Culture

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.

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.

Omiyage culture in Japan

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!

Omiyage culture in Japan

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.

 

Omiyage culture in Japan

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.

Omiyage culture in Japan

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.

 

Omiyage culture in Japan

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.

 

Omiyage culture in Japan

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.

 

Omiyage culture in Japan

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! ^^

14 Comments

  • if there is one thing I hate about Japan, it’s omiyage.

    It’s like the mafia. There is no law that you have to give other things to people, but you _have_ to, otherwise, you know “sometin bad could appen, you know?”.

    Last time I went with my wife to Japan, we had one large trunk FULL OF OMIYAGE. Cause you now, there is family and friends, and you have to have something for everyone. I think we spent approximately 200€ on omiyage.

    I travel a lot. Often long-haul. I have the cost, of the tickets, of the whole traveling, of the hotels. I have the cost and annoyance of travelling. I should be the one that is allowed to relax and not be bothered with extra stuff.

    But it’s the other way round. There is no balance for me, those people we visit rarely leave Japan. Some rarely leave their frickin prefecture.

    I also hate being pushed. It’s all like being a school child again, where the big guy from a class above comes to you and blackmails you into bringing him a candy bar everyday. All while being forced to smile when doing so. And everyone thinks that’s perfectly normal.

    Sorry for the rant, but you really hit a button there with me… :-)

    • No worries.
      I understand you very well.
      For some reason I’m ok with omiyage. Probably because I love traveling and sharing what I discovered with others.
      But I DO hat the fact that there are so many forced gift-giving rules (espeically on Valentine’s Day).
      I don’t want to give chocolate to a guy …. especially not if I don’t care about him at all. *g* *shrugs*

  • Gotta agree with Umij on this one. Being married to a Japanese wife is the worst. Any trip abroad you need to take extra baggage and plan for at least a full day of omiyage shopping, or going way out of your way to find that unique omiyage she read about in some magazine/blog. “So-and-so gave me nice X for omiyage when she went to London, so I need to find something at least as good for her…” multiplied by at least 4-5 such relationships, plus the work omiyage, and family omiyage, and the cat sitter… Trips in Japan require only a half day of shopping, but at least it’s easier to ship the crap home.

    I refuse to get omiyage for every single day off or little weekend trip I take, even for work. Occasionally if I find something that I think people will like, and is actually interesting or unique (not faked omiyage for the sake of omiyage – like most of those above) I’ll pick it up, but otherwise I’ve personally removed myself from the omiyage culture of my friends and work colleagues. Let others deal with that if they don’t like it. They’ve stopped asking “omiyage wa ..?” too.

    • I think it’s much more natural and fun to buy something when you “run into it” and think that maybe your friends and co-workers would like it.
      So, I agree. :)

      I also rarely brought something on a mere weekend or day trip. As I was travelling SO MUCH that would have been insane anyways.
      Often my co-workers didn’t even know when I went on a short trip, so I just brought something after a long vacation when it was pretty obvious that I went somewhere.

  • I remember that in my first year here in Japan I really, really hated the whole omiyage-stuff. Why should I bring delicious stuff from MY vacation for people I don’t really care about? ò.ó Especially since I was a poor student back then, spending all that money for other people and not for myself bothered the shit out of me. But back then I also used to be way too worried about getting a good, well thought-through and not too cheap omiyage for every single person I know and will meet or might meet or what else. I became way more relaxed about omiyage over the last years. I group different people together – colleagues, family, grandparents etc. – and they all get one omiyage together :P Since a lot of my colleagues go overseas at least once a year as well, I also get to taste a lot of different stuff frequently, so for me bringing omiyage for my colleagues became an exchange rather than the pressure of ME bringing something to THEM I felt my first year here. Also, we get to compete which country has the best sweets and I keep winning with “Kinder Schokobons” every year :P

    • Ohhhh, sounds like a lot of fun! “Kinder Schokobons” are awesome!
      I need to get them while I’m still in Germany. Totally forgot they existed! (*__*)b

      I’m glad to read that you can now enjoy the “exchange” of omiyage. Sounds pretty much like what it was for me as well. ^^

  • Yeah, this is something I always struggled with when I first came to Japan. I used to find it a bit of a hassle. These days I’m pretty relaxed about it. I mean, it requires little thought and there’s always the chance to buy omiyage ‘last minute’ at the station.

    What I’ve always wondered though is how far from home do I have to travel before entering ‘have to buy omiyage territory’?

    • Yes, the station souvenir shops or even the conbinis there have something if you forgot or didn’t have time to buy any omiyage. You can even buy it in the Shinkansen. ^__^

      That’s a VERY good question. Usually I only brought something when I went to another prefecture.
      I might have brought something once when I went to “the other end of our prefecture”, but I can’t remember well. ^___^;

  • I really appreciate your initial information, Jasmine, and reading others’ experiences helps fill out the picture. Having taught English in Japan way back in the 20th century, and having come back to visit several times in the ensuing years, I have some experience with omiage. And I have felt all the feelings expressed by you and your readers. I finally settled into enjoying the tradition, like you. Except I still worry as a trip approaches… have I found omiage that show how I truly appreciate each person? Will they like the things I’ve brought?
    In addition to small gifts of California foods, this time I gathered beautiful beach pebbles in California. I bought small drawstring gift bags. I thought of each person as I chose the colors and shapes of pebbles/seawashed stones and seaglass to go into her or his bag.
    Last touches…
    an excerpt of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”: –To see a World in a Grain of Sand–
    and a heartfelt personalized note to the receiver.
    The little gift bag is what I most wanted to bring, yet I still was (and still am) nervous about how such a simple omiage may be perceived. I gave the first one to my dear friend N.U. yesterday.
    Her genuine smiles and thanks reaffirmed what I know:
    True friends always value each others’ gifts as symbols of friendship.

    • Because of the “omiyage craziness” in Japan I pay attention to all that is offered in omiyage stores and that way I sometimes discover something really interesting / delicious I wouldn’t have found otherwise. There’s definitely something good about omiyage. ^___^

  • A 10-year foreign resident of Japan, I enjoy the omiyage culture now that I’ve become accustomed to it. Just one of those things that makes living here unique. It’s fun to find and give area-unique gifts. The Japanese put so much care and effort into crafting and packaging perfect treats, sweets, and food items intended to be used as omiyage–they’re very tasty and perfect (although I’m not a huge fan of the cookies). If I find an omiyage treat I especially like, I almost always buy a box for myself.

  • I actually like buying omiyage. Sometimes it’s a bother tfying to calculate how much to buy, but I’m the kind of person who likes giving gifts. The most stressful omiyage purchase ever was what to bring from New York.