What is a Goshuinchō? The Japanese Book of Seals
If I asked you what comes to mind when you think of Japanese culture you might say kimono-wearing geisha, anime, manga, sumo-wrestling, and sushi. While of course these are significant and popular parts of the culture, there is so much more to discover – much of which I hadn’t even heard of until I lived in Japan myself. The cultural tradition I became most fond of involved a goshuinchō.
御朱印帳 (ごしゅいんちょう) goshuinchō = book of seals/stamps
Never heard of it? Neither had I until I was kindly gifted one by my friend’s boss on a trip to Mount Kōya, but the rest of that story is for another day. A goshuinchō is a type of blank book used for collecting ‘stamps’ from shrines and temples – but these aren’t the kind of stamps you might attach to your letters to send in the post. The stamps are also known as seals, and goshuinchō translates as an ‘honourable book of seals’. Shrines and temples often have their own goshuin for their individual place of worship.
御朱印 (ごしゅいん) goshuin = seal/stamp (with honorific prefix, ‘go’)
What is the purpose of a goshuinchō?
Goshuinchō are believed to have been used to evidence a person’s time spent at a certain temple writing scripture to prove their faithful devotion. Visiting various shrines and temples for religious practice is known as pilgrimage and is still practiced around Japan today. It is believed that a completed goshuinchō will provide spiritual fulfilment, though the tradition is also gradually becoming popular as a secular activity among the younger Japanese population and tourists alike.
Those following traditional pilgrimages such as the Shikoku Pilgrimage (comprising 88 temples on the island!) often wear white robes and straw sedge hats, and may even have their robes signed on their pilgrimage. You can read more about the Shikoku Pilgrimage on the Japan Times website.
Where can I buy a goshuinchō?
Goshuinchō are sold at shrines and temples with a design including the name of the shrine or temple it was bought from. It is advised that worshippers purchase a goshuinchō from a shrine or temple with which they have a close affinity, though you may feel a stronger connection to or preference for the site once you have purchased your goshuinchō. Due to a growing popularity amongst the younger Japanese generations, goshuinchō can now be found in stationary stores though these differ in size (and therefore may even be rejected by some Shinto kannushi or Buddhist monks!)
How do I use my goshuinchō?
It is polite and proper to first make a donation to the shrine or temple at the saisenbako and pray. Given the intended purpose of the goshuin is to mark religious pilgrimage, it would be improper and even offensive to purchase a stamp without first praying and making an offering. Then you may purchase a goshuinchō – these are usually found alongside omamori (charms), and price varies by location – I would suggest preparing to pay up to ¥2000 for this, though some are available for less than ¥1000!
賽銭箱 (さいせんばこ) saisenbako = offertory box, donations to the gods or bodhisattvas
御守り (おまもり) omamori = lucky charm – available from shrines and temples, often dedicated to the Shinto kami or Buddhist figures worshipped at that particular religious site. You may notice that 御 is read as ‘o’ (お) rather than ‘go’ (ご) in this instance.
Now, to get the seal! The ‘reception’ area may be marked with 御朱印 (goshuin) or 朱印 (shuin) though attendants will help you find the ‘reception’ if you are unsure. The price per seal generally costs between ¥300 and ¥500 yen, but you may encounter a monk or kannushi who asks that you ‘pay how you feel’ (okimochi).
お気持ち (おきもち) okimochi = feeling (in this case, feelings of gratitude)
What do the different components mean?
- The date of your visit (平成二十九 五月 十八日 – literally meaning ’29th year of the Heisei era, 5th month, 18th day’, which is the ’18th of May 2017′)
- Meaning ‘Worship’ 奉拝
- A stamp which relates to the animal kami of this given shrine (more on that in a future post!)
- A stamp for the shrine name (written from right-to-left, top-to-bottom!)
- Name of the shrine – (This is from Hakuto shrine: 白兎神社 (はくとじんじゃ)
奉拝 (ほうはい) houhai = worship
神 (かみ) kami = god
神社 (じんじゃ) jinja = shrine
Some words of advice
- If you forget to take your goshuinchō on your next day out, you can ask to receive your stamp on a fresh piece of paper to glue in later – but they will not accept other notebooks or scraps of paper!
- It is considered disrespectful to also collect commemorative stamps in your goshuinchō – these are different from the seals and involve simply pressing a stamp into ink on and down onto paper. These can be found in locations like train stations, museums, and historic monuments – not just religious sites! If you wish to collect these, I would recommended you do so using a separate book.
- You should try to bring accurate change when purchasing a seal rather than bringing larger bank notes (like ¥5,000 or ¥10,000).
- While waiting for your seal to be completed, wait patiently! Do not text, talk loudly, eat, or drink, as this would be considered disrespectful.
Considering I previously had no idea the tradition even existed, my goshuinchō is probably my most prized possession from my time in Japan. For me, it’s an interesting part of travelling in Japan and interacting with the cultural and religious sites I visited. I really hope to be able to return in the future and continue expanding my collection. I think it’s especially helpful to invest yourself in a hobby or pastime in your host country’s culture to help overcome culture shock and assimilate more comfortably. Are you battling boredom? Why not pick up a new Japanese hobby in your spare time? At The Japanese Shop, we have calligraphy goods, origami sets, bespoke kimono for all the family, and so much more!