While many foreign tourists visit Buddhist temples (otera お寺) and Shinto shrines (jinja 神社), few know about a custom that has been around for centuries: pilgrimage books. The pilgrimage book or shuinchō (朱印帳), often called go-shuinchō (ご朱印帳), is a book for collecting stamps, often accompanied with some calligraphy, called a shuin (朱印). This practice, according to the Japanese Wikipedia article, supposedly dates back to the Muromachi Period (12th – 16th century) of Japanese history, but really took off in the Edo Period (17th – 19th century) when the government was more stable, and people could safely travel more on pilgrimages.
These days, most temples and shrines still have such books for sale, and such temples also have places to get your booked signed. The book I have was purchased at the famous temple of Todaiji in Nara way back in 2005, my first visit to Japan:1
…and since I got the book at Todaiji temple, I got my first stamp there:
My last stamps are from 2019, my last trip to Japan before the pandemic, which also happens to be the first year of the reign of the Reiwa Emperor, so the stamps show 令和元年 (reiwa gannen, “inaugural year of Reiwa”). These stamps were both from Hatonomori Hachimangū Shrine (a very cool and underrated shrine) and probably a fun subject for another post. The “dove” stamps are because the “Hato” in the shrine name also means “dove”.
What really makes the stamps interesting to me isn’t just collecting stamps, but also the individual calligraphy styles. Each temple or shrine attendant has their own style, and some of them are quite beautiful. My wife is trained in Japanese calligraphy, so it’s interesting to see how she rates each one. Frankly, they all look great to me.
A few things to keep in mind if you’re interesting in getting a pilgrimage book. First, the books usually cost around ¥1000 (roughly $10), and are usually sold at the same and each stamp will cost between ¥300 to ¥500. Each temple sets their own price, and with inflation prices have probably gone up over time. My memory is fuzzy. Also, when you purchase the book, if I recall corectly
You can usually the “stamp office” near the gift shop, with a sign like “朱印帳” and such. If you’re confident in your Japanese, you can simply show an open page in your book and say o-ne-gai-shi-mas (お願いします, “if you please” or “I humbly request”).
Often times, especially in busier temples, they will take your book, and give you a numbered ticket, so you can reclaim your book later. It takes time to sign each one, so you may get put into a queue. You can use that time to peruse the gift shop anyway.
…and that’s how it works! Good luck and happy collecting!
Also, here’s some other great sites on collecting shuin stamps:
P.S. Now that I’ve finally completed my book after 14 years, I plan to start two new ones (see footnote below): one for Shinto shrines and one for Buddhist temples once the pandemic is over and we can visit Japan again.
1 I found out years later that you’re supposed to have separate books for Shinto shrines you visit vs. Buddhist temples that you visit. A warning to other tourists and travelers.
2 The 33 statues of Kannon are really worth seeing if you come to Kyoto. I have no photos from the trip as they are not allowed inside, but take my word for it, it is an amazing site.