In the Tokyo suburb of Setagaya, there is a quiet park home to the Gōtoku-ji “Welcome Cat” Temple.
Its quiet, pagoda-dotted grounds attract a host of people: local parents, looking for a place to let their kids play; tourists looking for the ultimate Instagram opportunity by posing next to the shrine’s army of cat sculptures; and devote Buddhist pilgrims, chanting, clapping, and ringing bells as part of their prayers.
As the legend goes, back in the 1400s, Gōtoku-ji was more a humble hut than a temple, shared by a monk and his cat. Struggling to survive, the monk asked his four-legged friend to bring him prosperity. The cat responded by waving in several samurai, who, eager to escape a rainstorm, accepted the monk’s offer of tea and shelter. The travelers took such delight in the monk’s teachings, one revealed himself to be Naotaka Ii, lord of Hikone, in the Koshu prefecture. In return for his host’s kindness, he donated rice fields and crops to the temple, allowing it to grow into the force it is today.
Today visitors still arrive in search of luck granted by Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat (or at the temple pragmatically words it, “the opportunity for luck”). But even if one doesn’t completely buy into the conceit, it’s difficult not to enjoy the visually dazzling, inclusive, and all-together welcoming environment of Gōtoku-ji Temple.
Many people will tell you that getting to Gōtoku-ji is a trek, or that the Setagaya neighborhood is located significantly outside the city. Given that it’s a 20-minute train ride from central Tokyo, this is an overstatement. Budget an hour or two full the full experience.
The temple is covered in thousands of Maneki Neko, with more being added on a daily basis. While it’s an arresting visual, the alter is essentially a retirement home for the sculptures. After the waving cat has helped its owners’ wishes come true, tradition dictates it’s then returned to the temple for a much-needed rest.
INSIDER TIPYou can start the process by buying one at the on-site shop.
Not all felines are created equal—if the cat’s left paw is raised, it’s meant to draw luck in business. A raised right paw signifies protection and blessings on home life.
In 2008, around the time Japan experienced an economic crisis, sales of waving cat sculptures skyrocketed, particularly a variation that had both paws raised in order to create luck in all areas of life. The ones at Gōtoku-ji tend to be all white with their right paw raised.
In the Shinto tradition, a worshiper can receive a paper fortune called an o-mikuji in exchange for a small donation (usually about five yen). Tying your slip of paper to a tree after reading will increase your luck; or in the case of bad fortune, attach it to the greenery, allowing you to escape unscathed.
Maneki Neko range from the very large (close to two feet) to the very tiny (be sure to check out the pebble-sized versions resting on the heads and feet of the larger sculptures). To quote a popular belief—size doesn’t matter. However, some owners have taken it on themselves to customize their waving cats with mustaches, sombreros, and written messages.
Cats aren’t the only thing bringing luck at Gōtoku-ji. As per Japanese legend, anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes is granted a wish by the gods. Because of this, pilgrims often leave behind large strings of their origami handiwork, hung, on and around the cat sculptures.
Another Shinto tradition has seekers write prayers on small, postcard-sized wooden boards called ema, which are then hung at temples. Later they’re ritually buried. The ema at Gōtoku-ji are (naturally) cat themed.
In Japan, the color red symbolizes protection. In the cemetery, adjacent to the shrine, you’ll see multiple statues wearing bibs and hats in the hue as a way to expel demons and illness.
As you leave, be sure to keep your eyes out for additional Maneki Neko. Gōtoku-ji has become the symbol of the neighborhood. From apartment windows to a large version in the subway station, you’ll find plenty of waving cats wishing you all the luck you’ll need.