It’s no secret that Japan is a cat-loving nation. From cat cafés and cat-infested islands to an unofficial cat holiday—Nyan Nyan Nyan Day, held on February 22—our friendly feline friends have won the hearts of giggling children of all ages. It’s really no surprise, then, that Tokyo has its own cat-themed temple.
Gotokuji, located in a quiet pocket of Setagaya, has long been attracting visitors for its immense collection of cat statues. But these are not just any cat statues—these are of a familiar variety: ones you usually see at the forefront of businesses. Called maneki neko, these figures are considered to possess superstitious charms that beckon in customers, and therefore the big bucks, with one paw held high.
The origin of this cute talisman is rather disputed, though most agree it hails from either Tokyo or Kyoto. One popular story states that during the Edo Period, the feudal lord of Hikone Castle was beckoned into Gotokuji by a cat. Soon after, a thunderstorm came through, sparing the lord from its wrath. Grateful to the cat, the lord decided to make his new friend Shobyo Kannon a god, and the neglected temple was restored and ceremoniously bought for his family. Since that time, visitors have adorned the temple with maneki neko figurines in gratitude of their own wishes coming true. Gotokuji now possesses hundreds of these cats, weathered and standing proud.
The temple makes for a unique excursion and is free to visit. While there isn’t much else to do in the immediate area, Setagaya proper is a short old-fashioned tram ride away. Gotokuji is smaller than most temples in Tokyo, and most of the complex is dedicated to a graveyard, worship hall, and a large Butsuden Buddha hall. Its renowned cat section is tucked away in a corner around the left side. Here you will find them piled on shelves and crammed into every crevice along the sidewalk.
Though maneki neko come in a variety of colors, the white ones reign supreme at Gotokuji, symbolizing happiness, purity, and positive energy—though you might be able to find an outlier hiding among the copycats. For extra good fortune, purchase an ema (wooden plaque) at the main office and write your wish on the back to be added to the stacks adorning the temple. Newly-minted maneki neko are also for sale, if you’d like to contribute to the ever-growing faux-feline population.
2-24-7 Gotokuji, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-3426-1437. Nearest station: Miyanosaka.