After visiting Japanese temples and shrines a couple of times, you may have noticed some people going to another counter which is usually next to the one selling the usual variety of 御守charms, 御神籤 fortune paper strips and 絵馬 wishing wooden plaques, presenting a book to the miko. Sometimes a number is called out and a person will come forward to collect the book, known as the shuincho 朱印帳. The prefix go 御/ご is usually used as a mark of respect, hence the seal book is more appropriately referred to as goshuincho 御朱印帳, and the seal goshuin 御朱印.
I have seen ladies exchanging seal books and recounting their visits to each other while on the train. Collecting seals has become popular among young Japanese adults, giving rise to the term 御朱印ガール goshuin girl, which means a young woman who is obsessed with collecting seals. There is even a jpop song that celebrates this phenomenon. In this article, I shall highlight some facts to take note of, especially if you are interested to start collecting seals during your travels in Japan.
Purpose and Price
Seals have existed in Japan for a long time and it is believed to have originated from Buddhist temples. Long ago, seals are received as a form of receipt for having donated a sutra to the temple. As a pilgrimage record, it bears testament to one's devoutness and is burnt together with the body when cremated.
Nowadays, a payment of 300 yen is usually made at most places to receive a seal. Giving exact change is much appreciated, especially at far off places with not much visitors. However, at certain temples or during certain festivals, the price can go up to 500 yen and above.
One might wonder why the custom of receiving a seal only after donating a sutra is no longer practiced. While at some places there is a small area allocated for devotees to copy sutras, it will certainly be challenging when there is a huge crowd.
A more plausible reason is that younger Japanese regard visiting and praying at a shrine as sufficient in expressing one's faith, while at the same time more Japanese collect seals as a hobby rather than as a religious practice. I also believe receiving cash payment for seals goes some way towards the upkeep of the shrine.
A proper seal book has to be purchased first before collecting your first seal. Do browse online to get an idea of the variety of designs of various temples. There are also seal books sold at bookstores which do not have the name of any shrine/temple printed on it, but are recognised as a standard seal book.
My first seal book is from Mt Hiezan, while one can probably tell that the second book, bearing the iconic floating tori gate, is from Itsukushima Shrine. I am still in the process of filling up the second book, but have purchased the third one at Ako, as I like the design which depicts the heroics of the 47 ronin, and also because Ako is a far flung place which I am unlikely to visit again in the near future.
Seals can only be inscribed on proper seal books - do not even try to plead in your best Japanese to have it written in your notebook or favourite scrapbook. The temple is not concerned about foreigners collecting seals for non religious purposes, however it has to be done in the prescribed manner. Likewise, do not use the seal book to collect commemorative stamps freely available at tourist attractions and train stations.
When purchasing a seal book at the 御朱印所, you might be asked if you will like to have the seal of the temple on the first page. It is alright to decline if your current book is still able to hold more seals, while some people believe the first seal should correspond to where the seal book is purchased.
Single or Double
For my first book I had it done single side as I did not want the ink to overlap. Actually it is an undue concern as the paper is thick enough. By utilising every page, one should be able to collect about 40 seals in one book.
Where does the first seal go?
There may be some confusion initially as to which is the first page of the book, since there is no book spine. If you intend to use a plastic cover, note that the book cover should be the one with 御朱印帳 inscribed, and facing down when placed on any surface. This is unlike a regular book, but such an orientation is due to the fact that the traditional way of writing in Japan and China is from the right to the left.
Some people may think of the seal book in book form despite it lacking a spine and prefer to have two seals of the same temple side by side. Actually it does not really matter, as when you unfold everything like an accordian it will be just one continuous scroll.
Shrine seals and temple seals kept separate?
Some people are particular in keeping them separate, but that is merely a personal preference and not due to any strict rule.
Getting a Seal
At most places, it is easy to locate the main office or the counter where visitors purchase charms from, which is usually where seals can be obtained from. However, it may be difficult for foreign visitors, especially if the shrine has expansive grounds. Do look out for 朱印所 at temples and 授与所 at shrines. If you do not see any sign of 朱印所, you can try your luck at 納経所. Do note that temples belonging to 浄土真宗 Jodo Shinshu, or School of Pure Land, do not offer seals.
Make your request for a seal by saying 御朱印をお願いしますgoshuin o onegai shimasu. Do flip to the next empty page after the last seal received, instead of expecting the staff to find it. Usually the seal is done right away but if there is a crowd, you will be given a numbered chip and told of the expected waiting time.
One aspect of why I enjoy collecting seals is being able to see the process of adding a vermilion stamp to a clean page, which is then adorned with calligraphy. However, it may not be possible at some places, as the seal is done in another room out of sight.
Some travellers may be eager to take pictures or record a video while the calligraphy is being done, however do note that this is generally not allowed, unless express permission has been given earlier. I attempted a discreet shot at Mt Yoshino, and was promptly chided by a monk. Regardless of the absence of any notice banning photography, do regard the process of writing a seal as a religious ritual and accord it due respect. Here is a link if you'd like to see a short clip of receiving a seal.
