CINCINNATI (AP) — This is not the one you notice.
It’s one of a thousand collectibles in this Essex Studios space and it’s not the one that’s dancing. Or chatting in Japanese at the push of a button.
It’s not the one covered in crystals from claw-to-crown. It doesn’t even have an eye-popping patterned complexion like flowers or flames.
This one isn’t even technically gray. This cat’s coat is a worn-out black. Posed on his hind legs, he’s a bit scraggy and a lot lanky. Parts are missing, one ear is chipped.
His left paw is raised.
That is what makes him the one. That beckoning paw turns this feline figurine into a beloved talisman.
It is Micha Robertson’s first maneki-neko, or Lucky Cat statue. In 2002, it was an impulse buy at the Cheviot Goodwill. Today, it is the bedrock of Robertson’s Lucky Cat Museum, an ever-growing display of the Japanese charms that opened four years ago.
“For me, one of the big draws is that is such a basic idea: It’s a cat with its paw up,” Robertson said. “So many people interpret it in so many different ways. It can be shaped to fit all sorts of different themes and ideas and feelings. It’s just kind of amazing.”
And as her personal collection grows, so does the museum. They are, in fact, the same thing.
Last month, it moved into a first-floor space almost twice as large as its previous spot in Essex Studios. Once just by-appointment-only, the free gallery and gift shop is now open a few hours a day, five days a week.
With each addition comes a new variation on the charm. Robertson owns so many forms of this fortune cat that the museum is organized around different themes, styles and sizes, materials and meanings.
Almost all come from online auctions and ship from Japan. But she’s never been to the Lucky Cat’s native country. With fingers crossed, Robertson hopes that trip is on the horizon. And there is room for her and a full shipping container on that flight home.
Back at the Lucky Cat Museum, one case is full of the classic white cat holding a gold coin, popularized in the mid-century. The kind you recognize from restaurant counters and shop windows.
There’s a whole row of solar-powered metallic cats waving at visitors. A cluster of Lucky Cat-designed telephones in the corner. Feline-themed toilet paper rolls and finger puppets, too.
Another clowder — that’s what you call a group of cats — hails from Hawaii. One is carved from lava rock. All of them are throwing up a shaka or hang loose sign.
A shelf shows an assortment of matchbooks. One massive inflatable greets at the door.
Some were constructed a century ago. Others, earlier this year.
There are also myriad legends around this folk hero, popular since Japan’s Edo Period. That’s 1603 to 1868.
The Lucky Cat Museum, however, subscribes to one narrative: The temple cat. Look closely for a miniature display on Tokyo’s Gotoku-ji shrine.
The story goes something like this: A lord is riding by a dilapidated temple. A storm rolls in.
The lord and his horse seek shelter under a nearby tree. He spots the priest’s cat, paw raised, beckoning him. (Remember, to Westerners that motion looks like a greeting, a wave. In Japan, it means “come here.”)
Some unseen force compels the lord to comply. Moments later, lightning strikes the tree.
That’s what lucky looks like.
In honor of this good fortune, that lord revived the shrine. And now, people from around the globe visit Gotoku-ji and purchase Lucky Cat figurines to honor granted wishes.
Robertson ordered a Gotoku-ji figurine to join her collection. It hasn’t arrived yet, but the wish has.
The Lucky Cat Museum isn’t just Robertson’s dream-come-true. It’s her everyday.
“Being a cat-obsessed freak is natural to me,” she said with a laugh.
For Robertson, this whole thing started, actually, with the real-life inspiration for the maneki-neko. All and any kind of feline, really.
The fuzzy and fat. The needy and the aloof. Curious and anxious.
The lucky and the unlucky.
And it started early, at the very beginning. Like from the first hours of her life. Robertson’s first cat wasn’t a pet. It was her nursemaid, she said.
“There hasn’t been a time in my life when I didn’t have pet cats,” Robertson said. ” … (we) really seem to gel.”
She loves that cats can take care of themselves. That they come to her if they want attention. And that it’s harder to get that attention from them. So she feels really loved when they do want that attention. Oh, and of course, they are freaking adorable.
She and her husband live with their four cats in Fort Wright, Kentucky. One, Little Miss, is in the museum. In a way. A favorite Japanese artist painted a sculpture to match Little Miss’s black and orange and white fur. The photograph of Little Miss next to it is proof.
Robertson wants people to know about this contemporary artist — be sure to ask her about what his house looks like. She wants especially cat lovers in this country to understand and appreciate and support this tradition.
“I love being able to share the knowledge and the passion,” she said. “I’m not talkative unless it’s something I care about. I don’t like being in crowds. I’m not a people person.”
So her car parked outside of Essex Studios? The one painted to look like the cat character in the Japanese animated film, “Mei and the Kittenbus”? That decoration isn’t designed to shine a spotlight on herself or even the museum.
She just loves seeing people’s delighted expressions when she’s stopped next to them at a light. And when someone shouts “Kittenbus!” from the sidewalk? That’s the best, Robertson said.
The same goes for making her collection public. People “need to see this work,” she said.
Originally, this work was in her home. Specifically, her computer desk in her study. Before long, the Lucky Cats overran the desk. Next, they populated a shelf. Then another. And another. And another.
The bookcases became cat cases. The study? A cat shelter.
So when a friend was seeking someone to split rent in Essex Studios, Robertson decided it was time to share her treasures with the world. And founded the only Lucky Cat Museum in the country, joining two similar institutions in Japan.
But her’s is different. Not just because of location or language. It’s free.
“It’s my collection,” she said. “People shouldn’t have to pay to look at it. I wouldn’t pay them to come visit me at home.”
So she continues to work at Cappel’s costume shop.
Her gift shop brings in some cash. A trained puppeteer, she sells her own Lucky Cat creations there. Like her original “bonbon kittens,” decorative cats nestled in candy wrappers.
There is something else not to miss but hard to find at the Lucky Cat Museum. Because, well, he might be hiding.
It’s Jeffh Jefferson, an alabaster cat with a bright, fluffy tail.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com
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