He sits silently, on the narrow counter of a Japanese restaurant, next to the cash register, with one paw raised; his eyes are squinted tight, forced closed by a grin that spreads from one cheek to the other. This is a special cat, a symbol of good fortune, and a promising future. This cat brings good luck, and is always there, with a smile and a wave. I introduce you to Maneki Neko – “Lucky Cat”.
What’s so special about Lucky Cat? Aren’t all cats lucky? Doesn’t having 9 lives define what it means to have good luck? This makes a cat the perfect symbol of prosperity and good fortune. One particularly crazy cat lady, in Cincinnati, OH collected so many of the famous cats that she turned her passion for Maneki Neko into a reason to open a museum dedicated to the feline.
The Lucky Cat Museum may have a small footprint, but it has a fierce presence. The small museum is located on the first floor of Essex Studios, a conglomerate, a maze of art spaces that welcomes visitors to “Cincinnati’s Best Artists, Under One Roof,” according to the Essex website. One of these artists let us into the building through a locked door, directing us to a studio marked by a glowing red cat, kitschy posters, and brochures.
Entrance to the museum is free, and funded by donations of either money or Lucky Cats.
“You don’t worry about giving a neko we already have. Donated cats are added to the collection with the benefactor’s name. The repeat is removed from the collection and is either sold in the gift shop as is, saved for future artistic purposes, or donated to auctions that support local cat rescues. Your donated kitty doesn’t need to be new, or even in purrfect shape!” (museum website)
Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders tells readers that the Lucky Cat Museum contains over 700 waving paws, then later goes on to describe it as holding over 1,000 total specimens, and growing. Having visited the museum myself, I suspect that the math is wrong, with an estimation that is much too low.
There are a LOT of cats, Lucky Cats, in this small space, and owner Micha Robertson has made a serious effort to catalog the entire collection, divided into categories according to maker, style or function of the cat. She has a long way to go.
The museum is listed in Atlas Obscura among the following: In Ishinomaki Japan’s Cat Island, Roosevelt Island Cat Sanctuary, in New York, and the Cat House in California. De Poezenboot (The Cat Boog) is featured in Amstersam, Netherlands, and Cat Alley is the highlight of Manchester, New Hamshire. Cats have a pretty serious following, with some loyalists who turn up their noses at other (lesser?) furry creatures.
In Japanese, Maneki Neko means “beckoning cat,” and the critters wave you toward the riches you crave. You can call him a lucky charm, a talisman, or just a token of good luck, said to attract good fortune. There is a great deal of symbolism, especially surrounding the color of the cat – white, gold, calico, black. (Catster – Live with Cattitude)
The Symbolism Behind This Lucky Cat’s Color Variations:
Calico: Traditional color combination, considered to be the luckiest
White: Happiness, purity, and positive things to come
Gold: Wealth and prosperity
Black: Wards off evil spirits
Red: Success in love and relationships
Green: Good health
Lucky Cats are commonly on display in Japanese and Chinese stores, restaurants and other businesses, thought to bring success and good fortune to the business itself. This is why you’ll find them perched near the register, or the tip jar.
I spotted one cat recently at a small, family-owned Vietnamese restaurant. Entrepreneurs do what they need to do to attract business. Sometimes this means that a Vietnamese restaurant has a side menu of “traditional” Chinese dishes, to attract the American restaurant-goer, with easily recognizable dishes, and the heat dialed back.
The Lucky Cat’s hand moves steadily, like a metronome. Flat screen TVs, mounted to the wall, above red vinyl booths, broadcast Vietnamese TV, featuring “Vietnamese Idol”. The staff greets you with a welcoming smile, and I notice a handwritten sign on the wall. The note lets patrons know that the owners will be away for a month, with the restaurant closed, while they visit family in Vietnam.
There’s a glass jar next to the Lucky Cat, asking for tips (donations) to make the trip home possible. If the Lucky Cat really does bring good luck, the family will have their reunion in Vietnam. I order the spicy Tom Yum soup, a Thai dish flavored with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed chili peppers. The dish has made its way into Vietnamese cooking, and is wonderfully spicy, and full of flavor. The restaurant has my support, so I drop my change into the jar, and I can’t think of a better token of good luck than the smiling cat.
