Like the samurai lord who visited 400 years ago, we get beckoned to this suburban temple by its feline charm.

There are several reasons to visit Tokyo’s Gotokuji Temple. Located in residential Setagaya Ward, it’s far enough off the beaten tourist track that it’s not nearly as likely to be crowded with visitors, like some of Tokyo’s more famous temples. It’s also got a lovely, if compact, garden courtyard and even a three-story pagoda.

But really, the biggest, and also most numerous, reasons to stop by Gotokuji Temple are the hundreds, if not thousands, of traditional cat figurines on display.

These cute little guys are called maneki neko, which translates to “beckoning cats.” With a single paw raised up in the Japanese gesture for “come here,” they’re said to draw good fortune into homes and places of business, and you’ll often spot them in or near the entrance of houses, shops, and restaurants in Japan.

But there’s more to Gotokuji’s astounding maneki neko population than just Japan’s steady love affair with cute animals and good-luck charms. There’s history as well. Roughly 400 years ago, Ii Naotaka, the samurai lord of Omi Province (present-day Shiga Prefecture), was passing through the vicinity of Gotokuji as the skies darkened and a thunderstorm approached. It was then that he crossed paths with a cat that lived at the temple with its monks, which beckoned to the samurai. Following it, Naotaka arrived at Gotokuji, where he took shelter from the rain and lightning.

In gratitude, Naotaka became the Gotokuji’s patron, and since the temple had truly benefited from a cat beckoning good fortune, it’s now become a popular local pilgrimage site for cat lovers as well.

As to where all the figurines come from, the temple itself sells them to visitors. The most compact and inexpensive stands about two centimeters (0.8 inches) tall and costs just 300 yen (US$2.80), while the largest is 30 centimeters and 5,000 yen.

While it’s not the typical way for maneki neko to be used, many visitors to Gotokuji write a wish and their name on the figurine, sort of like what’s done with wooden ema prayer boards at shrines and temples in Japan. After writing their desire, many visitors then add their kitty to the rest on Gotokuji’s shofuku neko honosho (beckoning cat offering shelves), but when space gets tight, sometimes the figurines end up in other spots as well.

When we asked the temple staff what the exact procedure is for offering a cat figurine, they told us that there really aren’t any set rules. For example, some people purchase a figurine, leave it at the temple, and then come pick it up once their wish has been granted. However, you’re also welcome to take your figurine home with you on the day you purchase it, and the temple actually wishes a few more people would do this, since there’s only so much space to display them all.

As we walked around the grounds, it began to feel like each cat had its own expression, much like how they’re each carrying a different person’s wishes.

▼ Extra originality points for this one wearing drawn-on sunglasses.

And while cats are by no means hard to find here, if you search carefully enough, you might discover a hidden feline, since the carved wooden cat on Gotokuji’s pagoda takes the place of the mouse in the traditional Chinese zodiac animal set.

If you’ve grown up accustomed to Western gestures, the raised paws of the maneki neko might look more like it’s saying good-bye, but even that made for a warm fuzzy feeling as we headed back home…

…and since we brought back two luck-beckoning cats of our own, we’ve got a hunch good things are waiting for us in the future.

Temple information
Gotokuji Temple / 豪徳寺
Address: Tokyo-to, Setagaya-ku, Gotokuji2-24-7

Photos ©SoraNews24
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
[ Read in Japanese ]