There are myriad aspects of Japanese culture that can baffle the outsider, but on the face of it, omiyage seems pretty straightforward. Omiyage is usually translated as ‘souvenir’, and we all know what that is right? Coming from French for ‘remember’, a souvenir is usually something that we bring back from a trip or journey to remind us of a place we have visited. For Japanese, however, omiyage is so, so much more than that.
Though its origin is a little shrouded in the mists of time, it is commonly believed that omiyage began with sacred pilgrimages to Shinto shrines. Pilgrims were expected to return with evidence of their travels – presumably to ensure that they actually went on a holy mission and didn’t just hit the Las Vegas strip for a fortnight – such as charms or sake cups. And then, upon gifting these trinkets to family and loved ones, the spiritual protection bestowed upon the traveller by the shrine’s kami [gods] would be shared.
With the advent of Japan’s railway system vastly improving travel times, perishable items became increasingly popular, and nowadays the purchase of omiyage has become necessary for absolutely every journey; in some cases, it can be the entire reason for a trip. In every major train station, you will find sprawling supermarkets dedicated to a dizzying array of sweets, local delicacies, and handicrafts. Furthermore, the roads around every tourist spot will be lined with hawkers enticing you with gifts to shower upon your loved ones – in Kyoto, it is somewhat disheartening to discover that the beautiful old buildings outside the likes of Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji are not quaint little teahouses, but are instead stuffed to the rafters with trinkets, snacks, and general tat.
Of course, when we go away, we might bring back the odd little souvenir, but these are usually just one or two pieces, and more often than not it is a keepsake for ourselves. Not so in Japan, where people regularly bring an extra suitcase with the sole purpose of carrying gifts. This is because the concept of omiyage plays an important part in sustaining harmonious relationships, as to give gifts shows an appreciation and thought for those you left behind.
This is particularly important for work colleagues, as they’ve had to take up the slack while you’ve been gallivanting, and as weird coincidence would have it, literally as I typed this sentence, my co-worker walked in with some green tea cake and persimmons from Anjo (spooky timing!) But omiyage isn’t just about holidays. Heaven forfend you should go on a business trip to your company’s factory in Shizuoka and not bring back any Abekawa-mochi, or you visited a new customer in Nagano and didn’t return bearing apple-flavoured goodies. Your co-workers would not only have your guts for garters, but also your Achilles for a tie, and your spleen for a tiny bowler hat.
On top of that, before you even headed out, you had to bring some omiyage with you to said factory/customer to show appreciation for the business relationship. And here is where things start to get complicated, because there is something of a hierarchy when it comes to gifts. Of course, for most of your coworkers, individually packaged cookies or manju [steamed buns, often filled with red adzuki bean paste, tastier than it sounds] are fine, but if you are visiting a boss or someone actually important, you better go all out. If you know them well, and they are that way inclined, you could bring some nihonshu [rice wine, what you might call sake], but that’s a bit of a dodgy line to take – ‘what, are you calling the boss a drunk?’ No, the best thing to go for is fruit. But we aren’t talking about picking up a bag of bananas from the supermarket. Here, fruit is a really big deal, and gifting the right ones can really make an impression. Word of warning though, be careful what you buy as it can cost a pretty penny: in 2019 a pair of Yubari King melons went for ¥5 million (about $46,000 at the time).
So, yeah, giving omiyage can be a bit of a minefield if you are unaccustomed to it, but fortunately, I am here on hand to help you out. The first question you have to ask yourself is ‘where am I?’ The spelling of omiyage isお, which is an honorific prefix used in formal Japanese; 土, meaning in this sense ‘local’; and 産, meaning ‘product’. Therefore, your gift should have some connection to the area you have come from. The next thing to think about, particularly when giving foodstuffs, is presentation. Is the gift packaged beautifully or is the thing itself cute? For example, if visiting Gero in Gifu Prefecture, picking up manju in the shape of frogs (gero-gero is the sound a frog makes in Japanese) is better than something that looks like vomit (gero is also the onomatopoeic sound for puking, though the last time I went to Gero, I didn’t see any omiyage making that connection. They’re missing a trick if you ask me.)
Quantity is also a key consideration, as you have to think about everyone you are giving for. Yes, those little Shisa lion statues are a great gift to bring back from Okinawa for your kids, but are you going to buy one for everyone in the office? Even Takeshi-san in HR who always steals your coffee mug and never washes it up? No, best to get a few big boxes of shio-choco [salty chocolate] cookies and be done with it. You should have plenty of space in that extra suitcase you brought with you. Of course, you might want to keep in mind that your boss or senpai [senior] may expect something a little more appurtenant to their standings. For them, try to avoid anything too generic. Yes, those Momiji manju [steamed buns in the shape of maple leaves] scream out that you went to Hiroshima Prefecture, but they are sooooo obvious. Why not get a personalized shamoji [rice paddle] for that ‘I really respect you, even when I’m on my hols’ touch.
Oh, and what to do if someone gives you omiyage (because they will, it’s very much a reciprocal, never-ending system)? Well, you shouldn’t just open it straight away, because that’s considered impolite for some reason I can’t fathom. Instead, pop it in your drawer and either wait until you are in private to enjoy it, or forget about it and end up with a desk filled to the brim with stale, inedible cookies, senbei [rice crackers] and manju like I usually do.
Images By Mark Guthrie
Melon and Momijimanju via photo-ac.com