Exploring Cincinnati’s Lucky Cat Museum and the history of Maneki-Neko the fortuitous feline.
The Maneki-Neko (lucky cat) is such a fixture at so many Chinese restaurants that it is commonly mistaken to be from there. The lucky cat’s origins are actually from Japan though where they can be seen not only in businesses but also in homes and especially in dwellings where schoolchildren live.
The name Maneki-Neko literally means “beckoning cat” and is supposed to bring something desired to you. (Hence the appearance in many shops and restaurants where they are supposed to lure customers.) The cat is often shown with his left paw in the air. Many of the figurines are mechanical with the paw moving back in forth in a waving gesture. Many westerners would be excused for thinking the cat is waving hello, but in Japan, the beckoning gesture is to lift the hand with the palm out and repeatedly bending the fingers. (while in the west we tend to have the palm facing up and bend the index finger).
There are three versions of the beckoning/lucky cat. One with the left paw to draw customers, another with the right paw for money and a third with both paws up for drawing both. The right paw form is the one most commonly seen in private homes.
While a common sight in Japan today, no one is certain of when the Maneki-Neko first appeared but many replicas have been found as far back as the 19th century. Having a cat appear at your shop was considered a sign of luck in Japan especially if you owned an eating establishment. It actually makes sense given how much the Japanese eat fish and if a cat frequented your diner it meant the fish was fresh. (given that cats are such fussy eaters and won’t eat anything spoiled.) So in lieu of actual felines, shopkeepers and restauranteurs would keep a ceramic cat near the entrance.
Another legend is that the first “Lucky Cat” was named Tama who beckoned a man away from a tree during a storm right before lightning struck. The grave a Tama is a sacred sight and many Japanese will leave ceramic cats by his grave.
Cincinnati’s “Lucky Cat Museum” has over a thousand of these figures on display. Aisles of Nekos all various poses some with one arm or both in the air. And some even have multiple arms like s Hindu deity. Some are made of ceramic some wood and even a few gold cats can be seen.
The museum is really a labor of love for the proprietor who started the museum after her personal collection could no longer fit in her home. The museum is pretty small but has a fascinating gift shop where you can get your own Neko or a curio that features the design.
The museum has limited hours. It is only open Tuesday through Saturday but only between the hours of 3-6PM. Take exit 3 off of I-71. The address is 2511 Essex Place. Look for the sign that says Essex Studios as it is a bit hard to locate. With all those lucky cats in one spot who knows, visiting might be a life-changing experience. So you might want to go right meow.