Sunday, October 24, 2021

Omiyage! Japan's Souvenir Obsession

 --Susan, every other Sunday

One of my good friends describes omiyage as "Japan's unofficial national sport"--and although he laughs when he says, it, that description is at least halfway accurate.

When you live in Japan, and you travel (either for work or for a vacation), it's traditional to bring back omiyage for your family, friends, and co-workers. The word "omiyage" is usually translated "souvenir"--but that's mainly because there isn't a more accurate word (or concept) in English.

A more culturally accurate (if linguistically burdensome) translation of omiyage is: "small, individually wrapped treats that give your friends and family a literal taste of the (food-related) specialties for which the place you went to visit is famous or well-known."

The problem is, if I'm being honest, that translation is a bigger mouthful than most omiyage.

Basically, you bring back edible treats--produced with delight and pride and a in every city, town, and region in Japan--to give to those you love (or, possibly, want to make insanely jealous of your adventure...)

"From Hokkaido With Love"

Every major train station in Japan has an omiyage shop--and many of the ones not large enough for a dedicated gift shop stock omiyage in the station convenience store. Most hotels and ryokan (traditional inns) have gift shops, too--with popular omiyage prominently on display. 

Omiyage on display at Kinugawa Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture

Traditionally omiyage are supposed to be local specialties. If you travel to Aomori Prefecture, in Northern Tohoku, that means apples--and you'll find everything from freeze-dried apple slices to apple cookies, cakes, and pies, and of course apple juice in single-serving bottles. 

Apples from Aomori!

 You can find omiyage in everything from individual packages to enormous boxes filled with more than 30 individually-wrapped, single serving treats (for larger offices--if your company is much bigger, it's usually ok to bring omiyage only to the group you work directly with).

Unique KitKats from Tokyo's KitKat Chocolatery

It's also common to bring back something the recipients can't get at home--for example, unique or seasonal chocolates. Note that the KitKat bar above is literally one single stick, wrapped and placed lovingly in a box. Quality over quantity is the rule...

Rice cracker assortment

The photo above shows the inside of a "single serving" rice cracker assortment from Kyoto. While most omiyage are a single cookie or a 1-3 bite treat, there are also slightly larger options.

Single serving pour-over coffee (in disposable paper filters)

Omiyage can also be something that can be found in other places, but which is produced in a small-batch, local form--like the Taisetsu Coffee shown above. 

Bath Salts from Hokkaido

And while it's supposed to be edible, it does occasionally come in non-edible forms--for example, the yu no hana above. Yu no hana literally translates "hot-water flowers," and is a term used to describe the natural salts and minerals that exist in volcanic hot spring baths. Places with famous onsen baths (like Hokkaido, in Japan's far north) often sell these "bath salts" to enrich your bath at home.

Cookies - perhaps the most traditional omiyage

Cookies are among the most common forms of omiyage. They're easy to package and transport, and pretty much everyone loves a cookie. (Incidentally, the Hokkaido peppermint cookies above are AMAZING - and if you want to try them for yourself, FROM HOKKAIDO WITH LOVE ships all kinds of Hokkaido omiyage and other treats internationally.) As a bonus, cookies are easy to adjust to feature regional specialties and local ingredients.

Corn soup!

Omiyage even comes in some less-easily-anticipated forms, like the Hokkaido sweet corn soup above. The little packets are concentrated--you add hot water for a cup of delicious soup. Hokkaido corn is both famous and beloved in Japan, so while soup might seem like a weird souvenir, this is actually hugely popular.

I give and receive omiyage fairly regularly, and love everything about this neat tradition. It's fun to taste the places other people go, and equally fun to bring back the "perfect bite" for others to enjoy.



  1. Omiyage does indeed go above and beyond most souvenirs. My parents always brought souvenirs, but rarely were they edible ones (often crafts from an area). I typically bring tea towels, local soaps, and candy such as Iceland chocolate or licorice and local wines. Fun!

  2. This is a tradition we seem to have inherited in our little office at university (at least, before the pandemic). Mostly sweet treats from the countries we went to on holiday or family visits. Love it!

  3. Hmm, a fascinating practice, Susan, but I sense if I begin omiyagi on my return from Iceland with that lovely country's most famous treat, Hákarl, I will assuredly sever all interest in my donees from ever receiving omiyagi from me again.