Sharing is caring – and Japanese culture embraces this fact.
The significance of gift-giving in Japan is long-rooted, as gifts are seen as manifestations and reminders of bonds between people.
When an opportunity to travel arises, Japanese people like to think this way:
“The people back home did not get to experience this adventure I’m on – so let’s bring a special gift to share the experience.“
While traveling, they buy locally made foods, snacks, or specialty products to bring back to friends and family. Over time, this became a cultural custom – obligation even. The gift is called omiyage (お土産).
Is omiyage a souvenir?
In the Western world, we tend to think of souvenirs as keepsakes that remind us of trips and vacations. With that in mind – omiyage is very different from a souvenir.
So while the translation is less than ideal, “token of affection” or “souvenir” are the closest descriptions we found for omiyage.
To define it a bit better – omiyage is an edible souvenir we gift to people at home – and it’s a big part of living and loving in Japan!
The selfless history of omiyage
Long ago, pilgrims took journeys to Shinto shrines in prayer, and would bring back gifts – transferring the blessings they received (similar to talismans). As they traveled by foot, pilgrims heading home chose non-perishable gifts like fans, chopsticks, drinking cups, and obi sashes.
Today, we have the luxury of fast transport, so we can bring tasty treats to our loved ones back home wherever we travel.
Omiyage is more than gifts for the people we love. It’s a social custom that helps relationships thrive even if the people involved have few things in common.
Whether you’re close friends of acquaintances, omiyage is a little thoughtful investment into your relationship – and you’ll surely enjoy a tasty snack the next time your friend or colleague travels.
Yatsuhashi – classic Kyoto omiyage
Why and what to bring as omiyage?
Japan may not be large – but it traverses through various climate conditions.
With different food sources thriving in different places (and a high value on craftsmanship across the land), people mixed and matched what they had to create and perfect regional specialties (meibutsu, 名物).
Arguably, specialty foods are one of the drivers of domestic tourism. Some people plan entire trips around tasting local culinary treasures!
Good omiyage unmistakably represents the place you visited – something special about it. Whether it’s locally sourced ingredients or an artisan workshop that represented the city for generations, you’ll find bits of unique flavor in every town in Japan.
While it’s pretty much an obligatory social custom, there’s a lovely mindset behind omiyage giving.
The idea is that when you travel, you get to enjoy a different cultural atmosphere and its distinct flavors. Once back home, you can share the experience through the flavors of omiyage and stories from your journey.
In addition, the people staying home might have covered for you at work or watered your plants while you had fun away – omiyage is a nice way to show you appreciate it!
Who should I get omiyage for?
In short – the people immediately around you, your loved ones, and your professional connections.
Your omiyage shopping list may include your friends and family, host family, neighbors, mentor or boss, coworkers, staff in other departments, students from your class, that store clerk you always have a little chat with, or any other people you meet regularly.
- If you’re gifting to a group of people, it’s a good idea to bring a box with many individually-packed pieces – enough to go around and share in the workplace/school. Whip out your omiyage when everyone is present.
- Gift to your family and friends with a personal touch. Get individual omiyage (or gift whole small sets) to your loved ones and important business partners.
What makes a good omiyage?
Though this was not always the case historically, omiyage is usually edible. But as a foreigner, you get a bit of leeway in your souvenirs for Japanese friends – especially if bringing gifts from another country.
It’s best to skip the fridge magnets and key chains. Omiyage should be consumable.
If you don’t want to haul chocolate boxes, you may opt for beverages, tea, spices, nuts, stationery, or cosmetics.
Personalized gifts will also make your close friends and family happy: pottery, amulets, or clothing (universal size ideas: hats, wallets, bags, happi, kerchiefs).
Keep in mind the most important feature – it should be local. In other words, represent a regional specialty of your travel destination.
Omiyage from abroad
Bringing gifts from other countries, you may not find the right “format” for the Japanese idea of omiyage. No biggie!
You may want to get locally popular sweets or cosmetics and choose brands that don’t sell in Japan yet. Bonus points if they come in a nice box and individual packaging.
It’s also great to bring the true local specialties – whether it’s pasta boxes from Italy, maple syrup from Canada, pistachio from California, coffee from Brazil, or perfume from France.
How about sugar-free omiyage?
