Tokyo: Gotokuji Temple and the Legend of the Beckoning Cat

I know you’re very familiar with the beckoning lucky cat that greets customers in stores in Divisoria, Binondo or in any Filipino-Chinese-owned stores. These cat figures are considered to be lucky as it is believed to be encouraging customers and prosperity to enter the shop. We call them as the Chinese lucky cats, and I thought they are part (and originated) from the Chinese culture.

While staying in Tokyo I was intrigued when someone told me that there is a cat temple located in its suburbs. And it is only then that I learned that it is here that this legendary lucky cat originated.

This Buddhist temple is located in Setagaya Ward in Tokyo and you have to take a light train and walk for about twenty minutes before reaching it. At the Gotokuji train station you will be greeted by a large beckoning cat. On the road leading to the temple there are banners attached in every pole depicting two dancing cats (though I think these cat banners vary over time). Unlike the noisy, busy life in Central Tokyo, this place is a quiet, almost rural area.

Probably due to its proximity with the city center, the shrine is not very much visited by tourists. But I am assuring this is a beautiful and interesting place. During the spring season, cherry blossoms add to the beauty of the site.

And behold, at one corner there are cats — lots of them. There are shelves dedicated to stacking these white beckoning cats, locally called the Maneki-neko, as many as possible.

They are even on ema boards, where you write your wish and hang it in designated areas for it to come true. At one point in the pagoda, there is a small maneki-neko figure over one of its doors. It is also said that in the temple cemetery, a portion of it is dedicated for owners to bury their deceased beloved cats.

Near the back there is a small shop (the temple office) with a large beckoning cat standee greeting the visitors. Here, you can buy one of the cat figures, and it is customary to have the cat returned to the temple should your wish be granted. The maneki-neko figures stacked in the shelves earlier mentioned is said to be from the visitors whom their wishes came true.
In some business establishments nearby, there are several Maneki-neko figures prominently displayed in the windows.

This place is definitely a great place to experience the different side of Tokyo, away from the usual noise and activity of the city.

While there are several legends about the origin of the lucky beckoning cat, one of the most popular tales regard Gotokuji as its origin. It is said that there is once a monk, whose income is so small that he can barely live, and share meals with a cat whom he treated like his own cat. One day a group of samurais visited the temple and told the monk that they were stopped on their way by a beckoning cat, so they stopped here to rest. Soon after a large thunderstorm came. While waiting for the weather to calm down the monk preached about the past, present and the future. The samurais were delighted and enlightened with the sermon, and thanked the cat for the good deed.

One of the samurais revealed himself to be Naotaka Ii, the feudal lord of Hikone (a city in present-day Shiga Prefecture). He donated large farmlands to the temple and the temple prospered. Soon when the cat who brought prosperity to the temple reached the end of his life, he was given an honor in the temple cemetery. When the tale of the cat’s deed spread, people began placing beckoning cat figurines in their homes and shops, believing it would bring them good luck and prosperity. Over time, the Maneki-neko figure spread through other Asian nations especially in China.

Gotokuji is served by the Odakyu Line, with its terminus at the Shinjuku station.

Entrance: Free


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