You may not known their name, but no doubt you’ve seen those white cat statues with one paw raised. Widely known as ‘lucky cats’, the ‘Manekineko’ are a much-loved talismen beckoning good luck and fortune.
It looks as though the cat is waving, but it is actually beckoning – a gesture which in Japan resembles shooing away (can cause confusion). In older times, manekineko were good luck charms for silkworm cultivators as cats helped get rid of the mice. When the industry declined, manekineko were adopted as lucky charms for businesses to ‘maneku’ (attract) customers and wealth. There are many different theories on the origins of manekineko but one such story takes place at Gotokuji Temple in Setagaya, Tokyo.
The Hikone connection
The story goes that the second lord of the Hikone domain, Naotaka Ii, was returning home from hawking when he passed a cat sitting by the gates of Gotokuji, beckoning him. He stopped for a break and immediately a thunderstorm rolled over. Thrilled to have avoided the downpour, Naotaka made a large donation to rebuild the temple, which still stands today. Gotokuji thus became the Ii family’s temple and eventually the gravesite of Naosuke Ii, who was assassinated in the Sakuradamon incident at the end of the Edo period.
Thanks to this folklore, visitors to Gotokuji are able to purchase their own manekineko and add it to the sprawling collection of statues, for good luck.
The secret of Gotokuji’s manekineko
Most manekineko have either their right or left hand raised, but all of the manekineko sold at Gotokuji have their right hand (front right paw) raised, and do not hold any ‘koban’ or oval gold coin. The right hand is raised because the left hand was once considered impure by samurai. Gotokuji’s manekineko do not hold a koban because of the belief that the cats beckon in opportunity but not results, and that it is up to the individual to make the most of the chances they are given.
The beauty of Gotokuji in autumn
In late autumn (November-December), the leaves in Gotokuji’s temple grounds are exceptionally beautiful, making it the perfect season for a visit. As you step on the red and yellow fallen leaves and take in the sights, sounds and smells, you can almost feel winter’s approach.
Though it is beautiful in autumn, a visit to Gotokuji at any time can help you meditate on the positives in life, with the help of the countless manekineko statues.
Address: 2-24-7 Gotokuji, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Access: 5 minute walk from Tokyu Setagaya line Miyanosaka station or 10 minute walk from Odakyu Line Gotokuji station.
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