The Maneki Neko is one of the most popular symbols of Japan along with the bullet train and Mt Fuji.

Maneki neko is a cat sitting up with its paw raised in a beckoning gesture. The Maneki Neko is supposed to beckon good luck and prosperity and that is why it is a favorite good luck charm of Japanese shopkeepers. You can usually find cat figurines outside shops in Japan, beckoning you inside.

Photo by Ruchira Shukla

The legend of the Maneki Neko

There are many legends about the origins of Maneki Neko and opinions are divided about them originating in Kyoto or Tokyo. But one thing is certain, they first started appearing during the Edo period on different scrolls and paintings and as small figurines. There are several temples that are supposed to be the birthplace of the Maneki Neko but one of the most well-known and one with the most veracity is the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo.

There are many legends around the temple and they all involve a monk, his cat, and a feudal lord. As one of the legends go, an old monk lived with his cat in a small dilapidated temple. Although he was poor, the monk shared all his meals with his cat, and in return, he asked the cat to bring him luck. One day a feudal lord was passing by and attracted by the cat’s beckoning paw, he entered the temple. He was so impressed by the monk’s lecture that he decided to make Gotokuji temple as his family temple, changing the fortunes of the temple and the monk. Another version of the legend says that during the Edo period, a cat that belonged to the monk of Gotokuji temple saved a feudal lord during a thunderstorm by beckoning to him and leading him to safety. To express his gratitude, the lord donated rice and land to the temple and selected Gotokuji Temple as his family temple.
When the cat died, the monk built a Shofuku den to enshrine the cat that had brought the temple luck and the cat came to be called as Maneki Neko (The cat that beckons). Very soon people started to visit the temple to pray to the Maneki Neko so that their wishes are fulfilled.

Gotokuji Temple – Calm, Serenity and Cats!

Gotokuji temple is tucked away in a sleepy wooded corner of Setagaya in Bunkyo Ward, far away from the hustle-bustle of Tokyo and the rest of the tourist spots. The closest station is the Gotokuji Station on the Odakyu Odawara line.

Gotokuji temple has a very peaceful vibe. The lush green grounds are perfect for enjoying a tranquil walk or just sitting in and soaking in the zen-like atmosphere. It is especially worth a visit in autumn when the trees around the temple turn a flaming red and orange.

You walk up a tree-lined road towards Gotokuji and enter the temple through a well-preserved wooden gate. Once inside the grounds, the first thing you will notice is a three-story pagoda. The three-story pagoda enshrines the statues of Shakanyorai, Kasho-sonzya, Anan-sonzya and Manekineko-kannon. It also has carvings of all the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac sign as well as many cats. It has become a sort of a game for people who visit the temple to spot the cats carved inside the pagoda.

photo by Ruchira Shukla

Next to the pagoda is an ancient bell tower with a bell that is from the 17th century. Nearby, just opposite the temple building, there is a beautiful black lion statue on top of a huge incense burner.

Photo by Ruchira Shukla

As you walk around the temple, you realize that Maneki Neko figurines are everywhere. A few cats on a moss-covered stone, one very small maneki neko – the size of your thumb tucked away inside the wooden eaves, few grouped together inside a stone lantern….the walk around the temple is a delightful adventure about discovering the maneki neko in the most unlikely of places!

The big treat lies as soon as you turn left from the main temple building and come across the Shofuku den. you will see hundreds and hundreds of maneki neko of all sizes there. They sit on wooden racks placed specially by the temple authorities, on the ground, on the moss covered stones and surround the statue of the Goddess Kannon – The goddess of Mercy. All the Maneki Neko are white in colour with a red band. Only the sizes differ. With he green background of the temple garden and woods all in all they make a very very pretty picture!

Photo by Ruchira Shukla


Make a wish!

The locals make a wish and once the wish is fulfilled, they leave a maneki neko at this spot in gratitude. For some it is a place to offer thanks, for others it is a perfect spot to take Instagram worthy pictures and enjoy yet another peculiarity of Japanese Culture.

One of the most interesting things about the Maneki Neko at Gotokuji temple is that its raised paw holds no coin. Usually, a Maneki Neko has a coin in its raised paw. The legend says that Maneki Neko does not bring you luck. Instead, it brings you opportunities to prosper and enhance your prospects. What you make of those prospects depends on you.

If you want to try your luck, you can buy a small Maneki Neko statue from the temple office. And make a wish. Once your wish is fulfilled, come back to the temple and find a spot for your Maneki Neko!

Another way to make your wishes known to the gods is buying the wooden plaque called ema, writing your wishes on it and tying it to a wooden frame. The ema at Gotokuji are painted with white maneki neko sitting in front of the Goddess Kannon. Both the Goddess and the cats are sure to bring you luck!

Photo by Ruchira Shukla

Gotokuji temple is off the beaten track and away from rest of the tourist attractions in Tokyo but according to me that is where lies its charm. Besides the added advantage of seeing so many mankeki Neko in one place, the temple nestled in the woods can be a very peaceful and tranquil retreat from the rush of daily life in Tokyo.