I can’t say for sure when I actually started to like the maneki neko. Maybe because growing up I’ve always been accustomed to its presence. Whenever we went to a Japanese or Chinese restaurant, or any other Asian establishment, the playful figurine is sure to be lurking somewhere, waiting to catch my eye. Now whenever I see it, it brings me a sense of comfort and familiarity. In Japan, the maneki neko is even more of a national symbol than I’ve ever imagined. Maneki neko charms can be as high-end or as cheap as you can afford; they are on mugs, bags, t-shirts, socks, and jewelry. Maneki neko is the new poster child for Asia embraced by Asians and Westerners alike–just check Urban Outfitters!
When I heard there was a temple that had hundreds of maneki neko, my first thought of course was “only in Japan”. My second thought was that I had to see it for myself.
Gotokuji Temple is nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood in Tokyo, and it is believed to be the birth place of the maneki neko. Legend has it that during the Edo period, a feudal lord was passing by when he noticed a cat sitting outside of the temple beckoning him. Curious, he followed the cat inside just as a thunderstorm hit. Sheltered from the rain, the lord was grateful to the cat and donated rice and land to the temple in thanks. He also selected the temple as the burial place for his family. Today, maneki neko is seen as a good luck charm, bringing safety and prosperity to one’s home or business.
Walking around the peaceful grounds of the temple it is easy to miss the maneki neko, which are concentrated around just one of the buildings. But once you find them, it is like stepping into a Yayoi Kusama art installation. Maneki neko, of the same design but different sizes, are piled onto every horizontal surface, shelf, nook and cranny. They seem to multiply as yet another tiny one nestled in a tree catches your eye. Ellie was all squeals of delight and for a while we were all entranced standing in that temple, hovering somewhere between magic and reality, between solemnity and absurdity.