“Happiness is a hot bowl of Pho, on a rainy day,” says the restaurant’s Facebook friend, Becky Clark. The gold cat has his paw raised, waiving in wealth and prosperity, for Lieu’s Asian Cuisine.
Back in Cincinnati, the collection at the Lucky Cat Museum is open for viewing Tuesday – Saturday, from 3p – 6p. During my visit, the museum attendant is a volunteer, allowing the owners to take leave and attend an out of town conference. I wonder if they will bring home even more cats. Standing next to cases of ceramic figurines, miniature charms, and plush kitties, the volunteer chats with us, excitedly, the entire time we are viewing the collection.
Opened in 2012, during an art walk at the Essex art complex, the Lucky Cat Museum has been known to attract a crowd, but we had the place to ourselves, showing up just as the museum opened for the day. A loud buzz alerts the volunteer that there are patrons outside, waiting to be let in. The family that is escorted in is full of questions, eyes wide, and the volunteer is excited to have the company, and ready to give another tour of the collection.
Like the museum’s proprietors, visitors to the museum are unquestionably “Cat People”. I know a few of these folks myself, back home. These are my people! There is a couple, with 7 cats between them, sharing regular posts on social media – “Your Week in Cats.” Posts feature the antics of the 7 members of The Cat Conglomerate, including the latest addition, 6-towed ginger. He was initially shared on Facebook in an attempt to find a “forever home”. He found his home, by staying put, and becoming part of the family.
Five years ago, I became a cat mom (aka MamaKat) to a pair of twins, buff-colored, who could not be more distinct in their personalities. One is a laid back, allegedly attention-starved, butterball named ButterCup. She sleeps on the decorative pillow next to mine, loves to spend her days curled up on the right-hand side of my desk (where the mouse should be), and presents me with a parade of stuffed mice, squirrels and foxes, in a show of affection, or a desperate plea for attention.
Her sister, who I suspect was the runt of the litter, is my svelte little athlete, quick and crafty. She is 1 of 6, and my two were the last to find their “forever home”. ButterBean runs at top speed across the apartment, tirelessly stalks intruding bugs, and expertly climbs to the top of book shelves, refrigerators, and cat condos.
Once I became a cat owner, the other cat lovers in my life came out of the woodwork. Work colleagues, artist friends, and cycling enthusiasts began sharing photos and stories of their beloved companions, on Facebook, via Messenger, and Twitter. It seems “cat people” attract one another, and I’d become one of the crowd.
We share a love of toe fuzz, ear hair, and hypersensitive whiskers. Cat-loving friends set up a private Facebook group, for sharing our cat photos, to avoid charges of oversharing from other friends.
But really . . . . would a true friend have issue with hourly social media posts, featuring new positions that my cats are cuddled in? They actually spoon one another! They bathe one another! They have distinct ways of purring, depending on their mood. Okay, I suppose I’ve earned the label of “Crazy Cat Lady” by now!
I took my time at the Lucky Cat Museum, noticing all the different ways this “character” has been captured. The wall art, figurines, books and clothing are on display next to jewelry, ceramic ware, postcards, and pencil sharpeners.
If you are ready to purchase your own Lucky Cat, here is a link to Amazon’s “Best Selling”, “Top Rated”, and “Lowest Price” options: https://www.amazon.com/Japanese-Fortune-Battery-Operated-5-Inches/dp/B0026NEIQQ You are sure to find something that suits your tastes!
Join me on my next adventure,
Cincinnati’s Lucky Cat Museum: http://www.manekinekomuseum.com/
Catster (Live with Cattitude): http://www.catster.com/lifestyle/maneki-neko-fortune-cat-5-interesting-facts
Atlas Obscura: https://www.atlasobscura.com/
Lieu’s Asian Cuisine: https://www.facebook.com/lieusasiancuisine/