My sister Rebecca is obsessed with Japan.
And her frequent visits to the land of the rising sun have given her some pretty sharp tips for visitors. Carmen and I tapped in to these at the family dinner table before our very first visit.
“Be very careful with your garbage,” she advised. “The Japanese are very careful with their recycling. Certain things can only ever go in certain bins and woe betide if you put the wrong stuff in.”
Temple stamps are a ‘thing’
She was just getting warmed up. “Another thing is to make sure you look for the back of the queue – there will usually be a person there with a flag or a something bright to mark it. Oh, and get a book for temple stamps. There’s stamps and other things to collect at every place you can visit, and they get a kick out of seeing foreigners do it.”
“Sounds like something for kids,” Carmen said. But I filed it away…
Making our mark in Japan with temple stamps
A month later, we arrived in Osaka, Japan’s underrated third largest city with two weeks of travel ahead of us. We would spend four days in Osaka and its surrounds then five in Kyoto and five in Tokyo.
On our first day we took a train to Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, where beautifully maintained Shinto and Zen Buddhist temples stand tranquilly amid deer-filled parklands and quiet walking streets.
Collecting our temple stamps from the calligraphy artists
Our first stop was the Hōryū-ji temple complex, and as we crunched across the gravel from pagoda to shrine, I spied a tiny little shop selling what appeared to be ornate notebooks. Beside the shop was a hut where people were queuing, holding the same notebooks in their hands as they waited their turn.
The people queuing up were waiting for calligraphy artists to inscribe a delightful image in their books with black ink and a finely poised brush, then press a red ink stamp over the top, telling what temple was visited and giving a blessing.
Popping my head inside the shop, I remembered Rebecca’s tip about getting a book for temple stamps – called a “Goshuincho” by the Japanese.
I grabbed Carmen and showed her, and she quickly understood this was not just for kids.
The most memorable souvenir
We purchased a beautiful Goshuincho, with the cover showing two white crane birds set against a gold background. Taking it next door, we set the virgin paper in front of the calligraphy artist and watched with amazement as his swift wrist styled a perfect hand drawn calligraphy stamp – known as a “Shuin.”
The brush he used was very thick and shaped like a horse’s tail. He dipped it in a pot of black ink and went to work, using the thickness of the brush to make bold strokes. Then he expertly angled the tip to create tight flourishes. The artist must do the same design millions of times, but his focus and dedication to perfecting the one in front of him was very impressive.
The fee was even more impressive – just AUD$3 – a bargain for the experience of watching the creation of these amazing temple stamps and the joy of taking one home.
Temple stamps in Japan
Throughout the day, as we trotted from temple to temple we stopped wherever there was a calligraphy station and paid the small fee to have this beautiful art work added to our Goshuincho.
But that’s not the only kind of stamp on offer in Japan.
Just about everywhere you go of interest there are hand stamps that can add to your book. Whether it’s a museum a train station or sometimes a restaurant. Your Goshuincho should have more than just temple stamps!
A keepsake for life
It’s great collecting these stamps and since our trip ended we have flicked back through our Goshuincho many times. Doing this, we’ve admired the fine lines of calligraphy and hand stamps, being reminded of all the places we went to.
And it adds a real element of fun, hunting out the various stamps and calligraphy stations, taking part in a ritual that many Japanese prize.
You can see just a few of the temple stamps we collected here – it’s hard to pick a favourite!
The Goshuincho is perhaps the best souvenir I have ever acquired – far better than a keychain or a stubby holder!
So if you’re travelling to Japan, do yourself a favour – grab a Goshuincho. Hunt down as many stamps as you can. You’ll have a keepsake that will bring back lots of happy memories, and look damn good on the mantlepiece!