If you’re not into gaudy key rings or personalized chopsticks, there’s a rather unusual way to trace your travels through Japan, and it’s called a goshuincho.
Translated to mean “The Honourable Red Stamp Notebook”, you may have seen goshuincho clutched in the arms of visitors to shrines or displayed carefully at the counters of temples. These small, unassuming notebooks have a long history and are unique by design, making them the perfect souvenir of your trip.
With concertina pages opening to form a scroll covered in bright vermilion stamps and elaborate calligraphy, the simple covers hide a beautiful secret you can add to on each trip. Whether you’re backpacking and have limited space, or enjoy a more traditional reminder of your travels, this is an ideal way to take a part of Japan home with you.
Japan stamp books: The history and culture
Originally believed to have been a way of recording receipts for monetary donations or copies of sutra given to temples and shrines, the books are also thought to have been a way of proving your travel was of a religious nature during strict travel restrictions centuries ago. Most likely a combination of the two, the books have become a way of tracing pilgrimages for Japanese people, whether official (such as the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage) or more informal travel between sites. For those on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, some still use white robes, which they have stamped and signed along the way, in place of books.
You may have noticed the love for stamp rallies in Japan, be it at festivals, train stations or department stores, the bright red stamps and ink presses are ready and waiting. A more modern take on the traditional, the concept of collecting and recording is popular from children to pensioners, and provides a certain sense of satisfaction.
Although shrines sell ema (wooden plaques for prayer) or omamori (charms) for everything from studying to marriage, there’s something satisfying about the growing pages of stamps, all similar yet different, all tightly packed into a small unassuming book. As there is no prescribed order or specific collection to achieve, you can begin the longest and most relaxed stamp rally in Japan, stopping at almost any shrine or temple to receive a stamp and create a completely unique collection following your journey in Japan.
The book and stamps
Designed to open concertina style; when extended fully your book will read from right to left, like a scroll. As each red stamp is different and each priest/monk has their own style, no two books are the same. And when you have gathered a few it is interesting to compare the brushstrokes and designs. The books can really vary, from temple designs to traditional patterns or nature themes, some are incredibly rare. For example, a location in Mt. Koya has covers made of solid wood from the ancient and sacred Kii mountain range forests.
The black calligraphy has four main parts: the right side of the page has the date, with “worship respectfully” above it. In the center is something unique to the shrine/temple, for example the deity enshrined there, and on the left bottom side is the name of the shrine or temple. In the top left, some will place the ranking of the location, but this is more unusual.
The red stamps that follow vary, all have a large central stamp, which have similarities across certain sects or school. If you see one with the chrysanthemum flower, for example, it means the place has close ties with the Imperial family, as this is their crest.
One important thing to remember is not to use the book for any other stamps, for example train stations or gardens—it is reserved for places of worship—either natural like Fuji or religious like Ise Grand Shrine. Some priests/monks will refuse to sign them if they have been used for unofficial stamps.
Buying your first book
At almost all medium-to-large shrines and temples, you’ll find a small desk selling a collection of brightly colored omamori—the charms or amulets bought to help with luck or ward away evil, all with unique designs. These are popular souvenirs but there’s only so many you can tie to your phone/bag or self. Either at this same stall or nearby, you’ll see a priest or monk sitting behind a small counter, possibly with a small queue of fellow stamp-bookers in waiting.
You can buy generic Japan stamp books everywhere, but some shrines or temples will have their own personalized covers, with a picture of the building or deity on the cover, often in beautiful colors with intricate patterns. The books are usually ¥1,000 and you get your first stamp for free.
If you’re looking for cute and colorful designs, department or stationery stores (like Loft or Tokyu Hands) will have you covered.
Now, stamp book envy is real, so no matter how nice it is, be prepared to see nicer ones for the rest of your trip, and form a coping mechanism. Once you’ve dealt with that, you’re ready to start filling it up! A plastic cover can be a good idea if you’re hiking or backpacking as it will keep it dry and safe, so keep this in mind if you see them on offer.
Getting it stamped
From now on, whenever you find yourself in a shrine or temple, keep an eye out for this small desk, if you can’t find it. Or asking a member of staff is simple enough, usually a show of the book and puzzled face will get you pointed in the right direction. When you’re at the desk, you can simple hand it over and if it isn’t busy, watch as they mark it then and there, starting with the traditional calligraphy before stamping the bright vermilion ink and adding a piece of blotting paper before handing it back (or a quick go with a hairdryer at the more forward-thinking spots).
When it’s all done and dusted you can pay your ¥300 donation, and admire your new addition. Sometimes it may cost more than ¥300—for example the spot on top of Fuji charges ¥1,000, and a small shrine in Nara charges ¥500 as they make the inscriptions with ash from the temple fire. Either way, prices are clearly displayed 99% of the time, so you can decide beforehand.
Sometimes, if it is a busy location, you’ll be given a number and you’ll be told to return in a while, usually only 10 minutes or so, with your number kept safe to claim back your book. This is an excellent time to test your book-envy skills, as you’ll be able to see some of the amazing designs available from across Japan. There are some places that have more than one deity enshrined, or more than one shrine or temple served by the the same counter, so you may be asked to choose a design from two displayed, or to have both if you like.
If you forget your book, don’t be too disheartened—many places have individual pieces of paper for sale with the stamp and the date added, and you can place it in your book when you get home.