In a new article, National Geographic delves into the history of maneki neko — Japan’s famous “beckoning cat” — and how the image became ubiquitous in modern society.
Chances are you’ve seen maneki neko even if you don’t realize it. The iconic feline image has transcended its homeland and is common not only in China, Vietnam, Thailand and the rest of Asia, it’s also made its way to the US and Canada as well, earning a place in shops run by Japanese and westerners alike.
There’s a reason for that: The waving cat not only represents luck and good fortune, it’s a welcoming gesture meant to attract customers. Maneki neko find a place in homes too, with different coat colors and patterns representing different positive attributes: A white cat is supposed to bring happiness, while a black cat wards off evil spirits and a calico is believed to bring luck in all its forms.
As a cat lover I kept an eye out for the iconic statues during my time in Japan and, although I missed Buddy, I couldn’t leave without seeing where it all began: The cat shrine at Setagaya, a quiet Tokyo suburb where, according to legend, a feudal lord followed a beckoning cat by the roadside and found refuge from the elements in a humble shrine, where the temple monk invited them inside and gave a memorable sermon.
The feudal lord was so grateful for the hospitality, and for finding shelter to wait out a violent thunderstorm, that he vowed to become the temple’s patron. The grounds contain several temples today, as well as separate shrine areas for maneki neko left by visitors and wooden icons with hopeful messages written on them.
All images in this post are from my trip to Setagaya’s cat shrine in the summer of 2019. To see more, check out the post I wrote at the time from Tokyo.
One of the highlights of my trip to Japan last summer was Gotokuji Temple, the famous “cat shrine” in Tokyo’s Setagaya suburb.
Gotokuji is home to thousands of statues of maneki-neko, or “beckoning cat,” an important and ubiquitous image in Japan: Statues of maneki-neko adorn shops and virtually every public place in Tokyo, but Gotokuji is where the legend of the beckoning cat was born. Visitors write prayers on the statues and ask for good luck for a variety of venture, from opening new businesses to getting married.
There is, however, only one current feline resident at Gotokuji, while Kyoto’s Nyan Nyan Ji — literally “meow meow shrine” — is populated exclusively by feline “monks,” who wear monkly garb and take their duties — especially napping, er, meditating — very seriously.
The most recognizable of them is Koyuki, the chief cat priestess at Nyan Nyan Ji.
Here are some photos, all courtesy of the temple’s Instagram, showing what life is like for Koyuki and her fellow priests:
No trip to Japan would be complete for me without a visit to Gōtokuji Temple, home of the famous cat shrine.
Legend has it that a feudal lord and a few of his samurai were road-weary and looking for a spot to rest when they saw a cat by the road, beckoning them with a waving paw.
The lord and his men followed the cat, who led them to a humble temple. The group reached the shelter of the temple just in time to avoid a thunderstorm and resultant downpour.
Thankful that he was dry and warm — and inspired by the temple monk’s sermon — the feudal lord vowed to become the temple’s benefactor, providing the funds for the extensive grounds that exist at Gōtokuji Temple today.
Because it was the cat who led the lord to the shelter of the temple, the “beckoning cat” — maneki neko — became associated with good luck across Japan. Today maneki neko can be seen in shops, restaurants and homes throughout the country.
Even by the immaculate standards of Japanese temple complexes, Gōtokuji Temple is remarkably well-manicured.
Situated in the “suburbs” of Setagaya, Gōtokuji is also more quiet and peaceful than some of the other temples that are wedged between skyscrapers and commercial plazas.
Staff at Gōtokuji Temple paint calligraphy with the temple’s symbols and stamp them.
Like other shrines throughout Japan, the temple has its own calligraphic symbols and stamps.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.