Omiyage 101: Japan's culture of gift giving

When visiting any region or prefecture in Japan, you are bound to stumble upon a few shops that specialise in selling local snacks, goodies, and trinkets. With the end of your trip dawning upon you, you often purchase these items as tokens of remembrance of the wonderful memories of your fun trip in Japan to share with your loved ones, as if to exclaim “I was there!” to whomever you’re gifting them to. These items are also referred to as omiyage (お土産). However, they are a little different than what we typically think of as souvenirs. How are they different?

What is omiyage?

Omamori (お守り) are small Japanese charms or amulets that are usually sold at temples and shrines. (Image credit: photoAC)

While a souvenir is typically something that a person who is travelling buys for themselves to remember the trip by, the term omiyage is coined for gifts that are not intended to be used or consumed by the traveller themselves, but rather to be given to co-workers, friends, and family. You may wonder how this culture originated. Its origin is unclear, however; many believe that the custom began as an association with sacred pilgrimages. People who had visited Shinto (神道) shrines were expected to bring back evidence of the pilgrimages to their families, ranging from charms (お守り omamori) to religiously significant items. 

(Image credit: JR East Retail Net Co. Ltd.)

However, food items were not the go-to choices for omiyage in the past due to limitations in terms of food preservation techniques, and people often making their travels by foot, so only essential and small items were brought along. It was only with the rise of Japan’s renowned railway system that the popularity of omiyage as food and snacks emerged as gifts can now be easily bought between one’s commute. If you’ve made it this far in the article and wondered what kind of omiyage to look out for in your next trip to Tokyo, you’re in luck. I’m here to tell you the 3 things to check out when you make your next omiyage purchase so that your omiyage will out among the rest!

What makes a good omiyage?

The way to one’s heart is through their stomach! Now, food items are among the most popular forms of omiyage. Apart from the colourful packaging and handy displays that show us what the snacks would actually look like, most omiyage goodies are also packed individually, making them handy for distributing amongst friends and colleagues. Food items are also easy forms of association with the specific regions or prefectures visited, such as apples from Aomori, koshihikari rice from Niigata, and beni imo (紅芋 purple sweet potato) from Okinawa. Then there are snacks whose brand images are so powerful that it’s almost impossible to imagine flying out of Japan without them. Take the Tokyo Banana from Tokyo Station and the Shiroi Koibito chocolate from Hokkaido for instance—both snacks are so synonymous with their regions of origin that almost none of my friends can leave the airport without smuggling a box or two in their hand-carry luggage. And honestly, virtually nothing ever tastes bad from Japan so getting a food omiyage is as fuss-free as a gift can be!

‘Tis the season! Did you really visit the transient cherry blossoms in April if you’re not getting your hands on a sakura-special omiyage? With Japan’s four major seasons of spring, summer, autumn, winter (and multiple sub-seasons), buying a seasonal omiyage brings more meaning to your brief but fun exchange in Japan. It definitely also keeps things interesting for your friends and family, especially if you are someone who visits Japan multiple times in a year. For instance, let’s say you’re planning to get a really nice Imabari towel from Imabari in Ehime and it just so happens to be autumn. Why get an ordinary Imabari towel when you can get a Imabari towel decorated with a fall foliage motif instead? And with variety comes innovation—shops and department stores (and even companies like Starbucks) in Japan often compete with each other when it comes to selling the next trendy, seasonal items, so rest assured that you will be spoilt for choices. 

Get crafty! Last but certainly not the least, if you find that snacks aren’t the way to your loved ones’ hearts, perhaps it’s better to get something a little more special—crafted—just for them. Personally for me, receiving local and/or traditional handicrafts as omiyage, especially if they’re handmade (bonus if they serve a purpose beyond aesthetic means) shows me the thoughtfulness and effort that was put into getting the omiyage by the giver—better yet if they were made by the giver! Local handicrafts can range from something as simple as bamboo chopsticks made in Kyoto to a lavish artisan-made wajimanuri lacquerware from Ishikawa. Be warned though, as some of these exquisite handicrafts do carry a hefty price tag, but understandably so—traditional craft in Japan has a long and rich history, and many of the craftsmen put in a lot of work and dedication in their work, so you can be sure that these handicrafts are worth the damage incurred. 

And if all else fails, an omamori—served to “protect” your loved one—from a famous local shrine will do just the trick!

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While waiting for travel borders to reopen with Japan, you can visit JAPAN RAIL CAFE in Singapore for some Tokyo omiyage! Visit JAPAN RAIL CAFE's Retail Corner this May to have a sense of what it’s like shopping for souvenirs in Japan’s bustling capital city. There are popular must-buy souvenirs such as TOKYO BANANA X KIT KAT, Butter Butler, Goma Tamago, Sakura Hitohira cookies, and more available. All items are whilst stocks last, so be sure to come down to get a taste of some yummy Japanese omiyage.

Article credit : JR Times