Anyone who has ever eaten at a Chinese food restaurant has probably seen a lucky cat. The statue cat with one raised paw often stands inside the entrance of Chinese restaurants and stores, welcoming or beckoning people in. I was surprised to discover that the lucky cat originates, not in China, but in Japan. There, it is called Maneki-neko, the beckoning cat.
Before I travelled to Japan last spring, I did some research about the origins of Maneki-neko. I came across a few different stories. One involves a cat who saved a geisha from a snake dropping on her head. But the one that seems most accepted is about a cat who lived at a poor temple near the city of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) about 200 years ago.
The temple priest had a calico cat, who he was fond of and shared his meagre food with. One day the cat sat at the side of the road near the temple when it began to rain. At the same time, several samurai road up on horse back. They saw the cat raise its paw as if to beckon to them, so they followed the cat to the temple. The priest welcomed them in out of the rain and gave them tea. One of the samurai, Lord Li, was impressed by the priest, and later returned for regular visits. The lord and his family gave money to the temple, and it was never poor again. The story of the faithful cat, who brought luck and prosperity to the poor temple, spread across the land. Soon the first Maneki-neko statue appeared, and eventually the lucky statue spread from Japan to China and to North America.
I thought I might like to write a story for kids involving a statue of Maneki-neko (and perhaps a cat spirit who inhabits the statue), so on my trip to Japan I kept my eyes open for Maneki-neko statues and for real cats. My quest took me from a little antique store in the ancient town of Seki-cho, where the store owner showed me two Maneki-neko figures from the Meiji period (about 1900), to the backstreets of Tokyo, where a tiny shop was filled with lucky cats and real cats lounged up and down a market stairway, to a town beside the ancient shrine of Ise, where a giant stone Maneki-neko stood outside another store filled with lucky cats. (Hello Kitty, or Kitty-chan as she is called in Japan, was also in evidence.)
After all this, the story I ended up starting to write is not about cats (although I may write the Maneki-neko story yet). Instead, it is about (or partly about) two other things I found myself looking out for in Japan: crows and manga. I will tell the you about the crows next.