Getting Lucky at Tokyo’s Gōtoku–ji “Beckoning Cat” Temple


I turn the corner at Gōtoku–ji Temple and suddenly it feels like every (cat’s) eye is on me. There were hints of what was to come – the occasional plaster feline hidden among the carefully manicured gardens like a species–adjusted game of Where’s Waldo. But finally confronting a legion of iconic cat sculptures that stare back at you, arms up and blindingly white in the Tokyo sunshine, is a singular experience.

Despite some intimidating directions from various websites, Gōtoku–ji, also known as the “Beckoning Cat” temple, is a surprisingly straightforward seven–minute walk from a subway station of the same name. Tucked in the twisting streets of a quiet residential area of the Setagaya suburb, the temple grounds are well–used by locals. There are parents, turning the walkway into a bike lane for their children. Devoted Buddhists, pausing to pray. And tourists like me, who have come for the dizzying pleasure of visiting shrines covered with thousands of red–eared cat sculptures.

August 5, 2020
Beckoning cats peeping through the Gōtoku-ji Temple in Tokyo
Rows of Beckoning Cats in outdoor shelves at the Gōtoku-ji Temple in Tokyo

The heritage of these stoic guardians (known as maneki–neko or “beckoning cats”) can be traced back to one actual live cat named Tama. As the legend goes, Tama saved a starving monk by “waving” some passing samurai into his modest hut. After the monk shared his teachings, the samurai were so impressed that they dedicated their riches to his work, Gōtoku–ji was born and the cat’s good deed for its owner was immortalized.

Tama’s legacy lives on to this day in the waving cat statue, which is supposed to bring the opportunity of receiving good luck to its owner. Tradition states that if a cat’s left paw is raised, it’s meant to draw luck in business. A raised right paw signifies protection and blessings on home life. Choose wisely.

A display of Beckoning Cats stands in front of a tree at the Gōtoku-ji Temple in Tokyo

After posting a few shots to my Instagram account, I stop by the gift shop on my way out. Ema – the wooden prayer boards that decorate the temple – are available, as are Japanese–language paper fortunes called o–mikuji. But the real draw is an entire army of cat statues, some the size of a pebble and others as big as an actual overgrown kitten. I buy one of the more modestly proportioned felines and tuck it in my bag. Traditionally, I’m meant to bring it back to the temple on a future trip and leave it on the shrine as a retirement reward after its work is done. But regardless of whether this statue ever finds its way back to Tokyo or I just keep it as a souvenir, I know the trip has been worth it. I feel lucky already.