Come for the cats, stay for the scenery.
Given a short window of good (well, sunny – it’s still 33 degrees) weather amidst what’s looking like a stormy final week of summer break, I decided to visit one of the places that’s been on my list ever since I moved to Tokyo. Gotokuji is a 17th-Century temple in Setagaya, which was a village then and is a suburb of Tokyo now. It still feels a lot farther from the hustle and bustle of the city than the 15-minute ride from Shinjuku it is, though – it’s a pretty quiet area with lots of small shops, big trees and the Setagaya Line, one of the only two tramways still operating in Tokyo.
Gotokuji is mostly famous as the purported birthplace of the Maneki-neko, the “beckoning cat” that’s eponymous at Asian restaurants and shops all over the world. There are several origin stories but Gotokuji’s is one of the more reputable, and supported by temple records of the time. The temple priest had a white cat named Tama, which a passing feudal lord from Hikone (Shiga) named Ii Naotaka saw beckoning to him as he and his men took shelter under a tree in a storm. Seconds later the tree was struck by lightning, and Naotaka took this to mean that the cat had saved his life. As thanks he became the benefactor of the temple, which went from being dirt poor to one of the richest in Edo over the course of Naotaka’s patronage. As the legend grew, it also became a traditional place for pilgrims to make offerings of Maneki-neko.
What surprised me about Gotokuji is both the sheer size of it – it’s quite an extensive temple complex by Tokyo standards – and the beauty of the grounds and buildings. It’s a bit out of the way but as I said, only 15 minutes from Shinjuku – it’s surprising it isn’t more popular on the tourist circuit as extant temples from this early are rare here, especially ones this striking. It even has a period three-storied pagoda that’s one of the prettiest I’ve seen in Tokyo.