What is a goshuinchou?
I have been asked that question by many a Westerner, and many a Japanese person as well. What is this goshuinchou thing?
A goshuinchou is, if you want to translate it, a “red seal book”. 御朱印長. Most shrines (and temples) that are registered with the government have a “goshuin”, a seal, that belongs only to that shrine. Some are simple, a square with the shrine’s name in old-style kanji script, and some are elaborate and include multiple stamps. At shrines with an office or home on the property you can request to have one done in your book.
What then happens is the person, (usually the priest, but sometimes the caretaker, a volunteer who is good with calligraphy, or a local grandfather), will get their ink on and inscribe the date and name of the shrine on the page in calligraphy before getting to stamping and returning your book, sometimes with rice paper between the pages to prevent ink blotting and sometimes even with a bonus pamphlet about the shrine.
How much does it cost to get a stamp?
The usual running price to have a goshuin done is 300 yen, so about 3 US dollars. However, on occasion I’ve encountered places, (usually temples), where I’ve been charged 400 or 500, and some where I was told to give “according to my gratefulness”. It can add up over time, and looking at my three goshuinchou makes me really not want to do the math, but I consider it worth it.
Why should I start one then?
Originally goshuinchou were used as a kind of passport to the next life, a kind of proof of how devoted or faithful you were. You got them done as a record of your pilgrimages and then when you died had them burned with your body during cremation- at least, that’s what I’ve been told by Japanese friends who also do goshuinchou. Nowadays people still do that, but many people now also do it just as a record. For those who undertake pilgrimages or visit shrines regularly, it’s wonderful to be able to look back at your seal books and reminisce. Watching them evolve from a blank book in to a work of art as you add seals is also a great experience. When I unfurl the book, (it’s accordion style), and see the sea of black and crimson, so many designs and handwriting… It’s become beautiful.
You can also always just use it as an incredibly awesome coffee table book or souvenir- that works, too.
How do I get the book?
Most major shrines sell books! “Major” is hard to define since I’ve seen huge, sprawling shrines that didn’t sell them and I’ve seen small, back alley ones that do, but if they have a shrine office they may have a book. You probably won’t need to ask- if they have one its usually on display either at the same counter where omamori are sold or at a separate counter where goshuin are done. Some shrines have multiple designs to choose from, some are plain, some are fancy, some come as is and some come with neat little plastic covers- variety is the spice of life!
What kind of book should I get?
Most people recommend you get a book from a shrine you visit often or feel some affinity to. Temple books tend to be plainer and more cloth based while shrine books tends to involve more embroidery or color, though there are always exceptions. If aesthetics are important to you, (and why not, you will be carrying this around and presenting it to tons of people), this site is a very useful resource and has a lot of book images in there for you to peruse. It’s only in Japanese but if you know the kanji of the shrine in question you can ctrl+f.
How do I request to have my book stamped?
It isn’t too difficult to procure the stamp even if you don’t speak Japanese well, so don’t be nervous. At a shrine office look for the sign 御朱印 and when in doubt just ask a priestess or caretaker. All you really need to use is “do you have a goshuin?”, (goshuin ga arimasu ka?). If they do, they will then give the answer in the form of offering to take your book there, (azukaru), or point you in the direction of the goshuin counter if it’s separate from where you are. Once you’re handing over the book just use “please”, (onegai shimasu), and you should be fine.
What if they ask me which stamp I want?
Occasionally a shrine or temple may offer more than one seal. Popular alternative seals are those of the Seven Lucky Gods, (七福神), or in the case of exclusively temples, different bodhisattvas or incarnations of the Buddha associated with different worship halls on the property. For example, at Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto you can get three- one for the main hall of worship, Kannon, one for the pagoda, Fudōmyō, and one for the spring, Amida Nyōrai. When in doubt go for the basic seal for the main hall/shrine. (Honzan at temples, Honsha at shrines.)
Is there anything I should be careful of?
As a cautionary note, just in case you feel compelled to do this- do not put any stamps in this book yourself. I’ve had friends who unknowingly put in the do-it-yourself world heritage stamp rally stamps and the like in their books only to have the next priest who handled it, and even priests after that, (since sometimes they’ll flip through your book to see where you’ve been and if you’re doing things properly), lecture them over it. Not fun.
Is it finished when I run out of pages?
Upon completing one side of your book, flip it over and began again on the backside! Some people only do one side for purely aesthetic reasons, but I’m told that originally one was supposed to fill every page. When you finish it should have somewhere in the realm of forty seals within! A trick I recommend is keeping a list of shrines you’re getting seals from, whether it be on a piece of paper or what have you. I use the Notes on my iPhone. Even people with good kanji skills sometimes have trouble with calligraphy fonts and antiquated pronunciations, so I like to play it safe and not forget.
Is that it?
It should be! Hopefully this guide was helpful and you are now prepared to enjoy collecting goshuin! If you have any questions or input, feel free!