I knew that Hello Kitty came from Japan, but I never realized how cat-mad the Japanese were until I saw images of Maneki Neko – the lucky Beckoning Cat – all over the country.
Once you notice one Maneki Neko, the white or gold cat statues that you’ll find in store fronts and restaurants, you’ll start seeing more. Sometimes the Maneki Neko has a waving paw, sometimes it will have kittens. In all cases, it’s a symbol to entice prosperity.
Why do the Japanese think that cats “beckon?” One guide explained it to me like this: In Japan, people beckon others to come to them with an overhand gesture instead of underhand. Cats make this same motion with their paws when they wash their faces. Thus, cats are seen as friendly.
But Maneki Neko wasn’t the only cat experience I had during my 12-day trip.
In Onomichi, we met Shungi Sonoyana, an artist who has created a tourist attraction called “Cat Alley,” featuring rocks painted as cats.
Shungi started as a painter in the town’s Buddhist temples. He first painted the cats there, he said, because the animals played an important role historically bu guarding the sutras (Buddhist texts) from rats and mice. The stones caught on, and he began to leave them in the town’s narrow alleys to attract attention. He makes more than 3,000 lucky cat stones annually.
Cat Alley would be a footnote if it wasn’t for a popular Sony ad that brought the stones into households across Japan. Now the cat rocks have been sold around the world, and Shungi has made quite a business out of it.
He’s also made a star out of his own cat, Coume (small plum, in Japanese). When I asked him if he had a personal affinity for cats, however, he said that he preferred dogs. Guess those don’t sell.
Our last cat encounter took place in Tokyo, where we visited the Calico Cat Cafe, a place where people who love animals can pay to play with them.
It costs 1,000 yen (about $13) for an hour with the cats. The patrons can feed the cats, take pictures, and generally enjoy the benefits of pet ownership without the hassles.
What I found interesting about the cafe is that one of the workers, Yumi Ehata, told me that business at the Cat Cafe has been up since the March 2011 earthquake & tsunami. ”They cannot have cats in their house,” Yumi said. “All cats have healing powers. It calms them (the patrons) down.”
I couldn’t leave Japan with buying my own beckoning cat. I chose one that’s also a bank. That way, if the cat doesn’t bring prosperity, it’s no one’s fault but my own.
My trip to Japan was sponsored by several hotels and government organizations, but my opinions remain my own.
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