist halls, an enormous bell, ancient trees, an imposing incense burner, and a tranquil cemetery for feudal lords. On closer inspection, I saw intricately carved cats on every level of the pagoda.
The ambiance is very tranquil.
Gotokuji Temple is far from being the only religious site in Japan associated with a particular mascot. One of the more unique shrines I have visited in Japan is Kawasaki’s Kanayama shrine, which is known for its iron phallus and prayer tablets featuring male genitalia. Westerners may find such things kitsch. However, I have great respect for Japan’s approach to why such images are important to the shrine or temple.
Yes, Gotokuji temple is famous for cats and has a cute backstory. However, it is first and foremost a place of worship.
Interestingly, I saw no live cats. No worries, though – round a corner and you will see thousands of pristine maneki-neko.
Leaving behind a Maneki-Neko as an offering is said to confer blessings and prosperity. It therefore makes sense that Gotokuji Temple is a very popular place to come at the start of a new year.
Behind the thousands of cat figurines stood neat and upright on packed shelves. Although the vast majority were white, a few had been modified with a black permanent marker. The temple office sells the figurines at prices ranging from ¥300 (itty bitty inch-long kitty) to ¥5000 (approaching life size). I purchased one of the tiny cats and placed it under a nice-looking big cat for protection.
One of the neat things about Japanese temples is that prayer tablets are unique to the temple. As one might expect, the prayer tablets at Gotokuji Temple have cat motifs featured on the front.
One of my favorite surprises was discovering a personalized vending machine near the restrooms. Like many tourism destinations, the exterior of the machine had been printed to showcase the uniqueness of the temple. After perusing the beverages, I spied something I had never seen anywhere else: a can of sweet potato and milk.
WOW…the beverage was ah-mazing! The sweet potato and milk was cold and perfectly blended to a thick, creamy consistency. I felt like a cat lapping up a bowl as I sipped at it. *This is the only place in Japan I have seen this drink sold, and I enjoyed it so much I bought extra cans to take home.
Nearby Attractions for the Dog Lovers
At the risk of being controversial, I daresay Japanese love dogs more than cats. I have never strolled my neighborhood and not seen someone walking their tiny dog. As in the U.S., a dog is a conversation starter. Indeed, almost every meeting I have had with a neighbor involves us first exchanging greetings over their dog.
If you are a dog lover and you find yourself in Shibuya (a mere three miles from Gotokuji Temple), you are in luck! Although Shibuya Station is famous for its cross-walks and massive, defy-description buildings, it is equally renowned for its statue of Hatchiko.
Hatchiko was the first statue I had ever seen dedicated to a dog. It is dedicated to Hatchiko, an Akita who used to wait for his human every day at the Shibuya train station. For nine years after his human died, Hatchiko continued to return to the station to await his return. A statue was erected of the dog to celebrate his faithfulness.
If the cat and dog are taken as symbols, I wonder which is more precious: a cat’s ability to confer success, or a dog’s loyalty?
If You Go
Gotokuji Temple is a lovely temple to wander around. The temple is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is very popular with foreigners.
Many people love going to Tokyo for the excitement. Personally, I find Tokyo a little TOO stimulating – I have a hard time staying more than a few hours.
Getting to Gotokuji ranks as one of the more challenging places to access from Yokosuka. It took three local trains and an hour and twenty minutes to get to Shibuya Station. After arriving in Shibuya, I decided to walk the three miles to the temple. (You can totally take a bus, if you prefer!) However, walking affords the chance see a quieter, more intimate side of this iconic and pulsating city.
Here’s wishing you a safe and purr-fect adventure!