Omiyage ・ おみやげ: Gifts & Gift Giving.

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Local pickled veggies & other omiyage-friendly treats. Kurama. 2011.

=  for more on Kurama, a small town just north of Kyoto, click here  =

Every culture has its gift-giving traditions.  A customary Russian, Slavic, welcome brings bread and salt with it. Gift-giving is a big deal in Egypt, too, when visiting someone’s home. One could write a book on gift-giving customs around the world.  I’m sure it’s been done, in fact.

Gift giving — when visiting friends or relatives, when going on or returning from a business trip or vacation, when coming back from a day trip to this or that tourist spot or hiking trip or most any leisure activity — is huge in Japan.  These gifts are calledOmiyage” (Oh・mee・yah・gay or おみやげ ).  There’s a whole industry, an entire economic sector, dedicated to making and selling gifts for travelers.  One just can’t visit Kyoto from Tokyo, or Hiroshima from Osaka, or Kinosaki from Yokohama, etc., without bringing back omiyage from family and friends and, if it’s a business trip, office colleagues.  There’s simply no counterpart in North America or any other Western country that I know of.

In the West we certainly have (cheap, plastic, crappy) souvenir and gift shops in abundance at all our amusement parks, ball fields, tourist destinations and the like.  And when it occurs to the U.S., one can pick up a Chinese-made Washington, D.C. snow globe, or Las Vegas key chain, but it’s just not the same.

Here’s some of what one site says about omiyage:

Any time you go on a trip or go to an unusual event, it is expected that you will return bearing gifts. However, most of these gifts are not things to be kept and cherished, but rather food to be quickly consumed and forgotten – space is at a premium in Japan, and so the best gift is something that takes up little space, preferably none. Sure, there is the odd ear cleaner for your grandfather or mobile phone strap for your girlfriend, but since you need to have something for everybody in the class or office, the most common item is a box of small confectionaries. Ideally these sweets are a local specialty of whatever place you travelled to, or otherwise represent that place in some way, but often they are just cakes or chocolates that some company has put in a shiny box.

In fact, the actual contents of the gift don’t really matter. In a perfect example of “it’s the thought that counts,” everyone will happily accept your gift and exclaim that it is indeed very delicious. It doesn’t matter that even though you went to Hokkaido, you actually bought your omiyage at Narita Airport. The point is, you went away and returned bearing a box of over-priced mochi.  

Every major train station is jam-packed with omiyage stores and kiosks, most of which are filled with beautifully-wrapped boxes of sweets (but not nearly as sweet as Western sweets), baked goods, rice cakes, local specialties.    The convenience stories in those stations have omiyage sections.  Many middle-sized and minor stations have their omiyage kiosks as well.  Of course all the tourist spots — the temples and shrines, the nature trails, the hot springs, the museums — have their in-house or nearby omiyage stores and souvenir shops, not unlike their Western counterparts, but moreso.

Omiyage & Souvenir Central. Outside of the Silver Pavilion, Kyoto. 2010.

Business travelers to Japan, and those who welcome business travelers from Japan, are disadvantaged compared to their Japanese counterparts.  For the Japanese can just pick up as much or many omiyage as they want at the airport on their way out.  Again, American and Dutch and British and Mexican and Canadian, etc. airports have their souvenir shops, but just not of the kind, nature or volume of Japan’s omiyage shops and stands and kiosks.

Omiyage (おみやげ) Store. Kinosaki Onsen (hot spring・bathouse town). 2001.

=  For more on Kinosaki Onsen, click here  =

One business innovation I’ve just recently discovered, after I received a traditional, multi-wrapped box of wagashi snacks (see photos below) from a Japanese businessman visiting from New York, are the Japanese omiyage shops stationed and staged round the world.  These are for Japanese business-types who are themselves posted or on assignment in cities around the world who are called upon to travel to other places in the country they’re based in.  What are they to do for traditional Japanese omiyage?  Now there’s an answer:  go to the traditional Japanese omiyage store in New York, or London, pick up the appropriate number of boxed and wrapped treats, and present them accordingly when visiting Birmingham, Alabama, or Birmingham, England.  It’s like staging blankets, tents and food in those areas of there world where you know an earthquake or hurricane will likely someday hit.

The aforementioned “Omiyage-Abroad” company is Minamoto Kitchoan and by visiting its website you can get a good idea of traditional omiyage.

Omiyage Unwrapped: made in Japan, purchased in NYC, given in Birmingham, Alabama.

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In the photo below you can see Sunday afternoon tourists emerging from the maw of omiyage and souvenir shops that line the street on the way up to Kiyomizu-dera (temple) in Kyoto.

Kiyomizuzaka (with Kiyomizudera immediately behind me). May 2010.

Here’s another view of one of the approaches to Kiyomizu-dera, which is stiff with restaurants, tea houses, omiyage and souvenir shops –

Sannenzaka (pedestrian street). Nearing Kiyomizu-dera. May 2010.

=  For more photos from Kyoto, click here and here and here  =

Of course the Duty Free Shops, this one at Narita Airport in Tokyo, are good for buying “less traditional” omiyage (cigarettes and liquor).  Liquor used to be a very common omiyage among international travelers, but not so much these days.

Duty Free Shop. Narita Airport (Tokyo). August 2012.

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Bringing Omiyage to Japan, tips:

   * There are no hard-and-fast rules.

   * The more “local” the gift (from your city, your area, your state/province) the better.

   * Food is good, but it will need to travel well and some foods (meats, sausages, for example) are subject to Customs confiscation.

   * The gift should be wrapped.  I’ve started packing wrapping paper, cheap scissors and tape in my checked baggage and just wrapping gifts in my hotel room upon arrival in Japan.

   * Local “coffee table” books — with nice, scenic, historical, culturally-informative photos and simple explanations about where you’re from always make good gifts.

   * I’ve bought sheets of interesting U.S. stamps, have had them inexpensively framed, and have given them as omiyage. Their flat, light, not subject to breaking (if packed well) and unique.

   *  You should offer the omiyage with both hands, and accept omiyage given to you in the same way.  It’s just polite.

   *  For lots more on traveling to Japan, especially for the business traveler, please check:  “So you’re going to Japan.

  1. This is fascinating. I still remember the first business-trip-gift my father brought back to me from New York – Dutch milk chocolate in the shape of wooden shoes. Perfect!

    In LIberia, there’s an intriguing gift-giving custom. Where possible, the person receiving the gift gives half of it back to the giver, thus ensuring no one is left without something. I have a photo of my dad with a village chief who’s just given him a fish. The solution? The fish went to the village women, who cooked it up and served it on rice – ensuring everyone got some.

    And there’s this – I’ve been trying for a couple of years to move along all of my dad’s stamp collection. I’m down to three volumes of full sheets the stamp dealers won’t buy. I’ve given a lot to crafters for decoupage and such, but if you’d like a packet of full sheets, contact me by email and I’d be happy to send them along at no cost. I’ve saved the ones I want, and just want to find a happy home for the rest.

      • letsjapan
      • May 13th, 2012

      Hello and thanks so much for the insight into the Liberian custom. And what a great custom it is (and story). I’ll certainly contact you about those stamps. Thanks so much!

      All kind things to you,

      R.

    • Lois
    • May 28th, 2012

    Nicely written and explained, R.

      • letsjapan
      • May 30th, 2012

      Thanks so much. It can be a little complicated, but some rules of thumb (e.g., give and accept with two hands, especially for first-time gift-giving at Important, VIP-type meetings) still apply.

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