Gōtokuji is a local temple in the west of Tokyo that has become a popular attraction for foreign visitors. The reason for all these visits is a small corner where over 1000 maneki neko (beckoning cats) are put on display. It creates a sight that you can not find anywhere else and as a cat lover it might be an essential photo opportunity on every Tokyo itinerary.
Gōtokuji is a small temple, established in 1480. Compared to most temples in Tokyo it is actually a quite lovely temple to visit, covered in green with a tree-lined entrance road and a couple of nice old buildings. However, they are using a little bit too much asphalt for my taste, and the common practice of parking cars on the temple grounds also hurts my aesthetic feelings.
The Kannon statue with the maneki neko
According to one legend, this temple is the origin of the maneki neko, small beckoning cat statues, which can be found all over Japan. This cat with its raised paw (often battery operated) is particularly popular in shops as they are thought to beckon in both luck and customers. There is some discussion on where they originated, but most records point to Tokyo during the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1868), while some others see the origin in Osaka. Many “origin” stories or legends seems to co-exist.
2 Maneki Neko legends in Tokyo: 2 separate locations
Thunderstorm story (Gōtokuji Temple)
The first story is about the feudal lord Ii Naotaka (1590-1659) of the Hikone domain (currently part of Shiga Prefecture) who happened to pass by Gōtokuji and was beckoned in by a cat. He accepted that invitation and took some rest at the temple, being served tea and offered a sermon by the priest. Suddenly a thunderstorm struck and the lord was happy to stay dry at the temple. As thanks, he did a donation to the temple that was apparently poverty stricken at the time, allowing the temple to rise to prosperity. The temple afterwards became the designated cemetery of the Ii family.
Dream story (Imado Shrine)
The second story brings us to Imado Shrine (near Asakusa) where an old woman could no longer afford feeding her cat and let it loose at the shrine. After letting go, the cat appeared in her dream and told her she should make a doll of its image. She did and her dolls of the cat became popular. Nowadays Imado Shrine is popular for its display of a male and female cat, helping visitors to “tie the knot”, so people come to the shrine to help them finding success in love.
The small maneki neko corner
The maneki neko at Gōtokuji can be found at a small corner at the temple. With small, I mean really small (see photo above). The cats are placed around the Kannon statue, the goddess of mercy. Luckily, these are not the only cat-related items here. You can put a wish on a maneki neko-themed ema (wooden wish plaque/tablet). A number of shops around the temple also sell maneki neko merchandise such as cookies.
In comparison with Gōtokuji, Imado Shrine (near Asakusa) does not have such a dense collection maneki neko, but is featuring the cats more prominently all over the shrine, together with the 2 large cat statues within the shrine.
One of the Ema (2015 version with sheep, as it was year of the sheep), the design of the ema changes every year
One of the older buildings at Gōtokuji
2-24-7 Gotokuji, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Miyanosaka Station – 5 minutes walk (Tokyu Setagaya Line)
Gotokuji Station – 9 minutes walk (Odakyu Line)
Name in Japanese:
招き猫 (maneki neko)