HAGI, Yamaguchi >> Unrin Temple in Hagi is putting its best foot forward this year, the Chinese zodiac’s Year of the Tiger. Why? Because it’s temple pays homage to a close cousin to the tiger: the cat.
The temple’s foray into feline territory was instigated by a priest, Jisei Sumida, about 15 years ago. Sumida took inspiration from a local tale featuring a cat that is also related to the temple.
The story is set in the early 17th century and follows a samurai, Nagai Motofusa, whose master, Mori Terumoto, was the first lord of the Choshu domain (now Yamaguchi prefecture) and founder of Hagi Castle. Motofusa was very attached to his pet cat.
When Motofusa died, he was buried at Tenjuin Temple; at the time, Unrin Temple was a branch of Tenjuin. The story goes that the cat never left his grave and, during a memorial service, bit its own tongue and died on the grave.
The tale of the devoted cat has been passed down in Hagi as an example of the virtue of loyalty.
Inspired by the tale, Sumida filled Unrin with cat-related items and got the word out, mostly using social media. The priest also commissioned a manga artist to create a booklet about the loyal cat, and then collected various cat-themed trinkets to sell to visitors. Among the items was a wooden tablet depicting a cat that visitors could write their wishes on, and fortune slips that came with cat figurines.
About 700 cat-themed figurines are on display, and four real cats residing at the temple have also gained popularity, adding to the temple’s photo-friendly ambience.
By 2019 about 20,000 people had visited the temple.
For this Year of the Tiger, a wooden tiger statue was crafted to mimic the lucky maneki-neko cat, a traditional figurine seen throughout Japan. The piece was crafted from a log by Takao Hayashi, a chain-saw artist in Yamaguchi city.
“It’d be great if the beckoning tiger could help us return to what life was like before the coronavirus,” said the 49-year-old artist.
Hayashi also carved a tiger statue in the form of an amabie, a classic Japanese mythical creature said to protect against pandemics.
Due to the pandemic, the temple is now temporarily closed to visitors. Plans are underway for the temple’s main hall to reopen when it can safely do so. Sumida hopes to exhibit Hayashi’s works and have new commemorative items on hand.
Sumida believes the Year of the Tiger is an ideal time to shine a spotlight on the temple. “We want to try to do something to revitalize the entire prefecture,” he said.