The Japanese Culture of Souvenirs

The Japanese Souvenir Culture and the Japanese Souvenir Tradition

Everyone who travels to Japan enjoys looking at the interesting knick-knacks that can be found on the streets. However, it is much more enjoyable to go shopping for these trinkets. It is a popular culture in Japan to give gifts to friends and loved ones when coming home from a trip. An omiyage can be compared to a souvenir, however, instead of buying one as a memento of a trip, these items are bought for people who are expecting one’s return.

An omiyage can range from a variety of things, it can be something edible like a piece of sweet or pastry. For more elaborate gifts, it can be home décor, personal accessories, and more. There are omiyage boxes that contain different kinds of pastries and candies made out in different colors. Others enjoy buying traditional goods like local delicacies and products which are native only to a specific locality.

There is actually an ongoing joke in Japan that on a one-hour trip to a popular tourist destination, a typical Japanese would spend 10 to 15 minutes enjoying the scenery. The next 45 to 50 minutes would be spent in Omiyage shops looking for the most affordable yet worthy trinkets for friends and loved ones. Of course, this is not true for all travelers. There are just a lot of people who enjoy the fancy and fun stuff being sold at omiyage shops.

For a lot of foreign travelers looking at the concept of omiyage, they think that it is an obligatory gesture. Since preparing for an omiyage and taking them home after ANY KIND of trips, it becomes a responsibility. A social norm, and a social expectation – this is the kind of impression the Omiyage culture has on foreign travelers.

What is interesting about the culture of omiyage giving is that it is deemed as a very thoughtful gesture. It is a means of saying that a person giving the omiyage has seen something to remind them of the receiver. It is a means of saying that they have been thinking about the other while they have traveled far away.

Japanese Souvenir Ideas for Foreign travelers in Japan

What is important about an omiyage is the fact that it should be something that cannot be bought somewhere from home and will let them get a simple idea about the Japanese culture. Here are some of the most common Japanese omiyage that foreign travelers buy from Japan.

Japanese Souvenir Sweets

One important tip for those that are planning on buying Omiyage must remember that anything edible is usually good. The usual winners for this event would be Japanese sweets. Japan has been known to create the most unusual but tastiest sweets in the world. They are also well-known for making the most creative, cutest-looking sweets – a wide variety of visually appealing color.

One very popular Japanese sweet that foreign travelers take home from Japan would be the mochi. These are flavored rice cakes which usually have delicious fillings. These are then refrigerated and eaten cold – similar to ice cream. Another popular souvenir would be the different unusual KitKat flavors. Japan is known to be the home of the most unusual flavors of KitKat like Sakura, Blueberry Cheesecake, baked potato, banana and more. KitKats are popular sweets but are made even more popular with their unusual flavors.

Japanese Souvenir Accessories and Jewellery

Common accessories that can be bought from Japan are those that are made with authentic, oriental materials. There are hair brushes and combs made from wood, or shells. There are also hair clips and pins made from embroidered flowers. Other accessories may include traditional paper fans, hand bags, traditional slippers, and much more. There are a variety of traditional items to choose from and there are also a lot of places in Japan that specializes in their production and distribution.

Japanese Souvenir Lacquerware

One of the traditional means of make ceramics in Japan would be through lacquerware. It is a form of coating containers, plates, bowls, boxes, of different sizes and shapes, with natural chemicals known as lacquer from the lac insect. This particular resin makes the lacquerware more durable. It has a signature red color which is typically seen in ancient paintings not only in Japan but also in China. This kind of ceramic coating has been used for thousands of years and can be quite expensive, in the modern times.

This lacquerware can be given more intricate designs through the use of special materials like shells or wood. Some are carved to make them look more exquisite. Others are hand painted by the most famous artisans of the earlier times.

Lacquer has been replaced with plastic and metal alternatives in the modern times, however, there are specialty shops all over Japan that still make this kind of work. This is a very popular omiyage, especially those who have the budget.

Japanese Souvenir Amulets

The Omamori is one of unique souvenirs to give out. They usually cost less but are very interesting. It is also a means of wishing someone else some good luck. An Omamori is a Japanese amulet which is believed to give a person different forms of luck. A particular amulet can be for finding love, good health, prosperity, and happiness. There are amulets which are given out as a means of protection from harm, diseases, evil spirits, and the like.

What makes this special is that there is thought to buying and giving amulets. It could be quite customized depending on how well the giver knows the receiver. It is a small sized trinket as well and buying many will not take up too much space in the luggage. This kind of souvenir can be bought from temples and shrines all over Japan. If a person cannot find the perfect omamori, they can request from the temple or shrine priest to make them a special one.

