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Maneki Neko territory: a visit to Asakusa and Imado Shrine

27 Jul

By Jean-Pierre Antonio, Suzuka International University, Japan

Twin beckoning cats welcome visitors to Imado Shrine in Asakusa, Tokyo

Asakusa is one of the main attractions in Tokyo, for both Japanese and foreign tourists. Getting there is easy. The Asakusa subway line and the Ginza subway line both stop there.

Asakusa is the name of the area that surrounds Senso-ji, a large temple complex with ancient roots. The area was also closely related to the bright lights of the entertainment world up until the post-war period. The lights were dimmed when the U.S. occupation forces imposed stricter prostitution laws and the more x-rated establishments had to close their doors. Never-the-less, today there is still plenty to see and do.

Once you pass through the famous main temple gate, called Kaminarimon, you will find a long row of small souvenir shops called Nakamise (literally means, “inside shops”). They sell all of the most popular and typical souvenirs, and some rather obscure ones too. Of course, as you browse through the shops you will see many maneki neko and that is only natural because Asakusa is the perfect environment for the maneki neko, as it has been a gathering place for buyers and sellers for hundreds of years. Merchant culture here stretches way back to the beginning of the Edo period. In fact, if you take a little stroll, away from Senso-ji, you will find a shrine connected with the very roots of maneki neko. This is Imado Shrine (jinja).

Walk back to the main gate, Kaminarimon, turn left and walk along a wide avenue. Within 10 minutes you will come to a main intersection, just before the road continues and crosses the Sumida river, Tokyo’s main water thoroughfare. Cross the intersection, turn left and you will enter the cool and shady Sumida Park, which runs along the river. Continue walking through the park for about 15-20 minutes. It might take you longer, however, as you will probably be tempted to stop and stare at the impressive sight of  Tokyo’s latest modern attraction on the other side of the river, Tokyo Sky Tree, currently the world’s tallest tower.

When you come to the end of the park, continue walking along Edo Avenue, and in about 5-10 minutes you will come to a spot where another road splits off to the left from Edo Avenue. At this point, it’s best to stop somebody and ask them where Imado Shrine is. It’s close, but a little difficult to explain clearly here. Once you’re there, though, you’ll know right away that you have arrived in maneki neko territory. Pass through the tori gate and you will see masses of round, wooden votive tablets (ema). These are the wishes of shrine visitors.

Imado shrine (note the boards hung with ema prayer plaques on either side of the path before the shrine)

Imado Shrine is known for its matchmaking powers, so many messages are related to finding the right partner. As you approach the shrine, you will see two granite maneki neko sitting on a plinth at the base of the shrine stairs. At the top of the stairs there are two very large maneki neko standing at the entrance to the shrine [see top photo]. A bit intimidating! Go back down the stairs and to the right is a small shrine sales office where you can buy the ema and also different kinds of charms, all showing the maneki neko image.

Maneki Nekos on display near the office at Imado Shrine

Scene from the video played at Imado Shrine

Next to the office there is another small building containing a varied and extremely colourful collection of maneki neko dolls, creating their own sacred space. There is also a small TV which plays a dvd of the maneki neko dance, performed by some shrine maidens and a TV personality, whose name I forget. It’s bizarre and hilarious and, of course, very cute. All in all, it’s a true hot-spot for maneki neko. But why?

Imado Shrine is in an area called Imado, and in days long gone, many potters lived there, and they produced a kind of pottery that came to be known as Imado ware. Some of the earliest examples of maneki neko were made here, so this is, in a way, the birthplace of maneki neko. I can just imagine some sharp merchant at Asakusa back in the Edo period hearing one of the legends of the maneki neko, then going to nearby Imado and commisioning a potter to make some figures of a cat with an upraised paw to sell in his shop. The rest is history. From Imado and Asakusa, maneki neko has spread around the world.

Watering can beckoning cats, some of the unique maneki nekos for sale in Asakusa

Unfortunately, there are no potters living in Imado anymore, but back at Senso-ji, in the Nakamise area, you will find a shop called Sukeroku. It is the second from the end on the right, close to Senso-ji temple, and if you don’t slow down you might just pass it by, which would be really unfortunate. The shop has been run by the same family for about 150 years, since the end of the Edo period, and they sell all sorts of small, handmade ceramic figures. Some are replicas of toys from the Edo period and some are tiny scenes of Edo period street-life. In a space that allows no more than two customers at a time, you can see hundreds of these tiny figures lining the shelves. Of course, there are many variations of the maneki neko –some very humorous, some I’d never seen anywhere else. Spend some time in the shop and you will step back in time to the days when all of Edo’s citizens came to Asakusa to pray and play and eat and laugh, and perhaps, also buy a maneki neko to take back to their homes.

