Looking for a beautiful and unique souvenir from Japan? Want to keep the kids (or yourself) from getting “templed out”? Goshuin seals are just the thing! Stamped in red ink and personalized with black calligraphy, each seal commemorates a visit you made to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Receiving goshuin is a great way to get children involved. They can learn temple etiquette, unique characteristics of a shrine or temple, and some simple Japanese phrases. At the end, your family will have a unique, handcrafted book of memories to take home!
A Complete Guide to Collecting Goshuin at Japanese Temples and Shrines
What are Goshuin?
Goshuin, which means “sacred red seal” in Japanese, are decorative seals that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines provide to record your visit. They are made from a combination of vermillion stamps and black ink calligraphy. Collected together, the gorgeous designs are a beautiful souvenir of your time in Japan.
Goshuin or juyo? At Shinto shrines, goshuin are called juyo. For simplicity, in this post, we use the term goshuin for both.
Every goshuin is unique, both in design and the artistic style of the calligrapher. The seals are usually made by Buddhist monks or Shinto kannushi (people responsible for the maintenance of the shrine and leading the worship of the god). Although unique in appearance, the seals share common attributes: the shrine or temple’s name, your visit date, a Buddhist sutra or blessing, the characters 奉拝 symbolizing proof of your worship, stamped symbols representing the temple or shrine (a temple’s bodhisattva, official emblem, etc.).
Goshuin vs. Tourist Stamps. Stamps are popular in Japan! You will see “do it yourself” tourist stamps everywhere – train stations, castles, temples, and shrines. TOURIST STAMPS ARE NOT GOSHUIN. Feel free to collect tourist stamps, but not in your goshuin-cho or it is highly likely that you will be refused a goshuin in the future.
A Brief History
Surprisingly, the history of goshuin is murky. The most widely held belief is that the seals were proof that a pilgrim had copied Buddhist sutras at a particular time and place. This pilgrimage record was burned with your body during cremation.
Nowadays, religious pilgrims still collect goshuin as proof of their devotion, but you will be just as likely to see tourists and young Japanese collecting. “Goshuin Girls”, young women who document their collections on social media, have become a Japanese phenomenon.
What Do I Need to Collect Goshuin?
Starting your goshuin collection is easy! All you need is a goshuin-cho, a special notebook for collecting goshuin. You cannot use a regular notebook or diary from home.
Goshuin-cho come in different styles. The style I see most often is an accordion-style. I like this style because you can see multiple stamps at once. All styles have heavy paper that can withstand the calligraphy ink without bleeding or warping.
The easiest place to buy a goshuin-cho is at the first temple or shrine you visit. A book will cost around 1000-1500 yen, but specialty designs will cost more. Books are also available in stationery stores, souvenir stands, and dedicated online stores. Watch out! Sometimes these books are not the correct size. A traditional book should be about 11cm x 16 cm.
I also recommend a Ziploc bag to protect against water bottle leaks or rain. I live in fear of water damage! You can buy plastic protective covers at stationery stores or Tokyu Hands, but that’s more about protecting the cover design than the contents.
Once you have your goshuin-cho, you are ready to start collecting using the steps below!
How to Collect Goshuin
Step 1: Worship / Pay Respect at the Temple or Shrine
Goshuin are proof that you came to worship at the temple or shrine. Therefore, you should take the time to do so before requesting a goshuin. No one is going to check, but I think it’s a nice gesture of respect.
But I’m not a believer?! That’s completely ok! In Japan, respectfully reflecting at the temple as a non-believer and foreigner is OK. Plus, children usually love ringing the bell at shrines. It’s not often adults tell you it’s OK to ring a huge bell.
If you want to know more about praying at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan, tsunagu Japan has a good write-up.
Step 2: Find the Goshuin Office
For non-Japanese speakers, this may be the most difficult part of the process at first. Don’t worry. You quickly learn to identify the Kanji, even if you can’t read or speak Japanese.
First, we look for a sign containing 所. It’s easier for our untrained eyes to spot. Then we check if it’s part of one of the signs below, which point to the goshuin office. Head that direction and look for people holding goshuin-cho or framed signs with the seals.
