Traditional Japanese lore states that during the 17th-century Edo period, a cat rescued a feudal lord from a dangerous thunderstorm by inviting him inside Tokyo’s Gotokuji Temple with a waving gesture. To show this thoughtful feline his gratitude, the tale continues, the lord, who belonged to Japan’s powerful Ii clan, became a benefactor of the Buddhist temple and vowed to maintain its prosperity.
Today, the Gotokuji Temple is cited as the birthplace of maneki-neko, or “beckoning cat.” The charming figurine has become a symbol of good luck throughout Japan. Its popularity later extended to China too, which is why it’s not uncommon to find maneki-neko displays in Japanese and Chinese establishments in Asia and around the world. However, at the ancient Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo, the sacred grounds act as a shrine to this legendary feline.
Set in Tokyo’s residential Setagaya district, the temple displays hundreds of “lucky” cat figurines. A path leading to the temple is lined with bright white cat figures that are placed around a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.
Visitors to Gotokuji can buy a small cat figurine at the temple’s reception and write a wish on it before leaving the object at the shrine in hopes that the dream will come true. Those who purchase a figurine for good fortune are allowed to take their maneki-neko souvenirs home, but according to temple tradition, if a person’s prayer is fulfilled, it’s advisable to return the figurine to the Tokyo shrine to properly give thanks.
The Gotokuji Temple also offers visitors o-mikuji, which are Japanese fortune-telling paper strips often found at Buddhist and Shinto shrines, as well as ema—traditional wooden plaques on which visitors can write down their prayers to be hung on the shrine wall.
The Gotokuji Temple’s shrine dedicated to cats isn’t the only aspect of the attraction that makes it worth visiting. The temple grounds also contain a cemetery that’s believed to hold the remains of members of Japan’s Ii clan—the family of that grateful feudal lord who granted the temple its fortune way back during the Edo era.
Japanese culture is known for its celebration of various unconventional obsessions. (Think: the craze of cosplay cafés in Tokyo or this olive-themed amusement park in Shodoshima.) In Tokyo’s Setagaya district, where the temple is located, the sentiment is no different. All streets offshooting the temple are crammed with gift shops selling maneki-neko-related objects and trinkets. What’s more: The local “Setagaya Line” commuter train is adorned with images of the beloved, good luck–granting feline. How to get there: Gotokuji is easily accessible from central Tokyo via the Tokyu Setagaya Line. Once you’ve arrived to Miyanosaka Station, it’s about a five-minute walk through Setagaya to the Gotokuji Temple. The site is open every day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and entrance is free.
The Associated Press contributed images for this story.