Many Japanese shops, restaurants and other businesses keep a little cat doll with its paw raised near their entrances. It is a common Japanese figurine – a lucky charm – called Maneki Neko, which literally means “beckoning cat”, and is believed to bring good luck and money to the owner. Usually made of ceramic or plastic, the figurine depict a cat with an upright paw as if beckoning people towards it. It is said that the raised paw brings in customers, while the other paw brings in good luck and wealth. Some modern Maneki Neko are battery-powered and have a slow-moving beckoning paw. Today, these figurines are becoming increasingly popular among merchants in other Asian countries as well, and just like the ubiquitous “laughing buddha” statues, the Maneki Neko have transcended all boundaries, both physical and religious. But their true home will always remain in Gotokuji, a temple in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward.
Gotokuji temple is tucked away in a relatively quiet residential neighborhood in the suburbs of Tokyo, and very easily missed if one did not know where to find the gate. The temple is small compared to others around Tokyo, but is said to be a very beautiful one with plants such as Japanese maple, gingko, and weeping cherry tree, as if it were a Japanese garden. In one corner of the temple in a small area with shelves dedicated to stacking as many cats as possible. Hundreds of them.
There are several legends about the origins of this cat charm, but the most one widely known story goes back to the Edo period. The story goes that a wealthy feudal lord from Hikone (a city in present-day Shiga Prefecture) was taking shelter under a tree near Gotokuji temple during a thunderstorm. The lord saw the temple priest's cat beckoning to him and followed. Moment later the tree was struck by lightning. The lord became so thankful of the cat’s deed that he donated large funds to make the temple grand and generous. When the cat died, the first Maneki Neko was supposed to have made in his honor. As time went on, people began to offer Maneki Neko figurines to the temple as a sign of gratitude when their wishes came true.
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