Meaning a “book of the seal”, a goshuinchō is used to collect stamps from shrines and temples throughout Japan. While the religious meaning of the goshuinchō still exists, many people view it as a very Japanese way to document their journey.
When visiting temples and shrines in Japan, you might have noticed people lining up at the offices, holding something like a colourful book in their hands. This item is called a goshuinchō (御朱印帳), literally translated as a “book of seals”. Once considered something only the elder generations or the devotees did while undertaking pilgrimages, goshuinchō has recently made a comeback. These days, it has become an item that many youngsters and visitors to Japan are eager to possess. Most religious institutions in Japan have their own exclusive goshuin (御朱印, “seal”). And visitors can get this stamp as proof of pilgrimage to that location in return for a modest fee. It usually costs 300¥ but this may vary.
The Origin of the Goshuinchō
Though there are several legends surrounding the exact origin of goshuin, the most popular theory states that the vermillion seals were given as evidence that a person had copied sutras in devotional practice at a certain time and place. When this person died, the goshuinchō would be cremated along with the body. The book would then become a sort of passport to the next life showing how faithful this individual was.
A completed “book of seals” supposedly gave some sort of spiritual fulfillment. Especially when it includes stamps of specific shrines and temples. While collecting goshuin still retains its spiritual meaning, more and more people do it as a secular activity. For these people, they view goshuinchō as a book of memories detailing where they visited during their trip.
Where to get a Goshuinchō?
The goshuinchō come in various sizes, and most shrines and temples will have their own design. Generally, temple books tend to be more monochrome and plain cloth-based. Shrine books, on the other hand, tend to be more colourful with coloured silk thread and embroidery. The books are usually bound in accordion-binding style, allowing you to open it up and view multiple seals at once. It costs around 1,500¥ and is purchasable directly at the office. Although you can buy goshuinchō from nearly everywhere, it’s recommended to get the book from the institution that you visit often or at least feel some affinity.
How to collect the goshuin?
When handing the book to a temple/shrine official (usually a monk or a priest, but sometimes a volunteer), he/she will inscribe the date and name of the institution in calligraphy along with a distinctive seal. Though having a similar structure, goshuin pages look very different from each other because every writer has their own design, layout, and calligraphy style. As all the seals are written in old or complicated kanji characters, it’s wise to keep a record. In this way, you can later recognise which shrine or temple’s seal is on which page.
- Since the goshuin is proof of pilgrimage to a religious site, you should pay respect and make a small offering at the temple or shrine before getting your souvenir. This doesn’t have to be much, several 5¥ coins are enough.
- Regarded as a sacred item, the goshuinchō is reserved only for the goshuin of temples and shrines in Japan. No other tourist stamps should be placed in this book because they do not carry the same connotations. Otherwise, your goshuinchō will be void and the calligrapher might deny stamping your book.
- When handing the book to the temple/shrine official, open to the blank page where you would like the seal written on. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, a simple “please” will convey what you’d like done.