Lucky Cat in lost Japantown

23 May

When the friendly waitress handed me this plate during dinner at a Japanese restaurant this past weekend, I knew there would be a story to share. Kudos restaurant is located in an old wooden house covered with vines on a tiny street in a small Vancouver island town where I least expected to find a Japanese restaurant. The meal was delicious, the waitress  and cook (I think they were also the owners) were welcoming and generous (serving us more than one on-the-house item) . . .

and Maneki Neko turned up in more than one spot.

It wasn’t until our after-dinner stroll around the block that we came across a mural and sign and realized that we were walking through what had once been a tiny but thriving Japantown.

Before WW II, the small sawmill town of Chemainus on Vancouver Island had a Japanese community of about 300 people. During the war, Canadians of Japanese descent were removed to internment camps (losing their homes and businesses), and many did not return afterward. Chemainus fell on hard times in the early 1980s when its mill closed, but transformed itself into a tourist destination as a town of outdoor murals. Though little remains of the original Japanese community, it is remembered in one of these murals.

The owners of Kudos restaurant (9875 Maple St –around the corner from the Hospital auxiliary thrift store in the lower part of Chemainus) immigrated from Japan a decade or so ago, and are part of a new community, which depends less on natural resource industries (though the mill has reopened) and more on arts, culture and tourism, (the town is now known for its murals, eclectic shops, and live theatre).

Maneki Neko Matsuri

2 Dec

Photos by Jean-Pierre Antonio, Suzuka, Japan

Each year at the end of September, the city of Seto, Japan (located about 25 kilometres northeast of Nagoya) celebrates Maneki Neko, the cat that beckons good fortune. Lucky Cats appear all over the city (for sale in shops and on tables along the streets, on display in restaurants and other venues), children as well as adults roam the streets with their faces painted like cats, and a general atmosphere of fun and good humour prevails (with all the painted faces, the mood is reminiscent of North American Halloween).

As well as hosting the Maneki Neko Matsuri (or festival), Seto is home to the Maneki Neko Museum, where over 1000 beckoning cats can be viewed all year. Seto is also one of Japans oldest and most renowned pottery towns (dating back over 1000 years). Seto kilns have been producing a distinctive style of finely crafted beckoning cat statue since the 1890s (more elegant and slim than the plump round-faced cat holding a gold coin, which was first produced in the neighbouring city of Tokoname in the 1950s).

Show me your Nekos, New York! *

1 Aug

By Jacqueline Pearce, author of the children’s book, Mystery of the Missing Luck (http://wildink.wordpress.com/)

Although Lucky Cats are originally from Japan, the world’s Chinatowns are a great place to find them. And what better place to look than in one of the largest and oldest Chinatowns in North America, New York City’s? Even before I got to Manhattan’s Chinatown neighbourhood I spied some gold Lucky Cats amid the New York souvenirs on a street vendor’s cart near Battery Park.

I love the old buildings, colours, and wrought iron fire escapes in New York’s Chinatown. By 1870, there were about 200 Chinese immigrants living in the neighbourhood around Mott Street, Park, Pell and Doyers Streets, east of the notorious Five Points district, which was New York’s most derelict and overcrowded slum area at the time. By 1900, there were 7,000 Chinese residents in the area, but fewer than 200 were women (thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made it difficult for the men who had come to North America to work on the railroads, etc. to then bring their wives and families over).

Today, there are 90,000-100,000 residents in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but growth has slowed due to high rents, and many Chinese immigrants are now moving to suburbs or the newer Chinatown neighbourhoods of Flushing and Brooklyn.

I don’t know when the first Lucky Cats found their way to New York, but walking along streets such as Hester, Pell and Canal today, they look back at you from many windows.

(Notice the “I ♥ China” hats in front of the shop below)

(Lucky Cat or Lucky Rabbit?)

(Ever wonder what the Lucky Cat sees as it looks out at you?)

There were no signs of any Lucky Cats/Maneki Nekos in the very good Japanese restaurant I ate dinner in on my last night in New York, but I don’t think I saw a single Chinese restaurant without one. Here’s the one that welcomed me on my first night in the city, performing its beckoning job well (luckily, the food was good too).

Goodbye, New York! I had a lot of fun searching out your Lucky Cats (not to mention a few other sights). Keep those paws beckoning (you too, Liberty), and I’ll be back.

