The Omiyage Culture

Introduction

You know how when you travel, you’d spend hours and hours in souvenir shops, picking out the best takeaway for yourself as well as your friend and family back home? I know I’m guilty of that. The souvenir culture is huuuuge everywhere in the world — that explains the streets of souvenir shops full of city landscapes printed on shirts, magnets and keychains.

In Japan, even if you go to a different prefecture in the same country, it’s kind of obligatory to bring back a souvenir — or in this case, omiyage (お土産). Omiyage is actually so much more than just a souvenir; we’ll talk about that in detail later on in the article. 

This omiyage culture can be extremely foreign to…well, foreigners. So much that it can take quite a bit of getting used to. Don’t get scared off just yet — here’s a breakdown of what it is, where the culture came from and a simple guide on how to pick the perfect omiyage.

What is “omiyage”?

First off, what is omiyage actually? To know what it actually means, we’ll have to break down the kanji of the word: 土 means “earth/ground” and 産 means “product”. Combine the two, the word “omiyage” can translate to being a “local product”, given as a gift when returning from a trip.

Usually, omiyage comes in boxes that are brightly coloured, with individually wrapped snacks that are perfect for sharing amongst people at work, school and even at home. In some cultures, mine included, bringing back a piece of the place you visited isn’t really that big of a deal, but in Japan, it’s customary — it’s like a social taboo if you don’t do it!

The significance of omiyage

Why the strong emphasis on omiyage? It’s basically the idea of sharing your experience, to explain it briefly. Oftentimes, omiyage is something that’s specific to the region you visited. Whether it’s sweets or other types of food, as long as the area is known for that, it’ll make an ideal omiyage.

For example, Okinawa is known for goya and sweet potato — so pick your omiyage based on that. By bringing back the region’s specialty, you’re giving the people a chance to try a regional product that you possibly can’t get outside of the area — although nowadays, you probably can, but that doesn’t matter!

Omiyage origins

So, where did this omiyage culture come from? To be very honest, no one really knows. But it all started from sacred pilgrimages. People who visited Shinto shrines were to bring back some sort of evidence of their pilgrimage. Back then, omiyage comes in the form of charms and rice wine cups. They believed that people who have these items would be blessed just like the pilgrims themselves.

In those days, food preservation wasn’t that common. It was pretty limited and people were traveling on foot, so baggage was kept at a minimum to keep it light. When the railway system was built, it made transporting food so much easier. I guess that’s how omiyage transitioned to mostly be food — even though it’s not limited to that.

Omiyage vs souvenir

So the question remains: what’s the difference between omiyage and souvenir? Omiyage is usually translated to “souvenir” in English, but there’s a slight difference.

Souvenir is more often than not used to refer to takeaways from a country that you buy for yourself, and maybe a lucky few friends and family. Omiyage refers to things that you buy solely for others. You’re thinking about them when you buy it — that’s what makes it extra special. While souvenirs are what you keep for yourself, omiyage is not consumed or kept by the traveller. 

What’s more, souvenirs don’t have to be a specialised item from the area, but for omiyage, it has to be. It’s like bringing back matcha (抹茶) from Japan and not a bag of chips — bad comparison, but hopefully you get the idea.

How to pick the perfect omiyage?

Source: jpellgen (@1179_jp) from Flickr

It sounds like a lot of work, picking out the perfect omiyage. But there’s a simple solution to the ideal omiyage anywhere you go: food. Anything edible makes the perfect omiyage for your coworkers, friends and family.

If you’re choosing omiyage in Japan, you’ll soon realise you’ll have quite a hard time picking just one because souvenir shops in the country are full of them! I know I have a hard time every time — which do I buy for myself and which do I give out to others?

Definitely choose something that has a nice packaging — ideally with something that represents the region you went to. You might want to consider the cost as well; keep it between 500 to 1500 yen, but I’d recommend getting one with a nice label on it.

A lot of omiyage products in Japan are individually packed for this very convenience of sharing with others. They come in 6, 10, 12 and 18 most of the time. Calculate how many people are there in your workplace or family — and buy accordingly. The more food there is, the merrier, I’d say.

If you’re travelling during a special time like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, get those limited edition ones! It gives the extra umph to your omiyage cred!

Also, buy it on the last day of your trip! Even though a lot of omiyage can last quite a while, now with the modern technology of food preservation, I would advise keeping the omiyage picking activity as the last event so that the food would be fresher — and also not have to go through all the bumpy train and car rides. 

Conclusion

And there you have it — the omiyage culture is actually not that scary. It’s pretty simple once you’ve gotten the basics down. And don’t worry, we usually get the “gaijin pass”, as I’d like to call it — which is when the Japanese people understand that us foreigners aren’t used to their ways. But it’s always best to know all of the ins and outs, right? Like they say, “when in Japan, do what the Japanese do” — or did I not get that right? 

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