Monday, 11 September 2017

Gotokuji Temple and the Spiritual power of Japan- K's Guest Contribution

Hello everyone!

I am honoured to have been asked to contribute to this blog! When I was initially asked, I knew right away what topic I wanted to touch on- so today I want to share one of my experiences while I was travelling around Japan earlier this year.

If you are a great lover of cats as much as I am, then you would be delighted by the charming Gotokuji Temple, hidden in Tokyo's Setagaya district. This Buddhist temple is largely famous due to the claim that it is the birthplace of the well-loved and well-known Maneki Neko, or lucky cat.

 The legend states that during the Edo period of Japan's history, a cat being cared for by a priest at the Gotokuji Temple helped aid a feudal lord to safety during a vicious thunderstorm. The cat appeared to motion for the lord and his servants to come inside with a waving gesture, which is why all the maneki-neko statues have one paw raised.
The lord had tea with the priest while the thunderstorm continued, and once it had passed he expressed his gratitude by donating rice and land to the humble temple. The lord also chose the temple site as the cemetery for his prestigious family. The Maneki-neko is now a figure tied to good fortune and the supernatual in Japan.

When you visit the temple today, you can see Maneki-neko figures on display around a statue of the Goddess of mercy, Kannon....and just about everywhere else! Hundreds of these sweet little figures are dotted around the main buildings and grounds.

Surrounding Kannon

So many!

On the second-to-last day before leaving Japan, I was very sad and reluctant to come back home. My travelling companion had fallen ill, and I had decided that I would have the day to myself and attempt to find this cute temple hidden in the suburbs of Tokyo.  I've always been deeply fascinated by Japanese culture and religion, and Gotokuji temple had been high on my list of temples to visit during by first stay in Japan.

Once you arrive at Gotokuji Station, there is cute cat art everywhere that guides you towards the temple:

Cooking up some Yakitori on the way to Gotokuji

Cat guides helping you find your way to the temple

There are cats nearly every corner you look around

However, about 5 minutes into my walk, I soon lost sight of these cat markers along the roads and grew a little worried. Luckily I had my trusty pocket wi-fi and Google Maps to help me out, but surely the temple couldn't be down these quaint little Japanese neighbourhood-back alleys
I was wandering further and further down? It was a beautiful, sunny, cool winter morning, and I decided to keep optimistic.

Sure enough though, after another ten minutes or less I stumbled upon the large, gated compound that houses the temple and surrounding buildings/cemetery. I wandered around the perimeter until I came upon the main Torii gate that welcomes visitors into the temple grounds.

Wandering inside, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I was the only person here. After experiencing the hectic busy pace at temples like Meiji Jingu in Harajuku and Sensoji in Asakusa for New Year's, there was a completely different feeling stepping onto these sacred grounds. It was incredibly serene and respectful, with a gentle feeling of quiet and peace. I felt such a wonderful feeling of calm spread over me, soothing my sadness and anxiety about going home the next day. It also felt strangely nostalgic, but I couldn't describe how or why- only that it felt right to be there. The garden paths are beautifully maintained and they led me to a large incense burner, where I cleansed myself with the smoke before carrying onwards.

I first came upon the Ema board of the temple. Ema are small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshippers (or anyone really!) will write their prayers or wishes. They are then hung up at the shrine where the Kami (gods) are said to receive them. Ema are sold for various wishes, popular ones being victory in work or on school exams, relationship or marriage blessings, and good health. The Ema are sold for a small fee, which helps the shrine financially. Of course, as this was around New Year's, there were many Ema hanging up with good wishes and messages for the New Year!

Ema with wishes for the New Year

The Ema will often have an animal or other type of imagery, and it was no surprise that the Ema at Gotokuji depicted a Maneki Neko, alongside a Rooster, as it is now the Year of the Rooster in the zodiac calendar.

I decided not to purchase an Ema this time around, as I had a different idea of how I wanted to set my intention at this temple. 
Just behind the Ema board was a long red rope hanging with a bell, which looks similar to one worn on a cat's collar. This is know as a Suzu, and by pulling on it and ringing the bell, you bring in the good spirits and repel the bad ones. 


After this, I wandered around the grounds, taking in all the sights, including the Buddhist cemetery off to the left of the grounds, where I walked quietly and reflectively amongst the grave markers:

Once I was satisfied, I went into the area with all of the cat statues. I've never seen so many in all my life!

The gift shop on the temple grounds sells these statues for a modest price which you can take home.  I bought one for myself and one for my mom. The cats are seen as a sign of giving thanks and strengthening intention, and once yours has been delivered with good fortune, you can bring it back to the temple and add it to the shrine's collection if you wish.

Maybe next time.  =^..^=

After wandering around a bit more and sitting in the gentle sunlight enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, I decided it was time to make my offering and set my prayer. The main building for this is located at the heart of the grounds:

You throw your small donation into a box located behind a wooden partition and then say your prayers to the gods. I had been wondering what on earth I was going to ask for, or what sort of intention I wanted to set- but as I spent time in this peaceful temple which had such a good feeling about it, my wish became clear.

For some time, I had been unhappy with my living situation. I wanted something to change, even if small. I had no idea what I was going to do, but my trip to Japan had only solidified the fact that I needed to get out of where I currently was.  

I threw in my money and clapped my hands together, fervently wishing that my wish or intention be fulfilled. Once I felt I had completed what I came to do, I stepped back down into the courtyard and bought a small fortune from the box in the gift shop. If your fortune is a bad one, you are supposed to tie it to the tree outside to prevent bad things from happening to you, but mine was all in Japanese, only some of which I could read! It didn't sound all that bad though, and I kept it.

It was now time for me to leave Gotokuji, or so I had thought. Something kept telling me I wasn't quite ready to go back to my apartment, that I should linger just a little longer. I was starting to get a little hungry, so I went outside of the temple gates and stood under a shady tree, pulling out some Onigiri I had packed for a light lunch.

 Just as I started eating quietly in the corner, a cat came came out of nowhere, walking down the center of the walkway from inside the temple grounds and right down the center of the Torii gate. Traditionally, walking down the middle of the path under a Torii gate is reserved for the gods only, and everyone else must walk to the sides.  I had seen no cats inside the temple grounds- there was no mention of them or evidence of them being there. Where had this little one come from??
As I watched, astonished, the cat slowly and calmly came before the statue situated outside the Torii gate, placed his two front paws on it

and then stared me dead in the eyes 

We stayed locked in eye contact for a few moments before the cat broke it off and then walked away, quickly disappearing as quickly as it had come. I felt something strange come over me as it walked away.

What had I just witnessed?

I quickly headed back to the train station, unsure of what had happened. I quickly texted my half-Japanese friend, who had been on this trip with me but had headed home a few days before. I had never thought her to be one for anything spiritual, but a few things we had talked about on the trip changed my tune.

Once I had finished describing what had happened, her answer back was quick and confident.

"The gods work in mysterious ways".

With this in mind, I headed back to the apartment, and packed my bags to fly home, still sad about leaving but hopeful for the future.

The next morning, I was awoken early by a text from my landlady. She was writing me to tell me she was selling the house and property I lived on, and that I had a few months to figure out new living arrangements. She was going to pursue her dream of building and living in a container home, and she thanked me for all my years of being a good tenant.

I stared at my phone, completely dumbfounded.

My prayers had been answered.

*Phew*!  Thanks for reading that long rant of a story everyone!  Please leave comments below for us if you've ever visited somewhere truly magical or had a magical experience while travelling!




  1. Oh I enjoyed the post so much! I had no idea that cats were so important in Japan. And the gods DO work in mysterious ways!