Omiyage is, more often than not, sweet. If some of your friends or family have dietary restrictions, it’d be considerate to skip the typical sugary treats when buying omiyage. Salty snacks, of locally grown green tea and spices might be better options.
Traveling inland, you might go to areas that produce premium-quality wagyu beef or fresh fruits. If you travel near the coast, there’s likely plenty of top-quality fresh seafood available. Consider getting a delivery company (with iced trucks) to send your closest friends some just-caught frozen ingredients – it’s a bit costlier, but they’ll certainly appreciate it.
What kind of stores sell omiyage?
As soon as you reach your destination in Japan, you’ll see an array of omiyage options around you – they’re very common around train stations, airports, and tourist attractions.
You may find great omiyage in convenience stores, vast department store undergrounds (depachika), gift shops, local bakeries and candy shops, and even stalls near temples and other attractions.
Set enough time aside for souvenir shopping – and make a list of people you’re buying for!
Omiyage should look attractive. Product boxes designed for omiyage stand out right away – they have sturdy packaging, beautiful designs, and feature multiple individually-packed items.
You can also wrap the omiyage yourself or get it professionally wrapped in the store. If you bring it in a bag, take it out before gift-giving.
Furoshiki wrapping is the traditional way to present omiyage.
Perfect Omiyage – Wherever you go in Japan
Many countries take pride in offering the same range of products across the land – all thanks to today’s fast transport. Japan is somewhat different – regions proudly cultivate their local blessings (from sea, land, or human talent) and use their best ingredients to create delicacies exclusive to their region. That drives local tourism, and – you guessed it – omiyage culture.
For that same reason, you’ll find signature dishes – from specialty ramen to weird dishes from local ingredients – wherever you go in Japan. Check out our regional blog posts to learn more about the food you’ll find in any particular area of Japan!
That all goes to say you shouldn’t rely on buying omiyage when you get back home – the whole point is for your gift to represent the place you visited! Here are some long-lasting, easy-to-transport foods (perfect for omiyage) from major tourist spots in Japan:
- Hokkaido Shiroi Koibito: This white chocolate-filled butter cookie is simple, yet so iconic it has its own theme park. The “White Lover” (the cookie name translated) is perhaps the best-established omiyage brand, so don’t miss out on it if you visit Sapporo, Hakodate, or other Hokkaido cities.
- Aomori apple sweets: Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu, is famous for its apples! Various cultivars are available, from the well-known Fuji apple to the deep-brown Akibae. While any apple-based product will do, Patissier’s Ringo Stick is the most popular!
- Sendai Hagi-no-Tsuki: This sponge cake filled with custard cream is a long-standing symbol of Sendai and Miyagi prefecture – it represents the moon and bush clovers, the flower of the prefecture.
- Iwate and Hachinohe Nanbu senbei: These traditional rice crackers come with many tasty savory toppings, but they’re actually most commonly enjoyed in soup!
- Tokyo Banana: Iconic banana-shaped sponge cake (castella) filled with cream – originally banana-flavored, but today it also comes in versions like milk, caramel, honey, and maple leaf.
- Tokyo Campanella: Packaged in beautiful teal boxes, Campanella are three-layered delicate and crispy butter langues de chat-style cookies with chocolate, matcha, vanilla, or (seasonally) strawberry filling in between.
- Yokohama Harbour: Reminiscent of the Yokohama seaside, this ship-shaped cake is filled with chestnut and sweet bean paste. You may find it under the name Ariake Harbour.
No matter how good the cake is, the actual Yokohama harbor is more beautiful
- Nagoya Uiro mochi: Uiro mochi is not mochi – but it’s also delicately sweet, soft, and delicious. In its hometown, Nagoya, uiro mochi is made of rice flour, sugar, and agar-agar, giving it a soft, jelly-like texture.
- Nagoya Ebi senbei: Traditional Japanese rice cracker with a Nagoya twist: shrimp. These thin crackers are made by blending finely ground shrimp with rice flour and seasonings, then grilled to crispy perfection.
- Niigata Sasa dango: Unlike the standard skewered dango, Niigata’s sasa dango comes in its own natural wrapping paper – bamboo leaves. Made of rice flour flavored with yomogi mugwort, this rice cake is usually filled with red bean paste.
Sasa dango: comes pre-wrapped
- Shizuoka tea: This prefecture is a major tea producer, so a bag of high-quality tea or matcha-flavored cookies makes for a good omiyage.
