Nine places where cat lovers in Japan can step up their devotion to worship
Japan loves its cats. When feline fans here aren’t going online to swap trivia about their favorite members of the animal kingdom, they’re playing with cute kitties between sips of coffee at one of the nation’s many cat cafes.
At times, it even seems like “love” doesn’t properly convey the depths of their emption, and that it would be more appropriate to say some people worship the creatures, which is exactly what you can do at these nine shrines and temples dedicated to cats.
With their cool demeanors and haughty stares, it’s not hard to imagine that cats see themselves as belonging to a higher plane of existence than we lowly humans. However, at times in history cats have shown the ability to perform important roles in Japanese society.
Long ago, sericulture, the production of silk, was an important industry in the town of Nagaoka, in present-day Niigata Prefecture. The town’s cats were credited with keeping harmful mice at bay during the process, and in thanks a statue of a nekomata, a mythical cat-like creature that appears in Japanese folktales, was placed in Nagaoka’sNambujinja Shrine.
Given Kyoto’s long history as a center of high culture and home for the aristocracy, Japan’s former capital was also home to silk producers, who like their counterparts in Nagaoka felt indebted to the cats which kept mice populations at levels that enabled their work to progress smoothly. At Konoshimajinja Shrine, found in Kyoto’s Kyotango City, visitors are greeted by a statue of cat with its hand placed protectively atop its clinging child.
Cats have also helped out with a more blue-collar profession on the island of Tashirojima in Miyagi Prefecture. It is said that long ago fishermen could predict how big their upcoming catch would be by observing the behavior of the many cats they share the island with. Even, there are so many felines on Tashirojima that it’s also known as Cat Island and the local shrine is Nekojinja, literally Cat Shrine.
▼ The streets of Tashirojima
Felines have even been involved in military service. Nekogamijinja (Cat God Shrine) gets its name from the set of cats employed by samurai general Shimazu Yoshihiro. Cats’ eyes are extremely sensitive to sunlight, which in turn endows them with superior night vision. As a result, the range of their pupils’ dilation is much greater than humans,’ and by looking at the size of a cat’s pupils, you can tell the time.
Shimazu’s military career straddled the 15th and 16th centuries, long before the invention of wristwatches. Still, he needed an accurate way of keeping time in order to coordinate his units’ tactics, and the general took a corps of seven cats to war with him. Only two survived to the end of his campaigns, and they were both subsequently deified at Nekogamijinja.
Other cats are said to have fought directly in order to protect their owners. The shrine in Yamagata Prefecture known as Nekonomiya (Shrine of the Cat) honors a feline who is said to have saved its owner from a giant snake by driving off the dangerous reptile. Many visitors to Nekonomiya bring a picture of their cat after the animal has passed away, hanging it on the building’s exterior in memorial while praying for their pet’s happiness in the world beyond.
Sometimes, though, the pet outlives the owner, such as in the story of Omatsu Daigongen Shrine in Tokushima Prefecture’s Anan City. Legend holds that after a local man was murdered, his cat took vengeance against his killers, though details are scarce on how exactly the feline conducted its investigation and meted out justice.
Nonetheless, people in the area were moved deeply enough by the show of loyalty, enough so that the shrine’s ema (a wooden board on which worshippers write down their wishes in the hope that they will come true) feature an illustration of a cat. Omatsu Daigongen is also famous for its Sasuri Neko, a statue of a cat said to heal ailments of those who rub its body in the corresponding places.
Visitors to Japan, or even Japanese restaurants abroad, have probably noticed the statue of a cat with an upraised paw displayed in many places of business. The statue, known as manekineko (beckoning cat), is said to invite prosperity into the home or workplace. Two shrines in Tokyo both claim to be the originators of the good luck charms, one of which is Imadojinja Shrine in Taito Ward. It is said that a an old woman found a discarded cat figurine near the shrine, and after picking it up, was blessed with good fortune for the rest of her days.
On the other side of town in Setagaya Ward, Gotokuji Temple makes its own case for being the birthplace of manekineko. Ii Naotaka, a famous general during the 17th century, is said to have been passing by the shrine during a thunderstorm. Beckoned inside by a cat, he took refuge until the storm passed, and in gratitude the Ii family became the temple’s chief patrons.
▼ “Come on in!”
But while manekineko promise wealth and happiness, what about the times when you don’t want your cat to bring you something, but just want something to bring you your cat? Tokyo has a third cat-related place of worship in its Azusamitenjinja Shrine. Also known as the Cat Returning Shrine, visitors whose precious felines have gone missing come to ask for their safe return, and more than a few believers report that their prayers were answered and their kitties returned home, safe and sound, during their repeated visits to the shrine.
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