But some sources show the report is only half-right.
Wakayama Prefecture’s Koyasan, also known as Mount Koya, is a mountainous region that’s home to a number of temples that serve as the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect. While some religious institutions in Japan are situated in city centers where they rub shoulders with the secular world, Koyasan’s remote location means it has traditionally had a strong connection with ascetic training, and to this day it attracts pilgrims and travelers who stay in temple lodgings and sample the monks’ lifestyle.
In the past, this focus on purifying the soul and focusing on enlightenment meant that women were previously barred from entering many parts of mountainous Koyasan. But a recent episode of broadcaster Nippon Television’s Sekai Ichi Uketai Jugyo variety program claims that not just human females, but cats (of either gender) were also previously banned from Koyasan.
Sekai Ichi Uketai Jugyo claimed the reason for this is that the overpowering cuteness of felines would be a hindrance to the monks’ training.
▼ Awww – I mean, away with you!
Japanese Internet users vigorously nodded their heads in understanding, before presumably going back to surreptitiously watching cute cat videos while they were supposed to be working. However, while it may be true that cats’ captivating cuteness curtails conscientious conduct of the industrious variety, the situation might not have been as simple as the monks in charge saying “Nope, sorry. Kitties are too adorable,” since cats don’t seem to have been the only animals mentioned in Koyasan regulations.
A 1906 writing from Shinjo Hinonishi, one of the primary administrators of Okunoin, Koyasan’s most prominent temple, stipulates that “monks shall not feed cats, nor birds.” Likewise, the Wakayama Tourism Federation, in its introduction to Koyasan, says that the keeping of pets in general was banned. Other historical documents mention similar restrictions, with the concern, when specified, being not that the animals were distractingly cute, but would sully the sacred grounds of the temples.
▼ Cute, but not quite religion-hinderingly cute
The specific mentions of cats and birds may have simply been made since those animals are among the two most likely to be enticed to take up residence in a location if humans regularly give them food. It’s also worth pointing out that while monks weren’t allowed to extend hospitality to the animals, it doesn’t look like they were rounding up the creatures and forcibly expelling them from the mountain range either.
However, there was apparently one exception to Koyasan’s “no pets” rule: dogs. According to legend, Kukai, the itinerant monk who founded Koyasan as a center of Buddhist worship, was guided to the area by a pair of dogs, and thus a privileged status, in which they could be kept as companions, was awarded to their canine kin.
And, to repeat, Koyasan’s anti-cat stance is now a thing of the past. So while felines may not enjoy the reverence at Koyasan that they do at some other temples in Japan, they’re no longer on the official list of undesirables.