May 22, 2020

Tokyo’s Gotoku-ji

If you’ve spent any time on Instagram and follow Japan creators, chances are high that you’ve seen Gotoku-ju and its maneki neko statues before.

Tokyo's Gotoku-ji temple with hundreds of white maneki neko effigies in front of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy

If you’ve spent any time on the Gram and follow accounts related to Japan, chances are high that you’ve seen the topic of today’s article at one point or another. Known as Gotoku-ji, this quaint temple is famous online for its large collection of maneki neko (those beckoning cat statues that you’ll often find in shops). Though you’ll often encounter a one-off maneki neko at vendors all across Japan, few other locations can boast the sheer volume that you’ll find at Gotoku-ji. As can be seen above, taken in aggregate, these feline effigies create the perfect piece of content for social media.

Of course, as my astute readers have likely already realized, there’s an explanation to be had here. While the history remains a bit fuzzy, the generally accepted narrative is that Gotoku-ji is the maneki neko’s place of origin. According to local legends, the head monk of Gotoku-ji had a cat that he cared deeply for. One day, a feudal lord hailing from my beloved Hikone Castle was passing by the temple. Allegedly, the cat beckoned him inside just as a violent thunderstorm was brewing outside. Thereafter, the monk safely sheltered the lord and his entourage until the storm’s wrath had abated.

In appreciation for his timely hospitality, the magnate of Hikone Castle donated rice and land to the then-impoverished Gotoku-ji. As you might imagine, this greatly elevated the status of the once-poor temple. The lord even went as far as making Gotoku-ji the main funerary of the eminent Ii family (the clan charged with overseeing Hikone Castle). Honestly, given my roots in Hikone and my long-held admiration of the Ii household, it’s a miracle that it has taken me this long to do a full feature on Gotoku-ji.

Getting to Gotoku-ji

An adorable Tokyu Setagaya Line train that looks like one of Gotoku-ji’s maneki nekos

Though not as easily accessed as a central hub like Shibuya, the journey to Gotoku-ji is not all that challenging, at least when compared to the types of locations I typically feature. To reach the temple, you’ll need to head out into Setagaya Ward on the western side of Tokyo. In most cases, you’ll need to first make your way to Sangenjaya Station. From there, you’ll need to make a transfer to the Tokyu Setagaya Line (Note: some of these trains bear adorable maneki neko wrappings). Your final destination will be Miyanosaka Station. As always, just input this info into Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best route for you.

Once you’re at Miyanosaka Station, you’ll need to hoof it about five minutes or so to Gotoku-ji. The temple complex is not difficult to find but here’s a link to a Google Map just in case you require help getting your bearings. Basically, all you need to do is head straight once you’ve left the station and then bang a left upon nearing Gotoku-ji.

The Gotoku-ji Grounds

The entrace to Tokyo’s Gotoku-ji temple complex

Thanks to the generous plot of land bestowed to Gotoku-ji by the Ii family, even today the compound has a lot of breadth to it (50,000 square meters to be precise). When visiting, the first structure you’ll encounter is an impressive gate which marks Gotoku-ji’s point of entry. After passing under the massive gateway, you’ll officially be upon temple grounds. If you continue deeper into the compound from here, you’ll soon find a three-story pagoda on your left and then the temple’s belfry on your right. According to the plaguqard, these historical structures date from the 17th century.

Of course, the main point of interest is the endless collection of maneki neko statues. You’ll find this legion of figures installed directly next to the Shofuku-den. Be aware that this can get a bit confusing as the Shofuku-den is not the main hall of the complex (that’s the Hondo). To navigate your way to the Shofuku-den, you’ll want to head to the three-story pagoda. With it on your left, take an immediate right. The hall in front of you will be the Shofuku-den. You’ll find the incredibly Instagrammable set of more than one-thousand maneki neko located on the left hand side of the Shofuku-den structure.

Alas, the main hall located at Gotoku-ji is all too similar to other temples across Japan. As such, the real allure of this temple is undoubtedly the maneki neko collection near the Shofuku-den. Before moving on though, note that there is also a sizable cemetery out back that houses the graves of many of the Ii family. If only to pay homage to the myth that started the maneki neko practice, be sure to not miss this section of Gotoku-ji.

Attractions Near Gotoku-ji

A backstreet of Tokyo’s popular Sangenjaya district

When it comes to sampling additional venues and activities, know that there’s a fair bit on offer in the immediate vicinity of Gotoku-ji. For example, directly adjacent to the temple, you’ll find the ruins of the former Setagaya Castle. Likewise, back towards Miyanozaka Station, you’ll also encounter the local shrine for the war god Hachiman at Setagaya Hachimangu. Hell, you can even consider a side trip down to the Komazawa Olympic Park which hosted many events during the 1964 Summer Olympics.

While these options are all enticing, I’d encourage you to instead hit up Sangenjaya (pictured above) on the way back from Gotoku-ji. This sliver of the city is a hip, bustling commercial area that is often compared to Kichijoji and Jiyugaoka. Regularly referred to as “Sancha” by Tokyoites, this part of the megalopolis is home to many chic cafes, eateries, and shops. All in all, if you’re fond of exploring urban environments and have an extra hour to roam, you could do a lot worse than a place like Sangenjaya.