This post originally appeared at Speculative Chic on June 25, 2020 as a part of the "Out of the Box" series on the blog. It has been slightly edited for this blog entry.
I came to Japan the summer of 2016 through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, and over the years I've worked in seven different schools as an assistant language teacher. In all of the time I’ve been here, I’ve developed a hobby that I would like to share with you: collecting goshuin.
Goshuin are red stamps and hand-painted calligraphy that go inside special books called goshuinchō. You collect these stamps at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples all over Japan. They look absolutely beautiful and are unique commemorations of your visit to these special places.
I knew about goshuin before I came to Japan. As part of my research before coming over, I watched a lot of NHK programs in English and saw goshuin in one of the episodes. Then, when I went to my first major Shinto shrine in Japan — Aoi Aso in Hitoyoshi — I witnessed a priest in the process of stamping a book, and that’s how I started my collection. I own 13 books (!) but only 6 of them are actually filled completely. 😅
I have collected goshuin in many parts of Kyushu, all over the island of Shikoku and up into Honshu, and then all the way south on the mystical island of Yakushima. Basically, if my car could get me there, I would go. There are still many places I haven’t explored in Kyushu (or the rest of Japan for that matter), and with coronavirus putting a stop to traveling, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to fill the rest of my books before my tenure on the JET program ends summer 2022. However, as you can see from this map, I’ve collected a lot since coming here.
The majority of stamps are red with black calligraphy, but sometimes during holidays or special events at shrines or temples, you can get stamps in different colors, and the calligraphy can be in gold or silver. I have no qualms getting stamps from the same location on different visits if I know from experience the stamps are gorgeous. Takeo Shrine and Aso Hakusui Ryujingongen (nicknamed Shirohebi Shrine) are two places where I’ve gotten the most stamps based on their beauty. I also found out they rotate the stamps based on special occasions, so I have a good variety in my book!
How do I select my shrines or temples to visit? Even though collecting stamps is my hobby, I don’t choose places based on their stamp. A lot of times shrines and temples do not have websites or pictures of their stamps online, and then there are many shrines that are generally unmanned, so there’s no guarantee you’ll get a goshuin when you go. I carry my book just in case, and if there’s no stamp, oh well, because visiting a shrine or temple is its own reward. It’s like touching myth.
I admit I have a preference for Shinto shrines, mostly because of the famous stories that take place there, so I’ve seen far more shrines than Buddhist temples in Japan. What I do is choose a location based on the god or spirit (kami) enshrined. For example, when I went to Izumo, I chose the location based on all of the early mythology from the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, but particularly because of Susanoo, the mischievous god of storms and seas. Though Izumo is far more famous for Ōkuninushi, a god of marriage, so many important things related to Susanoo happened in Izumo, such as him slaying the eight-headed serpent Yamata no Orochi and rescuing (later marrying) Kushinadahime. Whether the shrines had stamps or not wasn’t so much the point of the visit, but you can bet I brought my goshuinchō with me to capture a piece of the shrine to take home with me if I could.
I also like to frequent shrines that are dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten. She is one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan and she is referred to the goddess of all things “that flow.” This encompasses everything from water, luck with money, music, the arts, love — and so I visit her shrines to pray for my creativity (and for the words) to flow as I write. She’s definitely a patron of creative types! Her symbols are serpents (including dragons) and the biwa (Japanese lute), and because she is affiliated with water, many of her shrines are on islands. I have multiple goshuin with white snakes in my book, and I’m happy to tell you I’ve seen many white snakes in person, and they are beautiful.
There is etiquette to all of this. You have to remember that these locations are living places of worship. You can’t just show up and get a stamp. You need to come with the mindset that you are entering a place that is sacred to others. First you must wash at the designated basin (the rite of temizu), go and pray at the haiden with an offering (traditionally a 5-yen coin), and then you can buy your omamori (amulets with prayers inside) or goshuin.
If you ever have the pleasure of being able to visit Japan, I highly recommend partaking in this tradition. It’s an affordable souvenir (usually ¥1000 for the book and ¥300 for the stamp) and is a wonderful way to support the shrine or temple you’re visiting. It’s something I’ve enjoyed for years, and I hope the state of the world improves so I can continue completing my collection before I leave Japan this summer.