Animate or inanimate, cats are everywhere in Japan.
You can find them in cafés, gamboling on a picturesque island, working hard as a train station master, celebrated in cat festivals, enshrined in temples, depicted in films and mangas, celebrated as internet sensations, made into figurines and dolls, and even transformed into that furry bus we all love. (Give-away hint: Totoro)
Let’s try to uncover all the kawaii (かわいい；cute) cat-related things and events that can only be found throughout this cat-loving country.
To start off – how about a bit of luck?
That Lucky Cat
Chances are you have probably seen dozens of these “white cat with-a-paw-raised” figurines in a shop or temple somewhere in Japan. The Maneki Neko (招き猫; lucky cat) is all about good fortune and prosperity. Depending on the color, design and whether the left or right paw is raised - or in some cases both, the cat is thought to invite good luck in different aspects of human life.
White – which is the most common color of the Lucky Cat, is said to bring in happiness and positive ki (気; energy). Gold – which is famous among Chinese entrepreneurs, is for wealth and good business. Black figurines are intended to drive away any lurking evil spirits. Red, blue and green are respectively for robust health, safety in homes and excellence in school. The colors pink and yellow are thought to emanate good luck in the love department.
It is unquestionably a smorgasbord of positivity packed in the waving paw of a cute cat.
There are varying interpretations regarding the Lucky Cat’s raised paw, but the general rule of thumb is simple. If the right paw is raised, the cat is believed to attract money, while if the left paw is raised, the cat is believed to invite customers. Two paws raised beckon both money and customers.
If you find it dubious that this tiny cat has the ability to create good luck out of thin air, then a visit to two of Tokyo’s temples is a good place to start suppressing your doubts. In fact, the Lucky Cat has been transformed into a deity and enshrined so that you can pray for better luck at this temple. Gotukuji Temple (豪徳寺), in Tokyo houses the Lucky Cat deity while Imado Shrine (今戸神社) in Asakusa (浅草), Tokyo is famous for its pair of male and female Lucky Cats. The shrine is also well-known as a place to pray for luck in love.
The Lucky Cat is also known as The Beckoning Cat, The Welcoming Cat and The Fortune Cat in some parts of the world. It is often mistaken to be of Chinese origin – because of its popularity with Chinese merchants, but the concept is purely Japanese. Its history can be traced back to the Edo period, but consensus regarding the exact location of its origin is still up for debate. Some believe the Lucky Cat comes from Tokyo, while others claim it originated in Kyoto.
There are many cities that make Lucky Cat figurines, but Tokoname City (常滑市) in Aichi prefecture (愛知県) is by far the most prolific in its production of the Maneki Neko ceramic figurines. It is also in Tokoname where you can find a myriad of Lucky Cats mounted on a stretch of concrete wall, all of which are fashioned by local craftsmen.
The traditional Lucky Cat remains very popular to this day and has evolved into an iconic symbol of luck.
There are now a number of Maneki Neko Museums such as the ones in Seto City (瀬戸市) and in Okayama City (岡山市). In Gunma Prefecture (群馬県), there is The Association for Maneki Neko Japan for Lucky Cat enthusiasts. The Maneki Neko has been turned to Hiko-nyan (ひこにゃん) the castle mascot, and into the widely famous Pokémon, Meowth. It has even been commercialized into pocket-sized key chains, talismans, piggy banks, lunch boxes, watering cans, and all kinds of decorative and utilitarian pieces that you can easily buy in stores and temples around Japan.
What could be a better souvenir than a cute cat that brings a whole lot of luck?
All aboard the Cat Express
How does one revive a financially beleaguered railway station in a relatively secluded, less travelled neighborhood in the outskirts of a city?
Hire a cat as station master.
This is exactly what Wakayama Electric Railway (和歌山電鐵) did, when they took over Kishigawa Line (貴志川線) sometime in 2007. The company then took on the services of Tama (たま)– a female calico cat with a penchant for napping in all her glorious cuteness.
The move was a smashing success.
Tama’s adorable charm alone generated a huge surge in tourism and the much needed income for the town of Kinokawa (紀の川市).
Her popularity single-handedly saved the town and gave birth to the Tama Café, an assortment of Tama items and products, Tama themed buses, Tama the mascot, and the Kishi Station’s (喜志駅) new Tama inspired renovations.
Tama dutifully served at Kishi Station with steadfast feline loyalty for nearly nine years, until she passed away on June 22, 2015 due to a heart failure at the grand-old age of 16. Her Shinto funeral was held on June 28, 2015 and was attended by 3,000 mourners. She was turned into a Shinto goddess and a small shrine in her honor was built at the station.
Tama’s successor is her young apprentice Nitama (にたま; literally translates to Tama the 2nd). Nitama had been under Tama’s tutelage since 2012, although Nitama herself has served as a station master at Idakiso Station (伊太祁曽駅) in Wakayama City (和歌山市), before becoming Tama’s deputy at Kishi Station.
Kishi is not the only train station in Japan to employ cats as station masters. There is the beloved Ryoma (りょうま) at Shiwaguchi Station (志和口駅) on the Geibi Line (芸備線) in Hiroshima (広島), Rabu (らぶ) at Ashinomaki-Onsen Station (芦ノ牧温泉駅) on the Aizu Line (会津線) in Fukushima (福島) and Hotofu (ホトフ) at Kichigahara Station (吉ヶ原駅) in Okayama Prefecture (岡山県).
Hotofu is the successor of Kotora (コトラ), the retired station master of Kichigahara Station, and the only cat to stand paw-to-paw in friendly rivalry with the much-loved Tama of Kishi Station. In truth, Kotora was already working as a station master for 2 years, before Tama was sworn in to work in Kishi in 2007 - making Kotora the first official cat station master in Japan, and Tama’s senpai.
Despite their demanding job, these feline station masters always have time to go on Twitter.
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