*Thanks to Marlene Zach, one of Lucky Cat – Maneki Neko‘s fans on Facebook, for the phrase used in the title of this post

Grinning Lucky Cats

17 May

These unusual Maneki Neko with laughing open mouths caught the eye of photographer James Kemlo in a craft shop in Atami on the Izu peninsula, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan.  The Lucky Cats hold fans, swords, umbrellas and fish, rather than the usual gold coin. Instead of sitting straight up in the standard beckoning cat pose, they lounge around, looking quite casual and joyous. Perhaps their wide, laughing mouths give them extra beckoning power –like they’re having a party you’re welcome to join. The three Lucky Cats in the store window display were each a different color – one blue, one white, and one red (a change from the more common white or black). Each one is hand-made individually by a local craftsperson from clay and kiln-fired. 

For more of James Kemlo’s photos of Japan, check out his Views of Japan blog. You can also find him on Twitter @JapanPhotos.

The Road to Gotokuji

13 Apr

There are several legends about the origin of Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat statue that is said to bring good luck to its owner. The most widely accepted story goes back to a poor temple in early 17th century Japan (and is documented in temple records).

The temple, which became known as Gotokuji, was located in the village of Setagaya near Edo (now Tokyo). Although the temple priest barely had enough food for himself, he took in a stray white cat, who he called Tama. The situation at the temple worsened, and one day, the priest told Tama that he might be better off leaving and fending for himself. The cat did not go far, however. Tama sat beside the road near the temple preening himself (the way cats often do) as a storm began to brew. A samurai Lord and his men stopped to shelter under a nearby tree. When the samurai, Lord Ii Naotaka of Hikone, saw Tama’s paw raised as if beckoning to him, he approached the cat. As the samurai and his men moved away from the tree, it was struck by lightning. The cat had saved their lives. Lord Ii followed Tama to the temple, where he and his men were welcomed by the priest.

Grateful, and impressed by the priest, Lord Ii became the patron of the temple. Thanks to the lucky cat, the temple prospered. Later, when Tama died, he was given a place of honour in the temple cemetery, and the first beckoning cat statue was created in his memory. Word spread, and people began placing figurines of beckoning cats in their homes, shops and temples, believing it would bring them good luck and prosperity. Over time, the Lucky Cat statue became popular in China and eventually other countries as well.

Gotokuji Temple still exists, though what was once the village of Setagaya is now a suburb of Tokyo. Under the patronage of the Ii clan, Gotokuji expanded, and now includes a large graveyard where many important members of the Ii family are buried, a large Butsuden Buddha hall, a worship hall, a small older temple dedicated to Maneki Neko, a newly built wooden pagoda decorated with carved Maneki Nekos, and an office where Maneki Nekos statues and wooden emas (votive plaques) can be purchased.

(Small Maneki Neko temple on the large grounds of present-day Gotokuji)

(Gotokuji Pagoda -decorated with carved Maneki Neko)

The statues (purchased at the temple office) are customarily left as a kind of offering on outdoor shelves, which are filled with white cat statues (though the cats may also be kept as souvenirs).

Wishes or prayers are written on the back of the emas and hung on an outdoor board. People may pray or wish for any desire, but concern for pet cats is a special focus at Gotokuji (the temple’s graveyard is even said to have a section for the graves of beloved cats).

In Lord Ii’s day, it would have been a long horseback ride (or an even longer walk) from Edo to Setagaya. Today, it is a 20 minute train ride along the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku to Gotokuji station, then about a 15-20 minute walk from the station to Gotokuji Temple.

Emerging from the modern train station beside a Macdonalds Restaurant, it’s hard to imagine the old narrow dirt road that must have passed by the temple in Lord Ii’s time.

But walking along the bustling row of small shops following the Beckoning Cat street banners, there are glimpses of a past way of life in the laughter exchanged between neighbouring shopkeepers, an old woman serving noodles in a family-run restaurant, futons draped over a fence to air beside the road….

Turning off the busy road and away from the banners, there is a sense of stepping back into a less hurried time and onto a kind of pilgrimage. After walking along a quiet back street of modest houses and gardens, you eventually come alongside a tall white wall with the tops of grave markers visible beyond. Follow the wall until you come to the gate, and you have reached Gotokuji Temple, the home of the first Maneki Neko. Whether or not you believe in the magic of Maneki Neko, you know you have arrived some place special.

(Entrance gate at Gotokuji Temple, Setagaya, Tokyo)