Omiyage: a Japanese Souvenir Tradition
When you think about souvenir shopping, most people will think about buying something pretty that you can put on display in your home. A small reminder of the trip you took to a certain place in the world, or another magnet to add to your ever-growing collection to remember how many places you have already seen in the world. In Japan, houses tend to be small, mindsets are leaning towards usefulness and handiness of stuff, and some people are even minimalist and try to possess as little stuff as possible. Omiyage are the perfect solution!
Because souvenirs are as often given away to other people as kept for your own enjoyment, it is better to be sure that your souvenir will be met with a genuine ‘that is great, thank you!’ instead of a fake display of thankfulness. And who doesn’t like to receive edible souvenirs? They are tasty, something you can often not easily find near where you live, and as a huge bonus they don’t take up any more space after they have been eaten. So this means that the majority of souvenirs bought these days are of the edible kind.
History of Souvenirs in Japan
In Japan, (edible) souvenirs are called ‘omiyage’, and they are given out to many people; family members who didn’t join you on your trip, other relatives, neighbors you are friendly with, and very importantly, your boss and colleagues. Even if you take only a day trip to a touristy destination, if you have let it slip that you were going and you reappear in the office on Monday without omiyage, it will surely displease your coworkers.
The omiyage tradition goes back at least to the Edo period (17th-19th century). Back in the days, traveling was an expensive undertaking that was not often done. To give you an idea, a trip from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto used to cost the equivalent of what is 3000 USD today. Now, if you make a round-trip in the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, it costs around 300 USD. The purpose of travel was also quite different from most trips done today; the trip was usually done as a way to visit the gods and Buddha, making it more like a pilgrimage.
Not many people could afford that in those days, so what often happened that a group of people chips in for only one of them to make the trip as their group’s representative. Naturally, the traveler needed a souvenir to take home with when they returned. In those days, the standard souvenir was a bill called ‘The Shrine of Ise’. Tourists took the talisman home with them as a good luck charm and as proof that they have indeed visited the shrine. Later on, different types of souvenirs became all the rage, and these days it is usually an edible souvenir or if people have in fact visited a temple or shrine, they sometimes take home an omamori for their loved ones.
Safeguard for Cheating Partners
There is another story that is a bit more recent on the popularity of giving omiyage to your own wife (or husband). Business trips are often a part of life if you work in a Japanese office, and it is especially the salarymen that have to go on a business trip regularly. Many of these business trips are not that exciting as they just go to one of the neighboring prefectures or one of Japan’s larger cities.
So the story is that many married men and some women like to stray, and that ‘going on a business trip’ is a very popular excuse to spend one or two nights away from home while you are actually spending the night in a hotel with your lover on the other side of town. This is why the partner that stayed home always used to demand a typical omiyage from the location the traveler was allegedly going to stay in. It became a little bit harder to lie about your whereabouts this way, contributing to the popularity of bringing omiyage for your partner at home.
Shops in very large stations like Tokyo Station, however, found a way to push more commerce by offering local omiyage from pretty much all prefectures of Japan. This, unfortunately, made it a lot more difficult to keep tabs on a potentially straying spouse for the partners who stay home. But the good news is that this means that you have the chance to taste omiyage from whatever prefecture you want without having to travel all over Japan to find them.
Types of Omiyage Souvenirs
Edible souvenirs make up the largest market share of souvenirs bought by Japanese people in Japan by far. These omiyage are usually sweet, sometimes savory, but always have a specific twist that makes it typical for that area. Sometimes it is the ingredients that give the omiyage its local allure, but more often it is the shape of the food or even the picture on the box that sets it apart.
Some good examples of omiyage with local ingredients is a cookie with the filling of Yubari melon from Hokkaido, black eggs from Hakone that have been boiled in the local hot sulfur spring, or Castella cake from Nagasaki. The last one being typically Nagasaki food because it was brought there by the Portuguese before the Edo period. The dove-shaped cookie from Kamakura shows how the shape of the omiyage is influenced by the locale; the dove is the symbol of the most important shrine of the city, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, where doves are messengers from God.
Edible omiyage usually comes in a box with multiple portions, and because the omiyage are often handed out to for example coworkers, each portion tends to be individually packed. It is not the best for the environment, but it is definitely good for your diet if you decide to keep a box for yourself as you will be much less likely to polish off the box in one go because otherwise, it won’t be fresh anymore.
What are some non-edible souvenirs that are still popular with Japanese people as a take-home memento? A souvenir bearing a well-known local logo always does very well with the Japanese who seem to have a special love for all things cute. Probably the best example of this is all merchandise that bears Kumamoto‘s mascot black bear Kumamon (no pun intended). He became especially popular after the earthquake happened in Kumamoto in 2016, as parts of the proceeds went to the prefecture to help rebuilding.
Where to Buy Omiyage
In touristy places, it will not be hard to find omiyage. If a town has a famous temple or shrine, the way leading up to the sanctuary will be lined with all kinds of traditional shops, including shops that sell all kinds of omiyage from the area. Large tourist attractions like the Skytree in Tokyo and the Gion area in Kyoto are also surrounded by shops, some of which will sell omiyage. If you go to a smaller village that is still popular with tourists like Karuizawa, you will usually find shops that sell omiyage in the main shopping street.
Large department stores are also a great choice for omiyage shopping. Especially check out their amazing depachika floors that are usually in the basement and great food heavens. But also small shops in cities’ more traditional areas do sometimes sell omiyage. Neighborhoods Ningyocho and Monzennakacho in Tokyo and Higashiyama in Kyoto are great examples of this kind of area. If you are staying in a large hotel, one of the hotel’s shops is bound to sell local omiyage.
In Tokyo, you can find satellite shops of certain prefectures that sell the prefecture’s omiyage. Nihonbashi and Ginza are Tokyo neighborhoods that have several satellite shops located there. And last but not least, most larger train stations in touristy destinations have shops selling omiyage as well, often even from other areas as well as mentioned earlier.
Your Japan Tour
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