Featuring the catchphrase, “Gotta Catch Em All,” it’s fair to say that stamp rallies are popular in Japan. Look around when you next enter a train station, and you’ll spot a small table with a huge stamp and ink pad. Once you know of their existence, you’ll spot rallies everywhere, from parks to museums and shopping malls. They are a fantastic way to experience Japan from a different perspective and discover places you might have never have otherwise planned to visit.

What is a Stamp Rally?

More than a century ago, Japanese temples created their own seal collection books called goshuin. Back then, travelers would make it a life goal to collect a stamp from each temple. It is widely hypothesized that this practice influenced the love of stamp rallies that we see today.

The first recorded, modern-day stamp rally was in 1970 at the Osaka World Expo, when printing company Shachihata put stamps at each booth in the pavilion and distributed a special stamp book to collect them in. The stamp rally was one of the most popular things at the expo that year, becoming such a success that other companies began rushing to create their own.

So, How Do I Join?

Participants begin by buying or picking up sheets of paper or books. There will normally be a page or space for each particular stamp and include a list, so you know where you need to go. Visit each designated place to earn your stamp. Most of the time, all you need to do is turn up and ask for a stamp. Nowadays, stamps can also be collected via digital means, by scanning the QR code at a particular place. Easy.

Why Should I Rally?

Rallies are a win-win, as they are a good way to promote local stores and bring communities together, while also providing a structured plan for travelers and even locals to make the most of an area or attraction. Some stamp rallies offer some sort of reward for collecting enough stamps. Prizes range from limited edition goods — a big draw, especially for some of the character-themed rallies — to local produce and sometimes even money.

What Kind of Stamp Rallies Are There?

Train Station Rallies (or Eki Stamps)

One of the longest-running stamp trails in Japan is the train station rally, which started when the railways were still nationalized. The trail became more popular as each company put their own spin on the theme. Throughout the year, the stamp rallies branch out to include limited-edition versions to appeal to different demographics. Examples include character rallies like Pokémon and celebratory rallies such as the one to commemorate Japan Railway’s 150-year anniversary.

JR East (the largest railway company) has a unique stamp at each of its stations. Keen stamp collectors can either purchase an official stamp collection book or buy a cheap memo pad. One of the most well-known stamps is at Shibuya Station, which incorporates a dog paw to symbolize the famous Hachiko Dog Statue just outside the ticket gates. Another must-have is the Yurakucho Station stamp. Located in Ginza near the cinema, the design features a shopping bag, cinema seating and a movie screen.

Michi-no-Eki Rallies

Michi-no-eki are neighborhood-run roadside services that promote local produce and attractions, ranging from organic carrots to woven handbags and footbaths. The stamp rallies here are run by individual prefectural governments.

One of the most popular is the Hokkaido rally, which has 127 participating roadside stops and has been running for over 30 years. Collectors don’t have to visit every single one to receive a present. Collectors of 30 or more qualify. Prizes include local specialties from the michi-no-eki.

Attraction Stamp Rallies

Many tourist attractions have harnessed the power of stamp rallies to encourage visitors to explore. Exclusive stamp books with attractive pictures and a designated page for each stamp make visiting different attractions even more fun.

The 100 Castles Stamp Rally has been run by the Official Japan Castle Foundation since 2006. Chosen for their periodic features and grand statues, the trail ensures that participants visit castles that are worth it. In 2022, a shortened 24-castle version was established for tourists. Another noteworthy one is the Japan Towers rally, which takes place across the country. It includes Tokyo Tower, Sapporo TV Tower and Yokohama Marine Tower.

Shopping Mall Rallies

Shopping streets and malls also joined the craze early on, even coining the phrase “stamp rally” back in 1983. They encourage shoppers to browse the shops to earn a stamp, inevitably purchasing goods in the process. Community rallies include the annual Shimokitazawa Curry Festival, which tours the area’s ample curry shops. Bigger centers like Aeon will team up with characters such as Gudetama and Hello Kitty to create themed stamps too.

Onsen Rallies

Head to an onsen town such as Kurokawa Onsen or Nozawa Onsen, and you’ll find people wandering around in Japanese pajamas, strolling from bath to bath. Onsen rallies are a perfect way to feel like you’re doing something productive while staying within the same few hundred meters, having a wonderfully relaxing time. Most onsen will have a stamp at the entrance, so when you’ve bathed you can get a place checked off.

Some go even further. The Nozawa Onsen stamp trail sees stampers gaining stamps from onsen and historical places across the village. Once 10 stamps are collected, winners receive an onsen towel designed by Tara Okamoto.