Red Seals and Black Ink: A Beginner’s Guide to Shrine Stamps
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you’ll almost certainly have Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple visit on your itinerary—and if not, you should! The beautiful architecture, serene atmosphere and historical significance of these holy places is something that everyone touring the country should experience. While there, you can buy a colorful amulet or try your luck with a fortune, but if you’re looking to purchase something more unique, how about hand-written calligraphy?
These are called goshuin (go-shoo-een) in Japanese. They are composed of red ink seal stamps and black ink text. Every shrine and temple has a different design, and since each stamp is handwritten, no two are exactly the same. If you want a one-of-a-kind souvenir, a goshuin is just what you’re looking for!
In this article I’ll share some information about these beautiful stamps and explain how you can obtain them on your visit, while sharing some favorites from my personal collection.
The History of Goshuin
Though their exact origin isn’t clear, goshuin probably evolved from the practice of shakyō, which is copying Buddhist texts by hand as an act of piety. When the copy was completed, it was donated to a temple. To acknowledge the good deed, a “receipt” with the temple’s red seal was given as proof. By the middle of the Edo period, the practice of donating texts had mostly died out in favor of monetary offerings, and in the years since, goshuin have formalized into the style we know today.
The format of these stamps can vary widely, but they generally follow a common pattern.
On one side (usually the upper right) is the word 奉拝 ‘houhai.’ This translates to ‘worship’ or ‘offering of prayer,’ since the goshuin is the “receipt” of your visit. On the opposite side is the date in the traditional Japanese system. In the middle is usually the name of the shrine or temple and its red seal (shuin).
Aside from these elements, anything goes! There are often stamps representing a special feature of the shrine, like Namba Yasaka Shrine’s “Ema-den” (above) or “Meoto Iwa” near Futami Okitama Shrine (below).
Though they traditionally served as acknowledgement for the devout for their visit and donation to a holy place, the unique artwork and calligraphy has made them quite collectible in recent years. In order to attract more visitors, some shrines issue limited time stamps for special events, such as the annual festival. Sometimes, shrines and temples band together to form a “stamp pilgrimage,” requiring you to go on a Pokémon-esque journey to collect ‘em all. Some shrines even have special editions that change monthly!
Sheets and Books
Ready to start collecting? Goshuin are distributed in a couple of different ways. The first method is the stamp on its own single sheet of paper. This style is better suited if you’re only visiting a small handful of shrines on a vacation and just want some unique souvenirs. This style is called "kami goshuin".
However, if you plan to visit many shrines and temples and want to start a serious collection, you’ll probably want to get a stamp book, called a goshuin-cho. These books are made up of thick paper folded in an accordion-like pattern that can be stamped on both sides.
Goshuin-cho themselves can be quite collectible, with some shrines offering books with original artwork and patterns. Expect to pay between ¥1,000 and ¥2,000 for a book, which usually includes a free stamp. Some variety stores, such as Tokyu Hands, also offer goshuin-cho in a variety of styles.
The place to get your stamp is called the goshuin-jo, or goshuin uketsuke. Sometimes it is at the same place where the amulets and other goods are sold; sometimes it is a separate window or building. Sometimes there is a sign; sometimes there isn’t. If you’re unsure, ask “Goshuin-jo wa doko desu ka?” to one of the attendants and they can point you in the right direction.
The process at the stamping location can vary. If you’re looking for a single stamp on its own sheet, ask for a kami goshuin: “Kami goshuin onegai shimasu.” If instead you’re working with a book, open it to the page on which you want the stamp to be written and hand it to the attendant with a simple: “Onegai shimasu.”
Depending on the shrine, they may start writing immediately, right in front of you. Feel free to watch, but be aware that many shrines do not allow photos of this process. If you want a photo, always be sure to ask first: “Shashin totte ii desu ka?”
At some shrines, they will take the book to another room to do the writing; hang tight and they’ll be back soon. If it’s a particularly popular or busy spot, they may hand you a claim tag with a number on it. In this case, you don’t need to wait at the window. Come back in a few minutes to exchange the tag for your freshly stamped book.
Usually, they will place a piece of paper between the pages of the new stamp. This to protect the opposite page from the not yet dried ink, so leave it there for at least a few days. Oftentimes a pamphlet about the shrine or temple is included as well.
Finally, there’s the matter of payment. The cost is usually about 300 yen. Most places will ask for payment after the stamp is complete, though a few ask for it first. The attendant will make it clear which is the case.
And that’s all there is to it! Goshuin are inexpensive, unique and beautiful souvenirs. Why not start a collection during your trip to Japan?