Japanese souvenir Chopsticks

Although it is a simple gift, chopsticks are popular omiyage bought by many foreign travelers. There are a lot of souvenir shops all over the country that sell chopsticks of different designs. There are vintage designs that feature traditional-styled paintings while there are also more modern designs that feature color and interesting art. There are chopsticks made from specialized wood while there are others which are made from alternative materials other than wood. Giving out chopsticks can seem like a cliché but it is actually a simple and thoughtful gift.

Japanese Souvenir Food

Giving food is always a winning choice. There are a number of delicious delicacies from Japan that will surely be enjoyed by anyone. The most special out of all would be giving out tea-flavored goodies. There are tea flavored pastries, tea flavored sweets, and tea flavored everything. Maybe giving out roasted tea leaves for a great drink is also good.

Noodles and ramen (usually the instant kind) is also a popular gift to give as an omiyage from a trip. Japan is home to the most interesting flavors and there are even shops that allow the customization of seasonings and flavors. Food is always a good option when buying omiyage for friends and loved ones.

Japanese Souvenir Jacket

Known as the Sukajan, it is a special type of Japanese Jacket. It looks like a simple bomber jacket but is intricately designed with embroidery. Most of the embroidered work is similar to body hugging tattoos – dragons, serpents, phoenixes and more.  

It is an iconic piece of Japanese popular culture and is usually seen in media like films, fashion shows, and even in anime. It is not only a means of showing high fashion, it is also a means of expressing rebellion. It is a total “bad-boy look” equivalent to leather jackets in the West.

Japanese Souvenir Jacket History

What is interesting about this is the history behind the bomber jacket. It started out when American GIs had their jackets embroidered with interesting oriental designs before they went to their homeland. Since then, it has evolved into the high fashion item it is now.

Japanese Souvenir Swords

Samurai swords and knives are very popular in Japan and are famous decorative pieces. They are very expensive and can be difficult to purchase and take home. Just like the Sukajan, this is a very common memento during the Second World War. American GIs make it a point to take home the swords and katanas of soldiers and officers that they kill – mainly because of the good smith work of the piece.

Yes, swords are common souvenirs but it must be noted that they cannot be carried with the luggage when riding the trains or planes. It is best to have the item shipped home as it can provide potential danger and confiscation.

Tips for Shopping in Japanese Souvenir Stores

One important tip to remember when buying omiyage for friends, family members, and co-workers would be the fact that food is always the great way to go. They are inexpensive, unique, properly proportioned, and special. These are usually pre-wrapped and boxed-up – fully intended to be sold as an omiyage. Another point is that the nicer the item looks, the better no matter how cheap it can be. The gift wrap is the usually takeaway. If the item is expensive but wrapped poorly, it makes people sad. But cheap items which are wrapped nicely are usually exciting to get.

However, when giving out food, it is important to remember that homemade is defeats the purpose of an omiyage. It might be a good idea to have something bought because it shows that it is something that could not be had on a daily basis.

Another important note to remember is to make sure it is safe to purchase an item. Perhaps what is being sold is a piece of an exotic animal for which poaching is highly restricted. Some research to read about prohibited goods in Japan would be helpful before any purchase.

Specialty Japanese Souvenir shops to visit

Akahibara (Tokyo) – This place is the best place to visit when buying any kind of electronics and gadget. A lot of foreign and local travelers go here for the sole purpose of shopping for electronic goods. They have the latest items and are usually sold at a much cheaper price. However, this is not the only thing it is famous for. There are manga and anime stores all over Akahibara as well.

Harajuku (Tokyo) – This is a great shopping destination for those looking for fashionable trinkets. They are famous for hair accessories, edgy fashion, and makeup. Just located a short distance from the train station, there are a number of shops that sell different goodies.

Nakamise Street (Asakusa) – Credit must be given where credit is due, the Nakamise street is known to be Japan’s number one Omiyage destination. It is a full block lined up with stores upon stores selling almost all kinds of trinkets. There are apparel, container ware, hair accessories, cloth, and more. People enjoy going here at any time of the year – it is the ultimate traveler’s shopping destination. This place is great to visit as spring time begins in March when the temperature starts to warm up.

Daishodo (Kyoto) – For people who are looking for vintage items, visiting this old bookstore might be a great idea. They sell rare books and artwork which date back to hundreds of years but can be quite expensive. There are woodblock prints, being sold here as well. There are hand painted card games available as well – these are original prints but others are already replicas of the original.

 Fukunoya (Kyoto) – This place sells many of the most incredible things. They sell yukata or traditional Japanese wear. They sell silk clutch bags that match with the traditional yukata. There are places that sell traditional paper fans. The best thing to do in Fukunoya is to shop for antiques. There are home decors, furniture, personal accessories and more. Some can be bought at a low price but most are usually very expensive.