I'm so happy that I discovered shuin before arriving in Japan. When I was looking at souvenir ideas (guys, I was so prepared for this trip, you have no idea...) I came across websites devoted to these neat little books, called goshuin-cho. The name means "honorable red stamp book" and it works almost as a shrine and temple passport. You pay 300 yen and a monk or kannushi will first stamp your page with red ink and then - this is the cool part - will calligraph the name of the temple and the date you visited over the stamps.
Toshogu Shrine, Nikko and Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
The first religious site we visited while it was actually open was Meiji Shrine. It took a bit of poking around at different counters dealing out charms and fortunes - "Konnichiwa! Sumimasen... goshuin-cho?" - but I found the right place. They only had one book design available. Luckily, I liked it. It was pre-calligraphed, which I was a little disappointed by. Later, I found out this was pretty common.
Nanzen-ji Temple, Kyoto and Ginkakuji Temple, Kyoto
Monica bought her own book the following day at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko - they had more selection and even cooler, the lady wrote Monica's name on the sticker on the cover! (Monica's name is easily rendered in kanji, but the lady was confused by our accents - luckily, we'd found a keychain with her name the day before and Monica had taken a picture which she now showed to the lady. "Ahh! Mo-ni-ka!") As for other cool goshuin-cho, the Americans we met in Koyasan found wood-bound books. Pretty neat.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto and Kodai-Ji Temple, Kyoto
While Japan seems pretty chill about outsiders casually participating in their religious practices (our photographer in Kyoto had us mime praying at a shrine), it should be noted that these books were originally used by religious pilgrims. It's considered good form to pray and make an offering in order to receive shuin - technically the 300 yen per stamp is an offering rather than payment. In some places, I felt a little like I was participating in something I wasn't supposed to. In others, it almost felt like the calligrapher was happy to share this ritual with someone from far away.
Todai-ji Temple, Nara and Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto
We didn't get shuin at every temple or shrine we went to, due to time and budget. Some smaller temples or shrines don't seem to do shuin and there is at least one sect of Buddhism - Pure Land - that doesn't participate at all. Out of the 13 shuin I collected in Japan, one was pre-written in my book, four were pre-written pages I glued in once home, and one was done while we toured the temple (Ginkaku-ji).
Eko-in Temple, Koyasan (both - one for each service we attended)
The rest were written in front of me, which is a pretty cool experience. If you compare to characters typed out or written plainly, you realize how much style and art is put into the calligraphy. It's exciting to see a huge blot at the top of the page transform into something almost architectural. At Todai-ji Temple, there were two people doing shuin - Monica and I got in separate lines and it was neat to compare - they were obviously the same characters, but each with a life of their own.
Senso-Ji Temple, Tokyo and Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima
The book slips out of its plastic cover and can be unfolded like an accordion. It's neat to see it all laid out, a kind of map and timeline of our journey through Japan.
All spread out. Fushimi Inari is the third to the right.