Friday, January 8, 2016

For Cat Lovers ... Gotokuji Temple and the Maneki Neko

The challenge I give myself each time I visit Tokyo is to get away from the usual, find a place off the beaten tourist track,  a place that looks so different from what the city is today.  If the place just happens to have a temple or a shrine, then that makes it even better. 
I had read about Gotokuji, a Buddhist temple made more interesting because it is known as the temple of the maneki neko or the waving cat.  For someone who has two cats and is just a shade off from being a weird cat lady,  I knew I just had to go and see it.  A few weeks ago, I was able to do just that.

Gotokuji is in Setagaya Ward, a suburb about 45 minutes away from Tokyo.
It takes a few train transfers to get to Miyanosaka where Gotokuji is but it's not that difficult to go to.    We came from Tokyo Station where we took the Marunouchi line to Otemachi.  
From Otemachi,  transfer to the lilac coloured Hanzomon line headed towards Shibuya.  
Once the train reaches Shibuya, the Hanzomon line becomes the Tokyu Den En-Toshi line.  
Don't get off the train but stay seated and get off at Sangen Jaya.  

At Sangen Jaya, follow the signs that will take you out of the station and towards the terminal 
of the Setagaya Line, a few minutes walk away.  The Setagaya Line consists of a two car tram, an  anachronism within the city's ultra modern subway system.

Sangen Jaya is where the Setagaya Line starts from.  Miyanosaka where you get off for Gotokuji, is the 7th stop and it takes just 8 minutes to get there.

The little two car tram moves through Setagaya's residential neighbourhoods,  giving me a front row view to someone's clothesline.  It's "home along da riles" (train tracks) and I love this side of Tokyo that I normally do not see.

When you get off the station at Miyanosaka, you won't get lost.  An arrow points you towards the direction of Gotokuji, just 250 meters away.  The two cats on top of the sign are portents of what is to come.

I was very surprised to see this long driveway lined with old and massive trees, leading up to the temple.  I was not expecting Gotokuji to be in such vast surroundings.

There is no one around when we walk through the gate.  There is a large urn for burning incense in front of the wooden worship hall.  The grounds are extensive, with several buildings and even a cemetery where a samurai and his family are buried.

A maple tree, still decked out in autumn colours stands by the temple bell.

There is a three-story wooden pagoda that stands across the bell tower. 

If you look up and look intently, you can see several figures of the maneki neko or the waving cat, carved on the facade.  

This is the Main Hall of Gotokuji.   It is a Zen temple but how did it become identified with the maneki neko?
Temple history states that this used to be just a shabby hut where a poor monk and his cat lived.
This monk loved the cat like his own child and one day,  asked the cat to bring him some fortune, since he was having difficulty making ends meet.
One afternoon some samurai passed by and saw the cat beckoning to them with his paw.  
They stopped and followed the cat inside. The monk served them some tea and asked them to rest.  Just then a strong thunderstorm started.  
In gratitude to the monk and the cat who saved them from getting drenched, one of the samurai, Naotaka Ii,  a high ranking officer of the Tokugawa Government,  bought a big tract of land, re-built and expanded the small temple.  
When the cat died, the monk buried him in the temple grounds.   
The maneki neko or waving cat was borne out of this story of the cat that invited  samurai in to the temple, thus changing his owner's fortunes forever.

Beside the Main Hall,  I find the biggest maneki neko I have ever seen,  standing in front of the temple's office.

Inside the office,  there are maneki neko are for sale -- from tiny ones that cost 300 yen to big ones that cost  several thousands.  There are amulets, ema or wooden prayer plaques and yes, temple seals are also available which the kind lady behind the window very carefully inscribed on my shuin-cho.  

While the Main Hall houses the statue of Buddha, there is smaller temple building completely dedicated to the maneki neko.

I peer inside and see several statues of cats on the altar. There are offerings of bottles of sake and other gifts and a huge board where hundreds of identical images of the maneki neko have their paws raised for all eternity.  I know it's an altar in a temple and perhaps it may be impolite to say this but I found it so very charming.  Kawaii desu ne.

Beside this building is an area where there are wooden racks and a small altar.  Hundreds, no -- thousands of maneki neko of all sizes are placed on top of every conceivable space.

Here they are, paws raised, beckoning you to come, sit and stay for a while.  
Today, people think of the maneki neko as a symbol of good luck in business but I much 
prefer this little cat's original story  -- how he simply did a good deed by beckoning to a stranger passing by.

There are so many maneki neko,  all bearing the same tranquil and welcoming air.  
There is even a lucky fellow ensconced on this Bodhisattva's knee. 
Visitors to the temple buy a maneki neko to leave behind which is why there are thousands crowding all available spaces in this little corner of the temple grounds.

I bought several small statues and like all the rest who have come before me,  I leave one statue here in Gotokuji.  I write down my name and the names of all my cats,  both past and present at the bottom and at the back of my maneki neko so that we will all be forever remembered in this temple dedicated to cats.

There is still some space on a ledge on this altar and Jay carefully places our little statue  on it. Can you see it,  I have encircled it in red.  
I say a little prayer of thanks that the maneki neko beckoned to me to come and visit Gotokuji,  
a truly heartwarming and remarkable place for a cat (and temple) lover like me.

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