A few days ago Katherine wrote a post on the Ryoanji Temple which set off some chain reaction of thoughts that led me to this:
Go Shuin (御朱印) baby!
So you don't think it can get much cooler than actually visiting a 700-year old temple, awing over the architecture, artifacts, paintings and history or perhaps wandering the grounds, taking pictures or buying protecting omamoris and souvenirs? It can.
The shu in shuin is the character for vermilion while in means stamp. The go is honorific. In times of yore, pilgrims would collect these stamps from the temples they visited in little books called shuin techo. The picture above is my shuin techo and a carrying bag my mother-in-law made for it. I thought it was pretty spiffy until I found this page. Look at those covers! Those are all shuin books from assorted famous temples and shrines. Wow.
The books are blank and folded accordion like, like Buddhists sutras often are.
So what you do is the first temple you visit you find the little building to the side of the main temple -- the one that has people coming in and out of it, monks sometimes but more often than not just visitors loading up on amulets to help them get married or drive safely. You ask someone, anyone, do you have a shuin techo? And they will direct you to the person in charge of that.
I can't remember how much they cost, ten or twenty bucks, and usually you can choose from several covers. The monk (usually a monk) will then give it a title that has something to do with their first impression of you (note: mine says snow, moon, flower...or is that cloud, moon, flower? either way...huh?) and they'll write your name on the inside of the cover and give you Japanese kanji too if they're feeling particularly nice. Almost always it takes a few minutes to make the stamp so they'll ask you to walk around, take pictures, buy omamoris and come back in ten to fifteen minutes. Which is never a problem. If they aren't very busy you can watch. Which is awesome but I imagine makes them nervous as heck. I mean, if they mess up one stroke it isn't like they can fix it. But then again they meditate to still their minds for like five hours a day. So maybe not.
They make various vermilion stamps that are particular to that temple and then will rub some fresh sumi-ink and use a brush to write in the name of the temple, the date you visited and sometimes other stuff, like which mountain it is on or something.
After you purchase your first book and get it stamped all you have to do is take it with you to any other temple/shrine you visit, find the same side building and ask something like "Go-shuin kudasai". Again they cost a fixed donation of about five bucks or so.
Here are just a couple of mine.
This one is from the female Bodhisattva Kannon of one-thousand arms.
This one I can't read.
Some random stuff: someplaces (smaller temples) have little sheets of paper that have been pre done. You can buy one of those and glue it into your book. A bit of a bummer, but like I said it is the smaller temples and they are usually really cheap. Large temples have full fledged monks doing it and they all have amazing calligraphy! Oh and don't forget the ink is wet, wet, wet! The monk will add a perfectly cut piece of paper or newspaper so his work doesn't mess up the stamp on the opposite page but if you keep opening it to look at it you'll make a mess. I know.
The techo above I got about 13 years ago and it is nearly filled up. It is so nice to just have, to kinda look through and admire. Calming in an odd sort of way. I am very much looking forward to purchasing my next book, though, one with a nifty cover. That is despite what my husband says, he likes the plain cover better -- no pretenses. But I'm afraid I'm way to American and would relish a fancy tengu or something. Which I just discovered as I wrote this is sold at a Shinto shrine in Miyazaki Prefecture. Maybe I won't be getting that anytime soon.
What is amazing is that most Japanese don't even know about this practice. I can't count on my fingers and toes how many non-foreigner types I have told about this practice. It really is a lovely tradition and a fantastic way of remembering your travels. I recomend keeping pictures and literature given away by the temple in a place where you can relate it to your stamps. You can't stick it in the pages because the monk or priest will just remove it when he does the next stamp but if you don't keep some kind of record you'll be like me going...Okay, I remember it was a rainy day and the monk was really good looking, he had dimples and was quite tall...but what else was that temple famous for?