Omiyage: The Culture of Souvenirs in Japan
Maybe you’ve already heard the word “omiyage” before. Maybe you also know that it translates to “souvenir”.
But it’s not exactly the same as a souvenir. If you live in Japan or if you visit a Japanese family you should know about the gift-giving and omiyage culture in Japan.
What exactly is “omiyage”?
Omiyage (お土産) consists of the two kanji 土 (earth / ground) and 産 (product), so it’s basically a local product used as a gift or souvenir.
The difference between “souvenir” and “omiyage”
A souvenir is usually something you buy for yourself to remember the trip. Maybe you also buy something for family members or send a postcard.
There are souvenir shops for that purpose all over the world, also in Japan, where you can find various products such as keychains, ballpens, mascots etc.
Strictly speaking, a Japanese omiyage is different from a souvenir. It’s not something you buy for yourself, but solely for others. And as it’s considered an obligation, it’s important to know about the omiyage culture in Japan. You’re expected to bring omiyage back from your trip not only for family members or friends, but also for your classmates or co-workers and superiors.
This culture of obligated gift-giving can be observed in various situations in Japan. One example is the “giri choco” (duty chocolate) you’re supposed to give to your male co-workers on Valentine’s Day.
What’s so special about omiyage?
Omiyage are often related to a certain local region in Japan. It proves that you’ve been to that certain region and gives the receiver a chance to try a regional product that can only be found in that area of Japan. Each and every region in Japan is famous for certain types of food or sweets.
So, you’ll find a lot of goya and sweet potato products in Okinawa, apples in Aomori, melon and lavender products in Hokkaido. The list is endless. It’s fun to try to explore the delicious specialities of each and every region, but you’re supposed to share them with others.
The omiyage culture is a big deal in Japan. You’ll find a huge corner in every souvenir shop in Japan solely dedicated to the food-related omiyage.
They often contain individually wrapped sweets (mochi, dango, cookies), so it’s easy to share them.
It’s also important to check how many items are in a package to see if it’s enough for the people you’re going to share it with.
This is something I always struggled with. In my head I had to go through the number of my co-workers and superiors and then find a fitting omiyage package that came with the right amount of goodies. It’s rocket science I tell you!
Of course there are also seasonal omiyage like cherry blossom themed sweets.
The origin of omiyage
It’s not clear when this tradition started. However, it started with the pilgrims of Japan who were supposed to bring back a “souvenir” from the shrine they visited as a proof that they actually went there (e.g. charms, rice wine cups). Whoever they shared these items with would also be blessed just like the pilgrims.
When the railway system was built and then expanded it was finally easier to take food as omiyage with you despite limited food preservation techniques back then. That’s how the current omiyage culture was born.
What’s a good omiyage?
The best omiyage is always something to eat. And you won’t struggle to find such a omiyage.
Japanese souvenir shops are full of them. On the contrary, you’ll have a hard time choosing just ONE.
Just make sure you buy it on the last day of your trip, so the food won’t go bad while being carried in your suitcase for days. Also think about the means of transportation and choose accordingly. If you already know you’ll have a bumpy trip and don’t have a proper suitcase, then cookies might be a bit dangerous.
Also make sure that it has a nice packaging and that it represents the region you went to.
Another good omiyage idea is something expensive with a label on it (e.g. brand skin care / cosmetics, ballpen). But that’s usually not something you’re expected to give your co-workers or superiors. It’s maybe a good idea if you visited your home country and come back to Japan. Abroad the culture of “food souvenirs” is not very common.
Yet a lot of my students ended up bringing food back from their trips abroad to share with us teachers (chocolate from America, cookies from Disneyland etc.). That’s just how important the “food-gift-giving culture” is in their heads.
Momiji Manju (紅葉饅頭） from Miyajima with different fillings are very popular.
Of course, it’s not forbidden to buy omiyage for yourself.
If there’s a certain product you’re really interested in or if it looks especially delicious, why not buy a small box for yourself?
I always do that.
The prices vary, but expect to pay around 500 – 1500 yen for one omiyage box. Usually they have the same product in different sizes (e.g. with 6, 12, 18 items in it), so you can choose the right one for your purpose.
You also might consider weight. Boxes containing pudding or drinks are naturally a lot heavier than a box of cookies.
You probably already know that Japan has a myriad of different KitKat flavors. Not only do they have seasonal flavors and randomly release new ones every few months. They also have limited versions for each and every region of Japan. In the photo above you see “Yubari melon” for Hokkaido and “zunda” for Tohoku.
While this is maybe not a good idea to bring as a omiyage to your workplace (I sometimes did in addition to a “proper” omiyage), it’s very popular to share among students or friends.
Of course, it means big business for the sweet producers in Japan just like Valentine’s Day or Christmas. And the labels “limited (to this region)” are evil, because they really work. You want to buy it so badly because you can only obtain it right here, right now. There are many omiyage that have become super popular representing a certain region such as “Shiroi Koibito” (Hokkaido) or “Tokyo Banana“. But there are also many omiyage that can be bought everywhere.
It’s been implemented so deep into the Japanese culture, that people do it without thinking about it. And it’s also very common to see someone off with the words: “I’m looking forward to a nice omiyage.”
Students love sharing omiyage with each other. They usually don’t buy something expensive as they will share it with all their classmates (= 30+ people). And while I personally thought it’s a hassle in the beginning, I came to like this part of Japanese culture a lot.
Whenever school vacation was over, the kitchen table at work was full with various omiyage from all over Japan (or even from abroad). It’s such a pleasure to try all the goodies.
It’s true that you have to spend some extra time and money just to get them, but it’s really not a big deal at all. And as you’ll receive omiyage in return, there’s nothing to complain about in my opinion.
What do you think about Japan’s omiyage culture?
- Do you think it’s just another stupid obligation?
- Do you think it’s ok to “be forced” to bring something?
- What has been your favorite omiyage thus far?
Don’t be shy and share your opinion in the comment box below! ^^
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