Traveling around Japan it is all but impossible not to stumble into one of the many shops that specialise in Omiyage, local souvenirs. Often decked to the rafters with a flotilla of colourful boxes, these shops deal in trinkets, toys, and foods unique to their area. While distributing souvenirs to your friends and coworkers after you come back from a trip is by no means a uniquely Japanese concept, as with many aspects of Japanese society omiyage culture is a codified and important part of the hidden web of social customs that keeps things ticking over smoothly.
Firstly, what on earth are omiyage? A quick glance around any omiyage shop will reveal that the most common items given as omiyage are famous local foods. Most places in Japan have a strong sense of pride in their local produce; referred to as meibutsu, these famous local products can be anything from fresh fruit to rice cakes.
Simply grabbing a fish from the local supermarket for your coworkers won’t cut it when it comes to omiyage though. Another vital component of the omiyage experience is the presentation of your gifts. Your common or garden purveyor of omiyage will most likely have selections of local foods packaged and presented beautifully, in carefully laid out display boxes and swaddled in sumptuous wrapping paper. If you have bought something that didn’t come pre-packaged, make sure to wrap it nicely before giving it to its intended recipient!
Thankfully you are not expected to break the bank on your omiyage shopping. If you are buying gifts for individuals there is no need to spend more than a couple of thousand yen, and if you’re shopping for coworkers or classmates then a big box of small snacks will be more than enough to please everybody. With omiyage it is very much the thought that counts!
Once you’ve bought your omiyage and returned from your trip you will of course need to hand them out to their lucky recipients. Luckily, omiyage giving is not strictly governed by any specific rules. If you have gifts for individuals hand them over individually so as not to upset anybody you neglected (or forgot!). If you’ve bought gifts for everyone in your office, then usually it’s enough to place the gifts on a communal table and let everybody know they’re welcome to take them.
From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem like a burden to have to buy souvenirs for all your coworkers any time you take a trip, but these conventions make the whole process a lot less stressful (although not necessarily a lot less expensive)! Most people in Japan have a good knowledge of the various products linked with different areas, and so long as it’s presented nicely, they’ll be very happy to receive any local produce from wherever you’ve just been. And if you are heading to Japan from abroad and want to make a good impression when you meet your new coworkers or arrive at your homestay destination, a few small omiyage from your hometown will do wonders to help your new hosts warm to you!