Usually a thin piece of paper is inserted between the pages after a seal has been done, to prevent smudging, as most people do not leave the page open to dry. In addition, there may be other memorabilia such as an information sheet about the temple, or of the festival when it was received. It is best to keep the seal book in a traditional Japanese cloth bag or a soft case, so that nothing gets lost.
You might notice something similar in the description of some temples : 第X番札所, which is the No. X temple of a certain pilgrimage route. The most well known and challenging one will be the 四国遍路 Shikoku Pilgrimage, which pilgrims undertake a journey to visit all 88 temples which may take up to two months to complete on foot. Pilgrims are not necessarily Japanese, for I have seen Taiwanese dressed in the same clothes, hats and walking sticks, making their way at Yashima in Takamatsu. While there is no strict rule on having to visit the temples in sequence, some do adhere to it or do it in the reverse order for good luck.
At certain places, you can only receive one seal which is the most common one, which is also the default one if you did not make a specific request. Prior to visiting Horyuji in Nara, I read that other seals are only available on repeat visits. Luckily for me, I did manage to collect two seals on the same day simply by queuing up twice, and with no questions asked.
There may be information displayed at the counter on the types of seals available, but I'd suggest having your phone ready with the photo of the special seal that you seek, especially if you are not confident in saying the name of the seal correctly in Japanese.
It takes about two minutes to finish writing a seal. When a surge of visitors is anticipated during a festival, more staff are assigned to write seals. While smaller shrines may be overwhelmed by visitors, even places such as Sumiyoshi shrine will find it difficult to cope - it took close to 30 minutes to collect my seal book during a New Year visit. Hence, some shrines have prepared the seals, inclusive of the date, in envelopes.
Some seals are only available on specific days of the year, such as during certain festivals or seasons. Furthurmore, there may be a limited number on that day itself. As seen in the photo above, The autumn limited edition seals had been sold out when I visited Tofukuji in Kyoto.
This seal is from Ikunitama Shrine in Osaka, which is only available in January. As you can see, the stamp is indicative of zodiac that represents the new year. While most people know that there are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, I will only receive the same seal at the temple in 60 years time. In 12 years, I will receive a seal which also bear the same zodiac animal, but the characters will be different, as they are a combination of the 10 Heavenly stems and 12 Earthly branches - the 60 year Stem-Branch cycle of the Chinese calendar.
There is one type of seal which cannot be stored in a regular seal book, which are the seals representing the 七福神. The seven lucky gods are collectively popular across Japan, and there are shrines dedicated to them in every region. Some people take the effort to collect the seals, which are all written on a A3 sized paper. Such a size will require one to bring it around in a huge paper bag without folding it. It is an impressive sight to have all seven seals and an illustration altogether, which is usuallly framed up nicely to appreciate it more at one's leisure.
If you are attempting to collect the 七福神 seals, do note that all seven seals should belong to the same locality. It is not possible to mix 3 seals in Tokyo with 4 seals from Osaka, merely to reflect your travel itinerary. Personally I have not collected the 七福神 seals, but I have seen them in both Osaka and Kyoto (written on a paper fan)
For more information, try searching 七福神めぐり
What's in the Calligraphy?
Depending on the style of the writer, it may be difficult to discern some seals, especially when it is done with thick brush strokes. Generally, seals fall into the following three categories:
1.Name of temple or shrine
Such seals which bears only the name of the temple or shrine are the most easily recognizable. If your kanji reading ability is limited, just compare the seal dates with your photos, so that you will be able to identify the seal with the place next time. Alternatively, take a photo of the seal with the temple in the background.
2.Name of building
Especially at temples with large grounds, there may be more buildings other than the main hall, such as at Mt Hiezan. Buildings are usually denoted by characters such as 堂、院、殿. As seen in the above picture, the name of the building 鳳凰堂 is in the centre written over the vermilion stamp, while the name of the temple 平等院 Byodoin, Uji, is written in smaller characters on the left.
大龍不動 is written in the centre, which is a shortened from 倶利伽羅大龍不動明王, the patron god of the temple. The name of the temple, 七宝瀧寺, is written in smaller characters on the left.
Other than the three types of seals mentioned above, there are also
phrases of a historic or religious nature, usually written in 4 characters. Such seals are usually limited to certain days of the year. The above is from Horyu-ji in Nara. 唯佛是真 is shortened from 世間虚仮 唯佛是真, a phrase attributed to 聖徳太子 Prince Shotoku, who is credited with the promotion of Buddhism in Japan. The full phrase means the world is fake but only Buddha is true.
As seen from the goshuin girl phenomenon, popular culture and social media play an important role in renewed interest in seals. Temples and shrines are also producing more kawaii seal book designs, while some train companies come up with value day tickets to make collecting seals at one locality much easier. If you are a frequent traveller to Japan or staying in Japan for an extended period, why not start collecting seals, from which you might gain new perspectives to Japanese culture.