Friday, May 9, 2008

Sacred Memories Signed and Sealed: Goshuincho 御朱印帖

Japan's Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are world renowned for their beauty and architecture, craftsmanship and style. These holy edifices inspire a whole mix of emotions: from the humility of being seen by the 1200 year old, 500 ton, 50 foot tall Great Buddha at Nara's Todai-ji Temple, or the claustrophobia of fighting through the tourist gauntlet at Asakusa's Senso-ji, the oldest, busiest, and most commercial temple in Tokyo, to the utter confusion of seeing a bronze kamikaze pilot statue standing next to a real Japanese Zero fighter-plane at Yasukuni Shrine, notorious for its enshrinement of 14 class-A WWII war criminals. Whatever emotions or memories you feel, the best way to remember them is with a goshuincho, a unique piece of Japanese religious culture that's tailor made for the job.

A goshuincho 御朱印帖, pronounced "go-shoo-een-choh," is a book used to collect the official vermilion (shu, in Japanese) colored stampings from the name seals of temples and shrines. The seals (in, in Japanese) function just like the personal name seals Japanese people use for business and other formal purposes, only religious seals are larger and more intricately designed. The book itself (cho, in Japanese) is a bound set of blank paper where the priests do the stamping and writing. Each inscription is made of two parts: the stamping of the seal and the writing of the temple's name, usually done in beautiful calligraphy. Click here for a Japanese gallery of stampings.

Here's what you do. After praying at a temple or shrine, head over to the booth selling religious charms and hand the priest your seal book. The priest opens your book to the next free page and stamps it with temple's seal using vermilion colored ink. Then, using brush and black ink, the priest writes the temple's name along with the date of your visit in calligraphy. After paying the nominal 300 yen, about $3, your book is returned with a crisp new memory.

Seal books are available at most major temples and shrines throughout Japan and cost around 1,500 yen, $13, with the first inscription fee included. Covers come in a kaleidoscopic selection of colors and styles, ranging from the old-school monotones sold at Asakusa's Senso-ji Temple, to the colorful and meticulously detailed cover scenes offered by Ueno Park's humble Kiyomizu-do Temple, or Kamakura's dramatic Tsurugaoka-Hachiman Shrine. When purchasing a new seal book ask the priest to write your name on it as his calligraphy will no doubt look better than your own.

Aside from temples and shrines, inscriptions are also available at various holy places, such as Nikko's picturesque Shinkyo Bridge, and, as I was surprised to discover, at the twin peaks of Ibaraki prefecture's 877 meter (2,877 foot) Mount Tsukuba.

I've been collecting temple seals for over a year now and it never ceases to amaze me how pulling out a goshuincho captures every one's attention and sparks conversation. Recently I visited Tomyo-ji, a small local temple, and was invited inside to wait until the priest returned to inscribe my book. While waiting, the grandmother who lives adjacent to the temple came in and asked to see my seal book. As her old bent fingers worked the pages apart and lightly traced the calligraphy of others, her eyes widened and glowed at the familiar places she began revisiting.

"You were at Nikko's Rinno-ji Temple over New Years. Tell me, was there snow on the eves," she asked with anticipating eyes. "Just a little," I said.

"And here, at Tokyo's Zojo-ji Temple in April, were the cherry-blossoms still in bloom?" A rich broad smile wrinkled her face when I told her that indeed, the blossoms were beautiful.

That's the power of the goshuincho: it transports the viewer back to striking places. Between its covers lies the sacred topography of both Japan and the heart. Memories take on flesh as the mind strolls through the pages -memories of awe before a great Buddha, experiences of chaos in a religious tourist trap, feelings of confusion at a modern war shrine, and, perhaps most evocatively, slow afternoon chats with the golden faithful - all signed and sealed.

To purchase a goshuincho ask anyone working at a major temple or shrine. The pronunciation guide at the top of the page should make this easier. It is possible to buy a book at all of the temple and shrines mentioned in this article.

Pictures-- Top: Inscription from Kamakura's Engaku-ji Temple, one the Japan's greatest Zen training grounds. Middle: My goshuincho. The light green book is from Kyoto's Eikan-do Temple, the open book on the right shows the inscription from Juisen-ji, the 3rd temple of 34 on the Chichibu Pilgrimage Route, on the floor are inscriptions from three Tokyo Shinto shrines, from left to right: Hie Shrine, Meiji Shrine, and Shinjuku's Hanazono Shrine. Bottom: Covers, my name is visible in Japanese katakana script, written by the priests of course. Video at Bottom: Inscription at Kyoto's small but extremely impressive Kodai-ji Temple. My friend is speaking with the priest.


  1. Hi,

    I'm hoping you can answer a very random question for me about the goshuincho.

    I came to Japan just over a year ago and have been collecting seals in a book, which is now almost complete. The question is, do you use both sides of the paper in the books or just one? I know its a very peculiar question but what do you do?

    Thanks, beautiful blog btw,


  2. Hey Hannah, first off, I hope you were not injured in the earthquake/tsunami. My heart goes out to Japan.

    Regarding your question, it depends on the thickness of the paper. I did both front and back on mine and had very minimal bleed through. It's your call though.

    Happy collecting!