Omiyage Culture in Japan

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What is an omiyage?

In English, the word omiyage (お土産) is usually translated to mean ‘souvenir’, but in reality, it actually means much more than that. An omiyage is a type of gift that you would usually give to your family, friends and co-workers after you have returned from a trip away, regardless of whether that trip was to another country or another Prefecture in Japan. This custom of gift-giving is a really important and respected aspect of Japanese culture.

The Difference Between Omiyage and Souvenirs

The differences between purchasing a souvenir and an omiyage are quite striking. A souvenir is something that you would usually buy for yourself as a memento of your trip, but an omiyage is something that you would never even consider buying for yourself. No one would expect you to purchase a souvenir for them while you are away on a trip, but people in Japan do expect to receive an omiyage.

The sentiment involved in giving someone a souvenir and giving someone an omiyage is also different. When you buy someone close to you a souvenir you are almost offering them a gesture of wishing that they could have come with you, but when you buy someone an omiyage you are almost apologising to that person for leaving them. It can also be seen as a way of thanking that person for ‘holding down the fort’ while you were away.

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What do Japanese people gift as omiyage?

It is a well-known fact throughout Japan that the best omiyage gifts are always edible. A lot of different Prefectures in the country actually have their own miyagegashi, a word which literally means ‘souvenir sweet’. These typically cannot be bought outside of a specific regional area.

For example, Hiroshima Prefecture’s miyagegashi is a type of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet) called momiji manju, a local speciality that comes from the island of Itsukushima (Miyajima). Visitors flock to the island regularly because it is home to Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where people can find a beautiful, ‘floating’ torii gate.

The idea of purchasing an omiyage that comes from the exact location that you are visiting can even be seen in the kanji that makes up the word omiyage, お土産. The first kanji, 土, can be translated to mean local and the second kanji, 産, can be translated to mean product. Hence the idea of giving local products to people as gifts when you return home.

Another example of a popular omiyage can be found on the island of Hokkaido. Visitors flock to the island throughout the year to see everything from winter sports to fields full of blooming flowers. Before they leave the island, most Japanese people will have an allotted time slot for purchasing omiyage. Popular products include rokkatei strawberry chocolate white and trappist cookies because they can only be found in this specific area.

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Why is omiyage culture popular in Japan?

Omiyage culture in Japan is not a new concept, it actually emerged during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). During this time, people would regularly go on sacred journeys to pray at Ise Grand Shrine, a journey that could take weeks. Due to this, villages would often send a single representative to go and pray for them all.

They would never let this representative leave empty-handed. They would raise enough money to give the traveller a senbetsu (farewell gift) and upon returning, the traveller would return the favour by giving them all miyage, paper amulets from the shrine. As time passed, the shops around the Ise Grand Shrine began to sell local products to these travellers and omiyage as we know it today was born.

There are a number of benefits that come with giving someone an omiyage when you return from a trip away. It is a real key to strengthening relationships in Japan and you can almost guarantee that someone will return the favour. Most people like to make sure that they buy an omiyage that they know that most people will like. Who could possibly turn their nose up at a box of morimoto cookies from Hokkaido, or some of yokohama’s famous uji matcha pound cake?