Goshuin — All You Need To Know About Collecting Them

The tradition of collecting Goshuin (御朱印), a handwritten seal or stamp given at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples is a unique experience for travellers and pigrims alike. Each Goshuin is unique, often featuring calligraphy and intricate designs, and is hand-stamped by the priest or monk.

Goshuincho

Goshuincho for sale, in Nara
Various versions of goshuincho

Goshuincho (御朱印帳) translates to Goshuin book. This is a special book used to collect these stamps. Every temples and shrines will have many designs to choose from. You should not be collecting them in your notebooks or random papers as you were for collecting inkan or eki stamps. They are not your average tourist souvenirs and are considered sacred. It is a sign of you having visited and paid respect at the religious sites; like a symbolism of your relationship with the gods or deities.

Where To Get Goshuin?

The Goshuincho is usually sold at the Shuinjo (朱印所), the place will have a signboard with 朱印所 written on it, the place where you could get your Goshuin. Similarly, at the counters selling the amulets, also known as Omamori (御守/お守り). They are usually not located far from each other.

Goshuincho from Sakura Jingu, Tokyo
2 different types of goshuin from Sakura Jingu

Each Goshuin will fill up one full page of the Goshuincho, and will also likely contain the date of your visit and name of the temple or shrine.

A piece of sad news is that, since the start of Covid-19, many shrines and temples have been giving the Goshuin on a piece of paper instead of stamping in the Goshuincho. So you will have to stick them yourself onto your Goshuincho, please be careful.

Sometimes, the “limited edition” Goshuin will also be drawn on papers rather than directly on your book.

Some temples and shrines have special “limited edition” Goshuin that are only available on special occasions, such as New Year, Christmas and even for the arrival of spring.

Shinto Shrines & Buddhist Temples: Spotting the Differences

Both are places of workship and offer Goshuin, with some similarities in architecture depending on when they were built. Overall, the basic features of Japanese architecture is the same. However, do take note of the distinct differences which you can tell with one look.

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto
Fox guardians (kitsune) guarding the torii gates at Fushimi inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社)

Shinto shrines, marked by a Torii gate at their entrances, are dedicated to Kami/god (神). Shinto (神道) is “the way of the gods” as depicted by the Kanji. The architecture is typically simpler, with a focus on harmony with nature itself. Animal statues are usually seen guarding the entrances. For instance, the fox guardians seen in Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Sensoji, Asakusa, Tokyo
Sensoji’s (浅草寺) Kaminarimon (雷門) with Fujin and Raijin

On the other hand, Buddhist temples are idenified with Sanmon (山門 or 三門). In general, temple gates are called Sanmon (山門), because temples were usually built deep in the mountains. While Sanmon (三門) is the abbreviation of 三解脱門 translating to “gate of the three liberations”, the gate of Zen buddhist temple. They are often used interchangeably as they sound the same, just written differently.

Kōfuku-ji, Nara
Kōfuku-ji (興福寺)

The architecture is usually more elaborate, with large halls and pagodas. Nio are usually seen at the temple gates to ward off evil spirits. Similarly, other gods can be seen at other gates of the temple.

Paying Respect: The Rituals and Customs

It is important to follow the customs and rituals, and be respectful to the people around you when visiting these sacred sites.

Sakura Jingu Main Hall
Sakura Jingu’s (桜神宮) Main Hall

At a Shinto shrine, you would bow once before entering the shrine’s torii facing the main hall. Approaching the main hall, throw the coin into the offering box, ring the bell then bow twice, clap your hands twice and make your prayers. Bow once more after making your prayer. Last but not least, bow again facing the main hall before leaving the shrine’s torii. Some shrines have the steps on how to make your prayers written in English in front of the main hall. Most of the time, they do not inform you of bowing facing the main hall. You will usually see locals stopping right before they enter or leave the shrine, don’t be confused.

Todaiji Great Buddha Hall
Tōdaiji (東大寺), interior of the Great Buddha Hall (大仏殿)

At a Buddhist temple, the customs can vary, but generally, you would approach the temple, place incense in the incense burner, then put your hands together in a prayer position and bow. You can approach the friendly temple staffs to learn more if unsure.

The Unspoken Rule

While the practice of collecting Goshuin is common across Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, there isn’t a strict rule that require differentiating or separating the Goshuincho. However, it’s important to note that Shinto and Buddhism are distinct religions with different beliefs and practices, even though they have coexisted in Japan for over a thousand years.

In some cases, a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine may decline to stamp a Goshuincho that contains stamps from the other religion. Although not a universal practice, it can occur in places where the religious authorities maintain a strict separation between Shinto and Buddhism. The reasons can vary.

It’s always a good idea to ask if you’re unsure. Or to be safe, you can keep the books for each religion separate. The key is to approach the practice with respect and understanding for the religion.

Please take some time to understand the history of the site and religion, it is a fulfilling experience alongside collecting Goshuin.

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