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The Beautiful Japanese Tradition of Goshuincho

By Crystal Branco Have you ever been to a Temple or Shrine and noticed visitors holding tiny books–but had no idea what they were for?  They are cataloging proof of pilgrimage by using a Goshuincho. Read along to get a […]

By Crystal Branco

Have you ever been to a Temple or Shrine and noticed visitors holding tiny books–but had no idea what they were for?  They are cataloging proof of pilgrimage by using a Goshuincho. Read along to get a crash course in this amazing tradition– and I ensure you will be ready to hit up a temple/shrine near you to collect your stamps in no time. 

What is a Goshuincho?

 A Goshuincho is a special book designed to hold blessings. The creation of each Goshuincho is a combination of both stamps and traditional Japanese calligraphy.  The translation of Goshuincho is “A Book of Seals.” As most temples and shrines have established lineages, each one typically has a Goshuin (a seal)  that is unique to that particular temple or shrine. 

 The books are small (about 6 inches high and 4 inches across) and can hold dozens of blessings. The books are even more unique in that the pages are accordion style and once a book is filled, one could lay all of the blessings out flat (see picture below). And as a bonus– the accordion pages are double sided so the book will look different when flipped onto its other side. 

A Short History on Goshuincho

Although I couldn’t pinpoint an origin story that all historians agree upon, the most likely theory states that this tradition goes back to a time when long religious pilgrimages were far more common than they are today. It is said that Goshuins were given to devoted religious followers by priests as proof that they had successfully copied sutras in a time of devotion. Because location and time were very important in the practice of copying devotionals, these “paper receipts” and the Goshuincho as a collection of those Goshuin were used as a passport to the afterlife. 

What is on the Goshuin?

As opposed to writing it all out and (perhaps) unsuccessfully describing it accurately, I made a graphic to explain all the parts of the seal. For the most part, they will look like this. There will be a date, there will be a seal unique to the temple/shrine, and there will be the”Houhai” in the upper right corner. However, it is important to note that not all Goshuin will have each element. Additionally, there are “special edition” Goshuins and if you would like to have them, they will be for an additional fee. It’s completely up to you. If it helps, anything you donate/purchase is going directly back into the temple/shrine.

Hasa-Dera Shrine

How does it work?

First and foremost, it is important to remember that you are entering a shrine/temple and it is a place of worship. If you are wanting to be as respectful as possible, please follow these protocols upon entering. This list is not comprehensive, but should cover most bases. 

  1. Remove your hat/sunglasses upon entering the space. 
  2. Have a small monetary offering for the shrine, and bow upon entering and leaving. A five yen coin or two should suffice.
  3. Pay attention to the shrine rules, which are often posted. For example, most do not allow eating, drinking, and taking pictures/video. 

If you are going to a shrine to start a Goshuincho of your own, they will have empty books available to you in a common area where the omamori (the charms) are for sale. The prices typically range from 800-1500 yen. The one shown in this blog was 1000 yen at the Hasa-Dera Shrine in Kamakura. Please bring cash as most only accept this. However, I have found that there is no need to pay in small cash. I paid with a 5000 yen bill and that was not a problem. If you already have your own, skip this step.

Once you are ready to receive your empty goshuincho, go to the desk or booth with a picture on display of a Goshuin. I’ve found that there is no uniform place at the temples/shrines where the seals are written, so it’s best practice to just find the area with a seal on display next to it. 

Like I mentioned before, there may be many options for you to choose from. The basic blessings are around 300-500 yen. The special editions can be upwards of 1000 yen. The choice is yours and all you have to do is point at the one you want. 

Lastly, temples/shrines have altered their Goshuin practices in the wake of Covid-19 and many are now pre-made. When you select your goshuin, don’t be surprised if they give you a crisp piece of paper already handmade to put in your Goshuincho. You can either slip this directly into your book to glue on later, or look around for a “gluing station.” Some graciously provide these. Not all temples/shrines have done this and I have at least one Goshuin directly handwritten in my book. 

For many, it’ll be a challenge to fill an entire book. For the travel-determined, it may only take about a month or so. Either way, what a fun way to catalog an adventure! Therefore, if you go to regions where this is exceptionally common (such as Kyoto or Kamakura), don’t forget your book! And if you need gift ideas, grab a few extra Goshuin and gift to a loved one as a prayerful momento. You can even frame it!

In the know? Tell us where the coolest place to pick up a Goshuin is!

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