Asians Bearing Gifts: The Omiyage in Japan

Magnets. Consolatory t-shirts. Key chains. Knick-knacks. That’s what I would bring whenever I brought souvenirs of my travels back home. I also only ever purchased them for close friends, family and people I like. And myself, of course. All that changed after moving to Japan. 


If you live and work in this country, it’s pretty much expected that you bring back souvenirs for your colleagues, friends and family. It’s a custom that utterly confused me when I first came here.

Unlike other countries, souvenirs (omiyage) here are usually a small food item that’s beautifully and individually wrapped. Don’t you dare present it in a brown paper bag. Yes – the wrapping matters. A lot.

Before coming to Japan, I only really bought souvenirs for a handful of people. And then suddenly I was doing a headcount of all the staff members in my office as well as other personal and non-personal relationships.

Boy, did the bill add up. Ouch. 

It’s a time-consuming process, too. Figuring out the best option based on weight and price. When I returned to Japan from my winter holidays in Taiwan, my omiyage collection weighed as much as suitcase. I did not enjoy lugging all that weight from the train station to my apartment. 

Coming back empty-handed if you’ve travelled within or outside of Japan is a huge faux pas. Now that I’ve been here for a while – I also know that giving or receiving an omiyage is very much a conversation starter. You went Taiwan? How was it? How was the weather? Blah blah blah. 

Different regions in Japan also specialise in different produce, so usually an omiyage from a particular region would showcase that. And sometimes it’s not even about the ingredients, but the shape or style of the omiyage. For instance – Kamakura is renowned for its pigeon-shaped cookies.

I’ve given and received more omiyage than I can count. I receive so many that I’ve actually accumulated a secret stash at home and in my desk drawer in the office. To be honest – I prefer keychains and knick knacks. But don’t tell anyone. It’s our little secret. 


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