If you are studying Japanese, you have probably learned the word omiyage (お土産）, commonly translated as “souvenir”. However, omiyage is a little different from a common souvenir and it is an important part of Japanese culture.
When people travel, they often buy souvenirs for themselves and friends/family to remember their trip by. However, omiyage is mainly for others and it is more of an obligation to buy something for your family, friends and even co-workers whenever you go somewhere.
Although at first omiyage just seems like something nice to do for your co-workers and friends, there are actually many “rules” and customs to follow. Make sure you understand omiyage to stay on good terms with the people around you.
The kanji that make up the word omiyage mean “earth/land” and “produce” so the word means goods produced in the local area.
Thus, omiyage have to be representative of the place you are visiting. Luckily, in Japan all areas have their own local omiyage and it is generally very easy to find as they will be displayed in airports, train stations and shops, wrapped in bright, colorful packaging. Here is a list of some famous regions and their local omiyage:
- Tokyo: Tokyo Banana (banana shaped cake filled with custard cream)
- Hokkaido: Shiroi Koibito (two thin butter cookies with white chocolate in the middle)
- Kyoto: matcha green tea
- Aomori: apple products
- Okinawa: sweet potato products
- Yamanashi: grapes and peaches products
Japan is a country with limited land so houses and apartments are relatively small. Because of this, you don’t want to buy an object that will add to the clutter in someone’s house.
That is why a vast majority of omiyage given in Japan is food. You can never go wrong with a tasty treat, individually wrapped and ready to be eaten right away.
That leads me to another point. The food has to be individually wrapped so that it is easy to distribute. That is why most Japanese packaged omiyage come in boxes of individually wrapped servings.
It is also important to consider the number of servings in a box and how many people you need to give them to. Especially if you are passing them around in an office. You have to make sure you have enough for all of your colleagues.
The practice of omiyage originated long ago when people would travel to visit shrines. They would bring something back as proof they went there and to share the blessings they received.
There also used to be something called “sembetsu”. Long ago, when travel wasn’t as common or as easy to do as it is now, people would hold a gathering before setting off on a long journey. They would be given “sembetsu”, usually money they could use on their journey. They would then bring back omiyage in return. Nowadays, sembetsu is not really given but omiyage is a must.
If you are a tourist visiting Japan, you probably don’t have to worry about bringing omiyage from your country unless you are staying with a family/friend here.
However, if you are coming here to work or coming here to study and staying with a host family, you should bring something representative of your hometown to share with your new co-workers/ host family. They will definitely appreciate it and it will start your relationship on the right foot.