- Kyoto Yatsuhashi: this sweet cinnamon-flavored rice delicacy comes either in soft, fresh form (with anko paste) or as a crispy baked good. It’s a staple Kyoto omiyage.
- Uji Green tea: from matcha-flavored cookies to good, old sencha loved by Japanese emperors, you’ll find some of the best green tea in Japan is grown around Kyoto.
- Osaka Takoyaki: Savory grilled octopus meatballs are popular across Japan, but were first created in Osaka.
- Osaka 551 Horai steamed pork buns: 551 Horai is a legendary Chinese-inspired comfort food chain from Osaka. Their hand-made pork buns come in neat chilled gift boxes (get them just before you depart – they keep up to a day at room temperature.
- Kobe Castella and Fugetsudo: Japanese Castella is a sponge cake with little sugar, so despite its Portuguese origin it evolved around regional Japanese love for mild, fine-tuned flavor profiles. If you prefer crisp sweets, check out Kobe Fugetsudo. Of course, if you can afford some Kobe beef goods for your close friends – go for it!
- Mie Matsusaka beef: A type of wagyu beef, the meat from Mie has a high price point and is worth every penny!
- Hiroshima Momiji manju: Originally a souvenir from the shrine island of Miyajima, now loved across Hiroshima. Shaped like the iconic maple leaf, this cute little cake is made of buckwheat and rice, and filled with sweet bean paste. It also comes with custard, cheese, matcha, and chocolate.
- Yamaguchi Pufferfish: Yamaguchi is best known for its top-quality pufferfish! It’s dried and salted, so you can eat it as a snack or bring it as omiyage.
- Tottori Inaba no Shirousagi: Based on a famous myth that takes place in Inaba, an ancient province that is today Tottori prefecture, this is a small and cute rabbit-shaped bun filled with sweet bean or matcha
- Kagawa Sanuki udon: Kagawa prefecture is the birthplace of sanuki udon. These chewy, thick and long square-cut udon noodles are sold in other parts of Japan too, but a fresh pack of genuine, locally-made product is a great gift from Takamatsu and the rest of Kagawa.
- Ehime Bocchan dango: named after a famous literary character, Bocchan dango is a tri-color, anko-filled rice cake skewer in lovely autumn shades: deep red bean paste, vibrant yellow egg, and matcha-infused green. It was created (and still served) at a famous Ehime hot spring, Dogo
- Miyazaki Obiten: Obiten is a delightful fried fish cake that dates back to Edo period. It’s made of a mixture of tofu and white fish meat, marinated in soy sauce, miso, and back sugar.
- Nagasaki Castella: For a long time, Nagasaki was the only open port for Portuguese ships, so the town was a center of cultural exchange. So, it’s no wonder Nagasaki still holds the best castella cake in Japan – usually made with mizuame sugar syrup.
- Kumamoto Ikinari dango: Made of sweet potatoes, sweet bean paste, and rice flour, this quick cake is a popular quick-fix for unexpected guests – and is now a symbol of Kumamoto!
- Fukuoka Hakata torimon and Niwaka senbei: Hakata torimon is a sweet steamed bun (like manju) that includes white bean paste shiro-an and soft melt-in-your-mouth crust. Niwaka senbei is a sugary rice cracker shaped like the old Hakata Niwaka performance masks.
Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands omiyage
- Okinawa Kippan: This unique treat is made of locally-growing citrus fruits. The citrus is sugared and hand-compressed into a rich ball of sweetness.
- Okinawa Chinsuko: Okinawa and the Ryukyu area are known for pork production, so unlike the rest of Japan, lard is widely used. Chinsuko is a lard-based biscuit, similar to shortbread, famous in Okinawa since old days.
An integral part of Japanese culture, omiyage represents a fine blend of social courtesy and high respect for regional specialties and craftsmanship. It’s an art of gift-giving and an act of cultural appreciation.
Omiyage goes beyond souvenirs, carrying deep significance and reflecting the geo-social uniqueness of each city. From the heavenly Shiroi Koibito of Sapporo to the Takoyaki of Osaka, and from the delightful Hiroshima Momiji Manjuto the delicate Sanuki Udon of Kagawa, each area in Japan boasts its own delights. These little tokens of appreciationhelp people experience the diversity of Japan’s culinary heritage (whether they travel or not), fostering friendships along the way.