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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.