Twin beckoning cats welcome visitors to Imado Shrine in Asakusa, Tokyo
Asakusa is one of the main attractions in Tokyo, for both Japanese and foreign tourists. Getting there is easy. The Asakusa subway line and the Ginza subway line both stop there.
Asakusa is the the area that surrounds Senso-ji, a large temple complex with ancient roots. The area was also closely related to the bright lights of the entertainment world up until the post-war period. The lights were dimmed when the U.S. occupation forces imposed stricter prostitution laws and the more x-rated establishments had to close their doors. Never-the-less, today there is still plenty to see and do.
Once you pass through the famous temple primary gate, called Kaminarimon, you will find a long row of small souvenir shops called Nakamise (literally means, “inside shops”). They sell all the popular souvenirs, and some rather obscure ones too. As you walk through the shops you will see a lot of maneki neko because Asakusa is the perfect environment for the maneki neko, as it has been a gathering place for buyers and sellers for hundreds of years. Merchant culture here stretches way back to the beginning of the Edo period. In fact, if you take a little walk away from Senso-ji, you will find a shrine called Imado Shrine (jinja), Maneki Neko first story was from this shrine.
Walk back to the primary gate, Kaminarimon, turn left and walk along a wide avenue. Within 10 minutes you will see a main intersection, just before the road continues and crosses the Sumida river, it is Tokyo’s main water thoroughfare. Cross the intersection, turn left and you will enter the cool and shady Sumida Park, which runs along the river. Continue walking through the park for about 15-20 minutes. It might take you longer, however, as you will probably be tempted to stop and stare at the impressive sight of Tokyo’s latest modern attraction on the other side of the river, Tokyo Sky Tree, currently the world’s tallest tower.
In the end of the park, continue walking along Edo Avenue, and in about 5-10 minutes you will come to a spot where another road splits off to the left from Edo Avenue. At this point, it’s best to stop somebody and ask them where Imado Shrine is. It’s close, but a little difficult to explain clearly here. When you arrived, you’ll know right away that you have arrived in maneki neko territory. Go through the gate and you will see masses of round, wooden votive tablets (ema). These are the wishes of shrine visitors.
Imado shrine (note the boards hung with ema prayer plaques on either side of the path before the shrine)
Imado shrine (note the boards hung with ema prayer plaques on either side of the path before the shrine) Imado Shrine is known for its matchmaking powers, so many messages are related to finding the right partner. As you approach the shrine, you will see two big granite maneki neko sitting at the base of the shrine stairs. At the top of the stairs, there are two very large maneki neko standing at the entrance to the shrine [see top photo]. A bit intimidating! Go back down the stairs and to the right is a small shrine sales office where you can buy the ema and also different kinds of charms, all showing the maneki neko image.
Maneki Nekos on display near the office at Imado Shrine
A scene from the video played at Imado Shrine
Maneki Neko is on display from the video played at Imado Shrine, next to the office there is another small building containing an extremely colorful collection of maneki neko dolls, creating their own sacred space. There is also a small TV which plays a video of the maneki neko dance, performed by some shrine maidens and a TV personality, whose name I forget. It’s bizarre and hilarious and, of course, very cute. All in all, it’s a true hot-spot for maneki neko. But why?
Imado Shrine is in an area called Imado, and for a long time ago, many potters lived there, and they produced a kind of pottery that came to be known as Imado ware. Some of the earliest maneki neko were made here, so this is, in a way, the birthplace of maneki neko. Some very sharp and smart merchant from Asakusa back in the Edo period heard one of the legends of the maneki neko, then going to nearby Imado and convince a potter to make some figures of a cat with an upraised paw to sell in his shop. That small action has spread the popularity of Maneki Neko around the world. Watering can lucky cats, some of the unique maneki nekos for sale in Asakusa.
Watering can lucky cats, some of the unique maneki nekos for sale in Asakusa
Unfortunately, there are no potters living in Imado anymore, but back at Senso-ji, in Nakamise, you will find a shop called Sukeroku. It is the second from the end on the right, close to Senso-ji temple, and if you don’t slow down you might just pass it by. The shop has been run for about 150 years, since the end of the Edo period, and they sell all sorts of small, handmade ceramic figures. In a space that allows no more than two customers at a time, you can see hundreds of these tiny figures lining the shelves. There are many variations of the maneki neko. Spend some time in the shop and you will step back in time to the days when all of Edo’s citizens came to Asakusa to pray and play, and of course, buy a maneki neko to take back to their homes.
By Jean-Pierre Antonio, Suzuka International University, Japan