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Has your Japanese coworker returned from a business trip armed with neatly wrapped boxes of snacks for the whole office? Students back from their summer holidays with beautiful boxes of sweets for you, the teacher? This is the tradition known as omiyage!
With the summer holidays coming to a close, many people in Japan are enjoying their off-days with well-deserved summer vacations, and with vacations– come omiyage.
Omiyage translates to ‘souvenir’ in English, but it is so much more than that! While a souvenir is a gift for yourself or a few special people– Omiyage is a cultural obligation. When you leave town, people will expect omiyage upon your return.
Omiyage is an integral part of Japanese relationship-building and as a result, can cause a lot stress for travelers.
So, let’s learn more about this unique tradition!
1) Omiyage represents the area you visited.
When you are browsing a souvenir shop in Japan, you may be absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of omiyage choices! Sweet treats, savory snacks, formal wrapping to boxes embellished with famous cartoon characters– What should you choose?
Omiyage always represents the area of which you visited, and people will expect a specialty or local product from that area. From Nama Yatsuhashi cakes in Kyoto, to the famous Tokyo Banana cakes—each region has something they are famous for. Part of the fun of exploring Japan is browsing through endless gift shops for all the new omiyage to try in each area!
Pablo cheesecakes are a famous treat to bring back from your trip to Osaka!
It’s easy to find omiyage anywhere you go. Whether it be tourist shops, train stations, airports, even convenience stores will have regional omiyage for you to grab at a moment’s notice. Not sure what to get? Gift shops will always have a “most popular” section for something that is sure to delight.
2) Omiyage is for Everyone!
It cannot be stated enough—Omiyage is an obligation.
You may have gone on trips in the past and picked up a few souvenirs for a few close friends or family members. But in Japan, you must purchase omiyage for everyone. People load up on boxes upon boxes of snacks and treats for friends, family, co-workers, neighbors– or anyone in their home life who may have noticed their absence.
Omiyage is an important part of the community culture of Japan, and it’s vital not to leave anyone out. A gift is also a way to say thank you to anyone who may have been troubled by your absence. As omiyage is expected when you return from a trip, it could be seen as rude, and you may ruffle some feathers if you are caught off-guard without it on your first day back at the office. So it’s always best to grab an extra—just in case!
With omiyage, everyone gets to experience a small piece of the joy you did on your trip.
3) The packaging is just as important as what is inside.
As you may have noticed, omiyage packaging is famously beautiful. Omiyage snacks always come neatly wrapped beautiful wrapping that feels expensive, even when it’s not. Part of the joy of receiving omiyage is enjoying the beautiful wrapping.
It feels like there is an endless amount of choice when it comes to the outside of the box, but this is to suit the individual tastes of the gift-receiver. Pay close attention to your choices. It’s important to consider the wrapping when you are picking out omiyage– think carefully about the person you’re shopping for. Would the Pikachu-covered snack box be better for your boss or your nephew?
If you are bringing gifts from your home country, make sure the wrapping is up to par. Generally, home-made gifts are frowned upon, and if a gift comes unwrapped it’s worth the extra cost to get it professionally wrapped.
4) People may wait to open it.
So, you’ve picked out the perfect omiyage, it’s looking great in its pristine wrapping, you’ve presented it to your host family and—They don’t open it.
Don’t worry! People will often wait to open omiyage until it is ready to be enjoyed. It’s perfectly polite to accept omiyage and put it to the side until you are ready to eat, or to save it and enjoy all together at a later time.
5) Expect omiyage for omiyage.
Omiyage is an important aspect of relationship-building in Japan. Giving omiyage to someone lets them know that respect them and value your working relationship together. This is why it is so important to give omiyage to important people in your life like your boss, your host family, and any coworkers you may work closely with.
And with omiyage, comes more omiyage! People absolutely will return the gift the next time they go on a trip, and you in return the following time. As a rule, if you are given omiyage, you must return the favor the next time you travel. This helps strengthen your relationships and gives you the chance to sample delicious treats from all over Japan!