Animal Local

Gotokuji: The Sacred Site of the Lucky Cat

If you’ve visited Japan, we are sure that you would have visited a temple or shrine of some kind during your time here. However, this article introduces a truly unique, one of a kind temple – Gotokuji. This is a must see for animal lovers, especially those fond of cats!

What is a “lucky cat”?

A lucky cat (or “Maneki-Neko” in Japanese) is an ornamental cat that is used to welcome visitors with its waving hand. Cats were historically seen as a sign of prosperity for sericulture (silk production) due to their predation of mice who eat silkworms and other agricultural crops. Since sericulture became less prevalent, cats have become a general sign of prosperity, not specific to sericulture only as it had been initially. This is the reason why you will often find cat decorations in and outside many Japanese food and drink establishments. It is likely that you may spot some on your travels.

What is “Gotokuji(豪徳寺)”

Gotokuji, located in Setagaya, Tokyo was originally set up as a temporary residence for Kira Yoritaka’s(吉良頼高) daughter, built by Kira Masatada(吉良政忠). It was originally part of the Rinzai sect, but became part of the Soto sect from 1584.

Most if the roads in the area are quite narrow and therefore most of the buildings are also rather small to compensate for this. However, once you enter Gotokuji via the mountain gates of Mount Daikei, the inside is wide and spacious, in contrast to the surrounding area of Setagaya.

When the Setagaya territory became the jurisdiction of the Hikone clan in 1633, the Hikone lord owner Naotaka Ii(井伊直孝) set up the now Gotokuji as a “Bodaiji(菩提寺)” – a temple to celebrate the family ancestors.
The initial name given to the temple was “久昌院殿豪徳天英居士” and this was eventually shortened to Gotokuji(豪徳寺), as it is known today.

The origin of the sacred site of the lucky cat

Even though Gotokuji belonged to the Ii and Hikone families, why is it known as a Bodaiji temple (a type of buddhist temple that commemorates family ancestors and where burial ceremonies for the spirit are performed). Below we explain its historical origin.

Ii Naotaka was returning home one day after finishing falconry practice, and it was said that he was invited into a building by a cat. At that moment, the heavens opened and torrential rain started pouring. Naotaka was happy not only to being saved from the rain, but also being able to listen to the words of buddhist priests. It was then that Naotaka Ii decided to make this building into a Bodhi temple, which became known as Gotokuji.

It is from that day that there is a shrine dedicated to cats in the temple precincts, known as the “Maneki-Neko(招き猫)” (literally – “the beckoning cats”). It is also from this story that there is also a feline mascot at Hikone castle(彦根城), known as “Hiko-nyan(ひこにゃん)”. (“Nyan” is the onomatopoeic sound for cats in Japanese).

There are numerous beckoning cats on the left hand of the shrine, in dedication to it. Gotokuji is said to be one of the birth places of the “Maneki-neko”. One particular characteristic of the Maneki Neko in Gotokuji is that they wave using the right hand and do not have a “Koban” (an elliptical gold coin) and are therefore a simple and elegant form of the Maneki-neko. You can buy one of them from Gotokuji for around 300 yen.

You may have seen the Maneki-neko around Japan as they have quite a level of ubiquity, but did you know the story behind their origin? If you didn’t before, you do now, and this knowledge is sure to impress your friends interested in Japan. We highly recommend visiting this temple, easily accessible in Tokyo, although is still a unique treasure hidden in plain sight.

Gotoku-ji (豪徳寺)

- Address: 2-24-7 Gotokuji, Setagaya-ku Tokyo  154-0021
- Access: A 10-minute walk from Gotokuji station, a 5-minute walk from Miyanosaka station
- Opening hours: AM9:00 ~ PM5:00
- Admission: Free
- Tel:+81-3-3426-1437

Photos: Kota Wada

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Koki Miyashita

Author & Editor