Have you seen a porcelain, white and orange waving cat figurine at the entrance of a local business? You’ve probably figured out that it’s supposed to bring good luck, but do you know its name and where it originated? Was it a real pet or just a legend? Bunny and Carma have kindly invited me to share the story of this special cat.
I do believe that a cat can bring incredible luck. For example, the photo above (without my awful photoshopping efforts!!) was what brought my husband and I together. Saus was my hubby’s kitten first and when he shared a photo of her on his dating profile, I was incredibly interested! Of course, I wasn’t just after his cat, but the fact that he was a pet owner made me confident that he was a caring and responsible guy.
I was right, and here we are 3 years later - husband and wife with the addition of a naughty little brother for Saus. His name is Poki and he’s a lovely cat, very relaxed, unlike his sis. But he does like to get up to mischief whenever he gets the chance! Saus acts like a mother to him rather than a sister sometimes. I think they balance each other out well. Anyway, enough about my two, let’s get back to the story of the mythical lucky cat.
Last year I was delighted to get the chance to get to visit the temple where (supposedly) the real lucky cat lived back in the 16th century. It’s called Gotokuji temple and is situated in Setagaya, a quiet suburb of Tokyo, Japan. Before I get into the story of that temple and its resident feline, let me share what I learned about this legendary kitty.
In Japan, these porcelain (or plastic, depending on how fancy you want to get!) figurines are called maneki neko. It literally means “beckoning cat”. They always have one paw raised - beckoning or inviting visitors. They’re modeled on the Japanese bobtail breed. If you find a maneki neko statue, check the back, there won’t be a tail. Don’t worry, it’s a genetic trait, not an act of cruelty. Maneki neko are usually plain white or calico.
Maneki neko are often depicted with a bright red collar and golden bell. Not only is this look adorable - it’s a historic representation of cats in the historical period the cat is said to have lived. Check out the kitty in this print from 1888, he’s looking stylish, isn’t he?
So now we know the lucky cat’s breed, why he wore a collar and the meaning of his raised paw. But who was he? There are a few alternate theories. Let’s start with Gotokuji temple.
Gotokuji used to be an impoverished temple in ill repair back in the 16th century. Inside lived a monk and his cat, struggling to survive on his small wage. One day, during a severe storm, a lord and his servants were passing through the nearby area looking for shelter. While resting under a tree, the lord saw a small white cat beckoning them to follow. The cat led them to safety in Gotokuji temple. While the lord and his servants enjoyed tea with the monk, the tree they had been standing under was struck by lightning.
Feeling that he owed his life to the cat and the monk, the lord made a huge donation to the temple and designated it as the burial ground for his prestigious family. When the cat passed away, the first maneki neko statue was created in his honor. In fact, to this day, Gotokuji temple is known as the cat temple. I saw for myself that it’s filled with hundreds of pristinely kept porcelain statues.
The whole area around the temple has taken on a cat theme, actually! It was wonderful to explore. Not only do local businesses proudly display maneki neko figurines, many sell kitty souvenirs and adorn their walls with feline murals
Now, I do really want this story to be true. Gotokuji temple is an amazing place to visit - for cat lovers or regular tourists. It’s so serene and peaceful, you can almost feel the history envelop you.
However, I want to make this post truly informative so here are some alternative theories for the origin of the lucky cat:
- A Chinese proverb says that a cat washing his face (not beckoning) signals the arrival of visitors. This translates into customers for a business, therefore good luck.
- A cat started hanging out outside a failing business (temple, inn or tavern, depending on the storyteller) and beckoned customers inside.
- A cat warned a noble lord of a trap set ahead of him.
- A poor old woman had to sell her cat to survive. The cat appeared to her in a dream and told her to make maneki neko figures to sell.
I don’t know about you, but all of this has left me with a big desire to get a red collar with a golden bell for my white kitty and see what luck comes my way! Which is your favorite version of the story? Would you display a maneki neko ornament in your home? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.
Author bio: Annie Cooper blogs at catobsessed.com. She lives in Australia with her husband and two very fluffy felines. Apart from cats, Anne loves traveling, DIYing and all things cute.