One of the best things about traveling with someone else, particularly someone you love, is experiencing things through their eyes. When you let someone you trust lead the way, you often find yourself down rewarding paths you'd never have gone down of your own volition. That's obviously true in relation to things other than travel.
I've had a fascination with Japan since shows like Robotech and Voltron made the mornings and afternoons of my grade-school years substantively more bearable. But without any functional Japanese, and little hope of learning (my brain seems to angrily dismiss any attempt at any grammar other than English), I may never have made it to Japan at all. Or I may have found my way to someplace like Tokyo and stumbled around using Google Maps, barely communicating with anyone outside the small world of my smartphone. But I never would have made it deeper, to the truly interesting bits of Japan on my own.
Enter my wife: Teacher of the smartest kids I've ever met, Dungeon-Master-class cat lover, Asian Studies major, and all-around super genius.
She's far from fluent in Japanese, but she can pull out enough in a pinch to get by (and to navigate the Lament Configuration that is the Japanese train system). And she loves Japan in a way that at least approaches my obsession with Scotland. Though she's only been to Japan twice, so she's clearly got a better handle on her obsession than I do. It was by following her lead during our three-week trek all over Honshu in 2015 that I found myself on a train headed to Gotokuji Temple.
Located in the quiet Setagaya Ward, about an hour's ride from central Tokyo, and then another 20 minute walk through twisting residential streets, this temple is not easy to find--particularly in Japan's oppressive humidity when you're a tourist who can't read the local signs. But find it we did, with the help of my wife's friend, who sometimes works in Japan, and so is better than we are at reading signs. While we were momentarily "lost" though, we did pass by a beer vending machine on the street--an amazing discovery on a 100-degree day.
Gotokuji is a Buddhist temple dedicated to "Shobyo Kannon," a cat god who, legend has it, helped save a traveling feudal lord during the Edo period from a severe thunderstorm. While the weather was still calm, the cat got his attention and beckoned to the traveler with its paw to enter the run-down temple before the storm arrived.
The lord, grateful to be spared from the rough weather, had the temple rebuilt. And, when the cat died, a shrine was built to honor the deity. This is one of a few origin stories for the popular maneki-neko, or "lucky cat" statues that are thought to bring luck and money, and so are prominently placed at the front of many Asian businesses all over the world.
At some point, visitors began to bring their own small neko statues to Gotokuji as an offering to show gratitude for granted wishes or bouts of good luck. There's no telling exactly how many of these statues are there now, but the number must be in the thousands. While many are a bit dirty, likely due to the rain and their close proximity to the ground, the statues are meticulously arranged, and obviously well cared for.
As for me, after taking in the cat statues with my eyes and camera, I bowed my head, rang the bell, and said a prayer thanking the gods for the luck that brought me to my wife, who in turn brought me to this spot. Then I bowed twice more and clapped twice, and bowed again to finish the prayer.
It was good to take a moment to be consciously thankful for where I was at that moment, before moving on to explore the rest of the temple. The next day, we began our ascent to the top of Mount Fuji.