Stamps With a Story
Tracing the intricate calligraphy, an old Japanese man smiles and looks over at his granddaughter. He downs the last of his long neck Asahi Super Dry and lets out a boisterous laugh.
“I can’t believe you’ve taken up a pastime beloved by elderly Japanese men,” he chuckles.
I am sitting with my friend Yayoi in their family home on the first day of Oshogatsu – the Japanese New Year. When her grandfather hears that we have been going around collecting Goshuin – seal stamps given as souvenirs for pilgrimages to Japanese temples – he eagerly leaps into action. With trembling hands, he searches for a small cardboard box. Inside are six or so yellowed books. I hold up my own and compare it to his, noticing the smudges and water damage on one stamp in particular.
The train sped through the southwestern edge of Shiga prefecture, just north of Kyoto. As station after station passed us by, we travelled deeper into the snow globe. The flurries began to whip up in large white dust storms, blotting out houses in a frosty haze. At every stop, the snow seemed to be caked even higher than at the last, forming a jagged layer on the top of the platform.
“There’s supposed to be a mountain there,” I called out after looking down at my phone. “You know, the one that we’re intent on climbing.”
For all we knew, there could’ve been an alien mothership on the other side of the whited-out horizon and we wouldn’t have been any the wiser. We just had to take the word of our mapping app that it was there.
Hopping out onto the platform, people scurried quickly towards their homes. This wasn’t travelling weather. Bundle up the kids, scoop up the groceries and bolt the door until this blustery snowstorm makes its exit. For 20 minutes, our bus gingerly moved through snow drifts, stopping occasionally to let a poor motorist get to where they needed. Ice coated the trees and the bamboo leaned in precarious arcs over the sleet covered roads. The bus driver slowly lost hope that he wouldn’t end up at the frozen end of the line.
Our path into the bamboo-forested mountain was two rough grooves gouged out by a car that had attempted to make the journey before us. Stepping to either side would result in trudging through ankle-high snow and a nasty fall if we put a foot wrong. Snow covered all things, including slippery metal grates and manhole covers, making the journey just that little bit worse.
With an icy spittle spraying into our eyes, we pushed on for the peak of the mountain. Nearing the top, we finally saw a sign that every pilgrim loves: the great stone monolith marking the start of the temple grounds. The last thing we needed to push through; sleet-caked steps led up to the temple grounds. They were nearly impossible to distinguish from one another.
At the summit of the temple, a Buddhist monk sat in a small window booth, warming by an electric heater. While the wind had died down, snow continued to fall in deep drifts, encasing the vermillion structures in a powdery white. What puzzled him, however, was why a tall, sandy-haired American, his short, dark-skinned friend and their Japanese “guide” had decided today was a good day to be climbing temples.
It’s then that he noticed the books in our hands. We had come all this way for a stamp – a hand-crafted, calligraphy embellished memento of our trip.
Walking forward through the snow to give the monk my special Goshuin book, I missed seeing the rock under my feet. In a great display of buffoonery, I fell face-first into the snow along with my book, which was now wet from snowmelt.
After a day full of surprises and exploring, the three of us emerged from the snow-entombed temple to catch our train. Google Maps, or “Google Sensei” as we had taken to calling it, told us that our accommodation lay somewhere in the heart of Omihachiman’s fertile countryside. Thing is, Google Sensei wasn’t necessarily understanding of weather, and at that time, the snow was preparing a little surprise for the three of us.
We turned onto a highway, and every so often found ourselves hurriedly diving into the snow bank at the ominous sight of rushing headlights. Foot traffic consisted of the three of us and some poor soul in a school uniform haplessly trying to plow his bike towards home and warmth. Our countryside jaunt took us past a chicken farm, of all places, as we desperately search for what was meant to be our Airbnb.
“I didn’t realise that treasure hunts were a part of Airbnb’s new experiences promotion,” Yayoi said over the roar of the icy wind.
“I didn’t think that being in an Arctic Research station was either,” I reply.
Our journey to collect these seemingly insignificant stamps ended in a country farmhouse after trekking through what could only be described as the inside of a freezer. As I peeled off the wet layers of clothing, I flipped over to the water-damaged stamp that was the goal of our trip.
On a spiritual level, these books represent a person’s religious piety through life since, traditionally, people are buried with their Goshuin books. At a sort of spiritual passport control, the books are proof of a life spent following religious teachings and making journeys to commune with gods. To me though, the joy doesn’t come from their burial, but the way in which they connect generations together.
They may be simply conveyed in red and black, but in the act of collection and preservation, they connect travellers to a journey made by many. The stories within a Goshuin book are a secret conversation whispered between monk and traveller across moments in time, retold from generation to generation with subtle variation.
Cover by the author