I love cats. Back at home in New York, I have an adorable kitty named Misty (whom I miss very much). But, I am not the only person who loves cats. Japan, too, regularly shows its love for the cuddly creatures. From famous cat-like icons Hello Kitty and Doraemon to ukiyo-e artwork that heavily feature felines, cats enjoy quite a bit of prestige in Japan’s ancient and modern-day history. After learning about a temple in Tokyo literally filled with maneki-neko (beckoning cats), I immediately declared it a must-go-to destination. So, back in January, I boarded a Shinkansen train bound for Tokyo and made my way to the temple. The name of this glorious place? Gotokuji.
Approaching the Hallowed Grounds
When I first arrived, the gate with the temple’s name marker in front of it was closed. After walking almost completely around the perimeter of the temple, I saw the entrance. I knew I had the right place; I saw the sign earlier with the temple’s name. Yet, here I was at the entrance, and there was no visual cue that this was the famed “cat temple.” I reasoned with myself; Cindy, this isn’t an amusement park. There isn’t going to be a giant cat balloon welcoming you in. With that in mind, I passed through the gate.
No, But Seriously, Where are the Cats?
After entering the temple proper, I passed by a few different buildings. One is rather tall with multiple pagoda-style roofs. A couple others are the actual temple buildings. When I first tried to take pictures of the inner temple decor, I put my lens against one of the window’s small glass panes. However, a friendly fellow showed me that one of them actually slid open. (Thank you, kind sir. I will now look for that at every temple I go to.)
It’s strange; the inside has beautifully crafted ornamentation, and yet it’s also somewhat bare. That’s when the lovely gentleman mentioned the other building with a similarly viewable inner chamber. Now, when I saw that one, I could feel my eyes widen. It literally has gold hanging from the ceiling. The gold paired with the colors of the decorative banner that surrounds the central seating area is just beautiful.
So, Now It’s Time for the Cats, Right?
Well, kind of. One of the other things I saw as I walked around was an ema board. You write your wish on a small piece of wood and hang it on the board. These aren’t just any old pieces of wood, of course. These have beautifully painted pictures on them. Naturally, being at Gotokuji, most of the ones I saw had cats on them. Since 2017 is the Year of the Rooster, there were ones with both cats and roosters on them. I also spotted a few cat and monkey ones, too. (Year of the Monkey, represent! No? No…)
One person went all-out and drew a cat on the side with their wish. Naturally, a kitty named Nyan is the true author of this one. (Nyan is one of the Japanese words for “meow.”)
I’m Going to Click X if I Don’t See These Cats in This Next Section
Okay, okay. I get it. You’re here for the cats. Heck, how could I not get it? I went there for the cats! I didn’t really imagine what it would look like before I arrived, so I was kind of surprised that they’re placed in a corner of the temple grounds. When I saw some little fellas in a window, though, I knew I was approaching the paw on my kitty treasure map.
It’s pretty amazing that there are so many. This is the system: you go into the souvenir shop and buy your preferred maneki-neko. You then make a wish. When that wish comes true, you’re supposed to return to Gotokuji and place your maneki-neko alongside its brethren. I’d wager that most people want to keep theirs as a souvenir. Or, if they came from outside of Japan, they may not necessarily make the trip all the way back here just to put a cat statue on the ground at some temple. In any case, I’m pretty darn impressed by how many people do return them. If more people make an effort to bring theirs back, the temple could one day be overflowing with cats. How glorious would that be?
Without further ado, here’s my mini Gotokuji maneki-neko gallery!
How Do You Buy a Cat of Your Own?
After seeing all of those maneki-neko, I’m sure you’re all wondering how to purchase your very own from the temple. It’s pretty straightforward. There’s a building with a wooden display of a maneki-neko in front of it. If you go inside, there’s a glass case with the various cats for sale. The man behind the counter can speak a decent amount of English, so you shouldn’t have any problems. When you buy a cat, he’ll also give you a sheet of paper. This piece of paper tells the legend behind the maneki-neko, as well as how the temple (allegedly) came to be.
For those who are curious, I’ve typed up the legend you’ll receive below (with some minor changes to the English).
The Original Story of a Waving Cat
A long time ago, when the temple was a shabby hut, the monk who resided there could barely live on the small income he gained as a practicing mendicant. He had a cat and cared for it like his own child. He even shared his own meals with it. One day, he said to the cat, “If you are grateful to me, bring some fortune to the temple.”
After many months, one summer afternoon the monk heard sounds around the gate, and there he saw five or six samurai warriors on their way home from hawk hunting approaching him. Leaving their horses behind, they said, “We were about to pass by the front your gate, but there was a cat crouching. Suddenly, it lifted one arm and started waving and waving when it saw us. We were surprised and intrigued, so we decided to come here and ask for some rest.” So the monk served his bitter tea and told them to relax.
Suddenly, the sky darkened and heavy rain began to fall with thunder. While they waited a long time for the sky to clear, the monk preached Sanze-inga-no-hou (the past, present, and future reasoning sermons). The samurai were delighted and began to think about converting to the temple. Immediately, one samurai announced, “My name is Naotaka Ii. I am the king of Hikone. Due to your cat’s waving, we were able to hear your preaching. This has opened our eyes and seems to be the start of something new. This must be the Buddha’s will.”
Soon after they returned home, Naotaka Ii donated huge rice fields and croplands to make the temple as grand and generous as it is now. Because of the cat, fortune had been brought to the temple. Therefore, Gotokuji is called the cat temple. The monk later established the grave of the cat and blessed it. Before long the statue of the cute waving cat was created so that people might remember the tale and revere it. Now everybody knows the temple as the symbol of household serenity, business prosperity, and the fulfillment of wishes.
Side Note: Naotaka Ii and the Beckoning Cat
The above tale implies that Naotaka Ii was already at the temple when the storm took place. However, there are other versions of the tale that say he takes shelter from the storm because he sees the beckoning cat. The cat inadvertently protects him from being struck by lightning. In 2007, the city government of Hikone created the mascot Hikonyan to commemorate Hikone Castle’s 400th anniversary. Naturally, the mascot references the legend of the maneki-neko.
While Gotokuji is a little more out-of-the-way than other temples in Tokyo, I certainly think it’s worth the trip. Japan has many beautiful temples, but sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart, especially if you visit a number of them in one trip. It’s not a large temple, but Gotokuji definitely has its charms. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see these cute cats in person? If you want a better idea of the temple’s layout, check out the YouTube video of my trip below. If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, I recommend setting a little bit of time aside to walk around and admire the beckoning cats. Maybe you’ll even buy one of your own. If your wish comes true, it’ll give you a decent excuse to return. Until the next adventure! (=^-ω-^=)