Gotokuji Temple

Gotokuji Temple is believed to be the place where maneki-neko originated.

It took us three tries this week, but Brett and I finally were able to visit Gotokuji Temple, located just a short distance away from our apartment by train and on foot. We initially set out for a visit on Wednesday, but had a disagreement over getting to the station that heated up to the point that neither of us was in a mood to go anywhere with each other that day (sigh). We got that settled though, and were ready to try again on Thursday, but just as we were heading out of the apartment the heavens opened up, so not a good day to be outside visiting a temple. We went over to our son’s instead. But, this morning we woke up to blue skies and warmer temperatures, so off we went!

The Senmon (main) Gate of Gotokuji.

According to Japanese legend, Gotokuji Temple is where maneki-neko (lucky cats) originated. During the early Edo period (1603-1868), one night a cat supposedly led a feudal lord to shelter at this temple during a fierce thunderstorm, beckoning with its paw to show the direction. Because he was able to stay safe and warm during the storm, the lord donated rice and land to the temple, and chose the Gotokuji cemetery for his family burial site. Later, it began to be said that the cat brought good fortune, and it was given the name of maneki-neko. These days maneki-neko cat figures always have one paw raised to beckon, either the left or right, but Gotokuji specializes in the lucky right-pawed version of the cat.

A large bronze vessel sits in front of the main temple.
The beautiful pagoda – the sight of one always make me catch my breath.
A look under the eaves of the pagoda shows the amazing woodwork and design of the roofs.

We were a bit surprised by the size of the temple and its well-tended grounds when we entered – we had been expecting something much smaller. The temple complex contained several buildings, including a towering pagoda, the main temple, a meeting hall, a temple shop, and several smaller temples and pagodas. We were not the only visitors either – there were also a few other small groups while we were there.

One of two large boards hung with ema (prayer boards).  The little boards are stacked several deep.
Each ema was adorned with a picture of a maneki-neko, and many also had a pig (boar) because it’s the Year of the Pig. Prayers or requests are written on the back of an ema and left at the temple to be carried to heaven.
Bad fortunes are tied to the branch of a pine tree and left behind at the temple; good fortunes are taken home.

Walking over to the cat temple we spotted two large boards where hundreds ema (prayer boards) were hung, each with a picture of a maneki-neko on the front. Visitors purchase a board, and write their prayers and wishes on the back to leave at the temple – these can include requests for healing, to pass a test, to get a promotion, to have a safe childbirth and so forth. There was also a small pine tree with omikuji (fortunes) tied to the branches. Good fortunes are taken with you, bad fortunes are left behind at the temple.

So many cats!
Maneki-neko figures ranged in size from large to very tiny.
A small shrine is being engulfed by maneki-neko figures, but room has been made for a few more down in the lower left.

We finally came upon the collection of maneki-neko figures – there seemed to be more than a thousand of them arranged at the side of one of the smaller temples, and seeing them all together was quite impressive. The maneki-neko figures ranged in size from large to extremely small, and most were neatly arranged on wooden shelves provided for them, but others were tucked into small shrines or even into the big stone lanterns around the temple. The cat figures are purchased at the temple shop, and visitors can either leave their figure at the temple (along with a wish) or take the figure home and return it to the temple when the wish has been fulfilled.

Smaller maneki-neko figures were also placed in and around small shrines or inside lanterns.
The entrance to the Gotokuji cemetery.

Beside the temple is its cemetery. Usually cemeteries are closed in Japan, but this one was open. Filled with towering trees, it looked very peaceful and interesting, but we decided not to go in.

Our train arrives to take us home! The line was really more like a tram with just two cars, and which wove though mainly residential neighborhoods versus stopping in commercial areas.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover it was just a short walk back to the station from the main gate as we had accidentally gone the long way around the back of the temple when we arrived. Before boarding the train Brett and I stopped at the convenience market next to the station and picked up a couple of bentos to have for dinner. We left almost feeling glad we had failed to make it to Gotokuji earlier in the week as we ended up getting to visit on what turned out to be the perfect day for it.

6 thoughts on “Gotokuji Temple

    1. You would think there might be live cats there but there aren’t, or at least we didn’t see any or any evidence of live cats. However, many of the shops and restaurants around the temple have a cat theme.

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  1. I love learning about the history of the Maneki-neko! What a beautiful place. I’m always surprised at how old buildings are in other parts of the world. So many places in America, even the “old” buildings are spring chickens compared to the rest of the world.

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    1. Gotoku-ji is now on my list of favorite Japanese places – it really was interesting and a very beautiful place.

      I’m pretty sure the buildings are not very old as pretty much everything in Tokyo was destroyed during World War II. But, the Japanese use of natural wood which they allow to age makes many of the buildings that were built after the war look much older than they are (they look several hundred years old, but are really less than 75 years old). The one place where all the old buildings are authentically old is Kyoto, which was spared from Allied bombing.

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  2. The temple is beautiful (that pagoda!) and I love the story of the cat and the manikin-neko. You do such a great job explaining legends and history. The ema seem analogous to lighting candles in a Christian cathedral? And leaving bad fortunes on a tree. It’s all so interesting. And it does look like a perfect day for the visit.

    I had to smile at your description of why you didn’t go out Wednesday. We’ve had those days while traveling, too (and at home!), and it’s good to let them blow over. 🙂

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    1. I did not expect to see a pagoda, and like I said, my breath caught when I saw it. The whole complex is really lovely and I imagine it’s even more beautiful when the leaves are on the trees or the cherry blossoms are in bloom. We did get to go on a lovely day although it was quite windy.

      The analogy for the ema with the candles is a good one – not the same but the concept sort of is. I know several people who collected them from all the different temples and shrines they visited in Japan – the designs really are pretty. WenYu filled out the back of one when we were in Kyoto in 2015 with a request to do well on her tests as she was going through her college testing at the time (and she did).

      We gave some Japanese people quite a show on Wednesday! It wasn’t a particularly pleasant day, but we’re both glad the air got cleared.

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