If you are still lost, ask a Japanese speaker, “Goshuin wa doko desu ka?” (“Where is the goshuin place?”).
Crowded day? If a temple or shrine is extraordinarily busy, you may need to leave your goshuin-cho at the office. You will receive a numbered ticket in return. Enjoy the grounds and collect your book on the way out.
Not all temples and shrines give goshuin. Some sects, such as the Jodo Shinshu, do not give stamps. Some tiny or remote locations may not have staff. Don’t be afraid to ask. We have a few from places in the countryside where the people were amazed to see us.
Step 3: Choose Your Goshuin
All temples and shrines have a “main” goshuin. If more than one is available, you will see a display of the options at the goshuin office. Choose the one you would like. We only select one, but hardcore collectors are welcome to select multiple. Just be prepared to give an offering for each one.
Why are There Multiple Seals?
Sometimes temples or shrines have limited edition goshuin to celebrate festivals or holidays. Certain pilgrimage routes have special goshuin. Other temples have special goshuin for the Seven Lucky Gods.
At large Buddhist temples, different incarnations of the Buddha associated with different halls of worship may have separate seals. For example, Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto has at least ten different goshuin (the website is Japanese, but the pictures speak for themselves or you can use a translator).
Step 4: Receive Your Goshuin
Offer your book opened to the page where you would like the seal written. To show respect, pass the book with two hands. Say “Goshuin o onegai shimasu” (“Please give me a goshuin.”). If more than one choice is available, point to or name the one you would like.
Which page is next? Stamp your goshuin-cho from the back of the book to the front. Japanese is read from right to left so your stamps will be in chronological order from right to left.
Before starting, the monk or kannushi may flip through your book. Supposedly this is because they want to double-check they’re writing on the correct page. I think it’s because they’re curious where else you have been. We often receive comments about other temples or shrines we have visited. This may also be because our kids are the collectors and, admittedly, attract more attention than adults in line.
The monk or kannushi will then stamp and calligraph your goshuin while you watch. This is my favorite part! Their concentration and brush strokes are beautiful!
When you receive your book back, express your thanks by saying, “Domo arigatou gozaimasu.”
DO NOT CLOSE YOUR BOOK! The ink will be wet! In most cases, you receive a small piece of blotting paper. If not, wait until the ink fully dries before closing your book. The paper may have information about the temple. We don’t save them once the ink dries, because we can’t read Japanese. Other people like to keep them as an additional souvenir.
Ready-made goshuin. Rarely, a temple or shrine only offers ready-made goshuin. Carefully tuck the paper in your goshuin-cho. Later you can affix it in your book. I use scrapbooking adhesive tape. I worry glue will warp the paper or bleed the ink.
Step 5: Donate to the Temple or Shrine
After you receive your goshuin…or sometimes before…you will make a small donation of gratitude towards the temple. The standard donation is 300 yen, but some locations or elaborate seals are more expensive. The price should be clearly posted
Please have exact change. Credit cards are never accepted.
A Summary of Goshuin Etiquette
We covered all this in detail up above, but for those that like the condensed version…
- Worship first.
- Use a goshuin-cho.
- Hand over your goshuin-cho and money with two hands.
- Have exact change ready.
- Observe standard temple/shrine rules (e.g., no eating or drinking).
- Ask before taking photos or videos.
- Say thank you!
- Collect tourism stamps in your goshuin-cho.
- Write in your goshuin-cho.
How to Keep Track of Your Goshuin
Soon you will have a book full of gorgeous goshuin, but how will you remember where/when you received each one? This is a great question and a real problem for those of us that don’t read Kanji.
We keep a list washi-taped inside the front cover. You could also use the Notes app on your phone or put a sticky note on the blotting paper between pages. I have also seen people write in TINY letters on the page. Be forewarned! A goshuin is a sacred object and that means you should never write anything else in your goshuin-cho. If you do, a monk may refuse to write future goshuin. I have no idea if this really happens, but I’m risk adverse.
Do you collect goshuin? Will you try on an upcoming trip? We would love to hear more about your collection. Send us a note in the comments below!