When traveling to Japan, tourists always try to find one souvenir that both exemplifies Japan and yet is individual enough to represent their own personal experiences. While teaching in Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, I also sought a way to make my own record of my travels and, better yet, to do so very cheaply. I found both in the uniquely Japanese phenomenon “Stamp Rally”.
A “stamp rally” is a gimmick usually used to entice visitors at a conference or fair to visit every vendor. Upon entering, the visitor is given a sheet with blank spaces where the stamps will go. As they visit each vendor, their sheet is stamped. When the sheet is full, they turn it in for a prize or entry into a raffle. The rubber stamps at these events are usually very simple designs, but can on occasion be quite elaborate. For example, at the Osaka Maritime Museum, the over 12 stamps form a large mosaic image.
When completed, the visitor is rewarded with a packet of postcards. At the 2005 World Expo in Aichi Prefecture, visitors were given an Expo “passport”, which, when filled, entered them into a raffle for Expo merchandise. Local tourism boards and railway lines also use “stamp rallies” to encourage travelers to visit every station in a given area.
To this is added the Japanese tradition of collecting stamps from temples while on pilgrimage (henro). These stamps, called shuin are obtained at each temple along a certain route. In addition to the temple’s stamp (or stamps), the priest will usually sign the page in their own beautiful calligraphy and date it. These are collected in books called shuin-chou or sometimes noukyou-chou. These are most commonly connected with the Shikoku Hachijūhachikasho Meguri or “Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage”. The pages in these books fold out like an accordion and have space on each side for a shuin. There is a space in between the pages for a piece of newspaper to keep the ink from bleeding through to the other side. When completed, these books are often a pilgrim’s most prized possession.
When I first visited the Yatsushiro train station in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, I noticed two large wood and rubber stamps with ink pads resting on a shelf near the ticket window. As I traveled around, I noticed the same stamps at other locations. Thinking that it would be a good idea to collect these stamps in a book, I went to a stationary shop to get a journal. I tried to explain to the shopkeeper what I was looking for, largely by using gestures involving me pretending to stamp things. After a bit of this, I was finally handed my first shuin-chou. I quickly cycled to the train station to collect my first two stamps and before I left Japan had nearly filled three books, front and back.
I had some problems along the way. Some self-inking stamps bled so much that they can no longer be read. Also, sometimes I removed the blotting paper too soon and ink bled through to the other side. In all, though, I have a wonderful record of my travels through Japan. I even had the Principal at my junior high school create a shuin for me using the school’s seals and his signature.
To create your own “stamp rally” shuin-chou, you must first get one of these books at a stationary store. They cost between ¥500 and ¥1000 for a plain one. If you want something nicer, many elaborate designs are sold at major temples. Then begin stamping! Stamps are often found at train stations, airports, castles and other historic sites, museums, festivals, and, of course, most temples and shrines. Watch out for self-inking stamps since a little goes a long way. If you have a piece of scrap paper, you may want to test the stamp first just in case.
Some temples will only have a stamp, but many will offer shuin for a small fee, usually about ¥300. At busier temples, the priest may exchange a tag for your book and ask you to come back for your inscribed book after you have finished your tour of the temple. If you want to, you can collect extra stamps on pieces of paper for scrapbooking or stamp the pages of your travel journal or diary. When you finish each book, you will have a distinctly Japanese and yet truly original souvenir that you will always treasure!