Goshuin: Collecting Temple Calligraphy

If you’ve traveled much to mainland Japan, you’ll know that many of the historical and tourist attractions are temples and shrines. You may have seen people buying omamori (small silk charms that promise luck or protection in some way) or writing wishes on ema (wooden plaques) to leave hanging at the shrine for the gods to accept. These, and other little tokens like fortunes, usually cost a few hundred yen and benefit the temple. However, there is also a lesser-known memento available at temples that is very unique and has become one of my most treasured possessions: goshuin (ご朱印).

 I’m sure you’ve seen shodou (Japanese calligraphy), and you’ll also know that stamps in Japan are both beautiful and ubiquitous. At large temples and shrines, priests combine calligraphy and stamps to create distinctive seals commemorating your visit to the temple. Unique to each temple, these seals are called goshuin (honorable red seal). Many people collect them in a book called goshuinchou (honorable red seal notebook) while on religious pilgrimages. These books are made of washi paper and fold out like an accordion. They can be purchased at many of the large temples in Kyoto, Nara, or Tokyo, or you can often find them at stationery stores in most cities. The blank books usually cost about one thousand yen, and each seal costs three hundred yen. If you visit a lot of temples, it can add up to a rather expensive souvenir, but the cost is spread out and you’ll end up with a remarkable record of your own temple pilgrimages, whether religious or just to see the sights.

When you are at the temple or shrine, look for the area where they are selling omamori. This is where you will find the priest to write goshuin in your book. It is polite to open your book to the next empty page and say onegaishimasu (an extra polite form of please) when handing it to the priest. Sometimes they will ask you to wait for a few minutes if they are busy, but most likely you can stand there and watch them write it. This is a small treat in itself. Some priests take their time writing each character carefully and methodically, while others are lightning fast and use the speed to create their unique calligraphic style. As with shodou, they hold the brush vertically and carefully keep their sleeves out of the way of the black ink. They will stamp the page in the traditional red vermillion color— sometimes before writing, sometimes after—and then put a small sheet of scrap paper in the book so it doesn’t bleed onto the facing page while the ink dries. Give the priest three hundred yen and you’re on your way. If you visit a temple and happen to forget your book, you can still ask for a goshuin. The priest will write it on a small sheet of paper, and you can paste it into your book later.

Now for what’s actually written on these seals. As I’ve said, each seal is unique to the temple it represents, and also to the priest who writes it, but there are always several similar elements on each one. The large central characters always refer to something specific to the temple, usually a deity. In the top right corner you will find the kanji 奉拝 (houhai), which means pray respectfully. Many of the larger temples have a ranking, which tells you how important the temple is to the particular branch of Buddhism it represents. This is usually found in the top left corner, though for smaller temples it is often left blank. The name of the temple and the date you visit can alternate between the lower left and lower right corners. As for the red stamps, there are at least two, and sometimes as many as six. The smaller stamps in the top right and bottom left are specific to the temple, while the larger ones in the center can often be the same or similar to other temples belonging to the same sect of Buddhism. Even though the writing on these seals is obviously kanji, many Japanese people can’t read it because it is so stylized. That’s why I like to think of goshuin as little works of art, much like calligraphic wall scrolls. Only with these it’s possible to gather hundreds of them and take them home.

As you know, Okinawan culture is quite different from that of mainland Japan so there are fewer temples and shrines here, and many of them are too small to have a priest. I did get goshuin at the Naminoue Shrine in Naha, so maybe that can be your first seal if you decide to start a goshuinchou of your own. If you find other places in Okinawa that offer the seals, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, happy traveling and collecting!

Images courtesy of Elizabeth Firmage

Elizabeth Firmage is a freelance graphic designer and artist, and an OIST spouse. Originally from Utah, USA, she also lived in Nagano prefecture in mainland Japan for two years. She came to Okinawa for the beach (oh, and to be with her husband).