A Visit to Japan

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

This past spring my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Japan and attend a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. We were celebrating the marriage of a son of one of my business partners and his wife.  

It so happened that the day we arrived in Tokyo was considered to be the prime viewing day for cherry blossoms in that city, this year. Now, I have heard about the beauty of cherry blossoms in springtime and I have, myself, enjoyed such a sight on Canadian cherry trees. However, I had no idea of the importance of this season to the Japanese until we experienced it firsthand. Every year the Japanese Meteorological Service and the public track the sakura zensen (cherry-blossom front) as it moves northward up the Japanese archipelago. As warmer weather arrives, nightly forecasts follow the weather segment of news programs predicting which day will be the best for the blossoms in that particular city or region. People plan special events or vacation travel to coincide with the peak of the blossoming.

As we learned, it certainly is worth some planning to be able to fully realize the magnificence of this splendid spring explosion of blooms. Bright and early on the morning after our arrival, I was out with many Japanese trying to capture a photograph that would properly reflect the wonder of what was happening on the trees around us. I also reflected on how the reality of what I was seeing differed quite remarkably from the stereotypic Japanese society one might imagine. Instead of people living and working in a densely packed urban metropolis of 12 million people, totally oblivious to anything beyond creating an economic and business model that is the envy of countries around the world, here was a country full of people who were stopping to look at and appreciate one of nature's finest moments - cherry trees in blossom.

Of course, there were other things I learned during our visit. One of these things had to do with cats. Now, I was aware that there are a number of breeds of dogs that are native to Japan. Shiba Inu, Kishu Inu, Shikoku Inu, Tosa Inu, Kai Inu, Akita Inu and Hokkaido Inu are all breeds that originated in various regions in Japan. A number of these breeds are quite popular in North America and over the years I have come to know, some individuals in these breeds, quite well. However, I believe the only Japanese breed of cat I have known is the Japanese bobtail. Therefore, it was quite surprising to see the high regard for cats in Japanese culture.

The cat to which I refer is the Manecki Neko, the beckoning cat or sometimes called the Prosperity Cat. Many Japanese business people believe that if they are to own a restaurant, a store, a bar or other such establishment, they must have a Manecki Neko prominently displayed near the entrance. These cat models always have one raised forepaw, but otherwise come in different sizes and different colours with different wearing apparel, perhaps a bib or a bell. The legend around these little cats goes back several centuries. The most common tale that explains the power of this cat symbol involves a poor temple in the woods.  A traveler takes shelter under a nearby tree during a storm. A cat appears and beckons this person to follow it into the temple. Immediately after the person leaves the spot and follows the cat, the tree where he had been standing is struck by lightening. The grateful traveler and his entire family become patrons of the temple and bring it vast fame and wealth.

Well, I doubt that it is the same temple described in that legend, but it turned out that the Shinto temple where David and Aya exchanged their vows had a number of Manecki Neko to welcome visitors. They also had a wonderful selection of little cats with raised paws that could be purchased as souvenirs. As a result, one little pair of white Manecki Neko came back to Burlington with us. They now can welcome visitors to our home and remind us of a special trip to a wonderful country with people who truly appreciate nature and have great reverence for other creatures in our world.