Visiting a friend’s house in Tokyo? Going to see extended relatives for the first time? Don’t forget to bring an omiyage (gift) with you. No doubt, gift giving is a common feature of societies around the world, but what’s different in Japan is the degree of formality and the frequency of the exchange. Family and friends are understandable, but the office is just as important. Imagine the scene as individually wrapped regional sweets are discretely placed on the desks of entire office floors, simply because a few members of the sales team returned from their meeting in Sapporo. Everyone must be fed!
This may all seem overwhelming. How on earth does one manage their time effectively enough to consider the range of edible and drinkable gifts to be given throughout the already busy hustle of life in Japan? Luckily for us, an entire market catering to this custom has carved out a niche in the basements of department stores and the corner kiosks of train stations. Such convenience means that the formality of gift giving trumps the actual thought-process of purchasing the gift.
That old adage, it’s the thought that counts? Maybe not so much… When in Tokyo, buy a pack of Tokyo Banana sponge cakes. When in Sapporo, you must grab some Marusei butter sandwiches (they’re famous for dairy cows after all!). Coming back from Kyoto? Don’t forget the yokan jellies. Thanks to centuries of effective regional marketing campaigns, every prefecture is famous for something, creating an endless cycle of easily consumed souvenirs and treats.
But, as we can’t predict where you’ll find yourself cornered next time you’re stuck with 20 minutes to find an edible gift, we’ve compiled a list of items commonly found at popular department store stands, each catering to your budget, whether cheap or expensive. And as a bonus, they can all fit in your carry-on luggage. Let’s go shopping!
Ubatama by Sentaro
￥648 for pack of 9
Good for 8 days
Traditional sweets like these ubatama not only look classy, they’re made with traditional sweet bean paste, ensuring a moist, rich, and characteristically Japanese culinary experience. Just keep them out of the sun for too long and they’ll last about 8 days.
Senbei Rice Crackers by Kyoto Gion Syugetsu
￥1080 for pack of 9
Good for 90 days
Need something discrete, something that will pass the test of formality without getting too much attention? The rice cracker is an easy solution, providing a very neutral way to diffuse professional situations. And at￥1,000 per pack of 9, they’re not going to hurt your wallet too much either.
Gouter de Roi by Gateau Festa Harada
￥1080 for pack of 13 (2 in each pack)
Good for 50 days.
These little biscuits commonly find their way onto the desks of just about every office in Japan. Easy, cheap and delicious, they’ll likely be devoured within a few hours of handing them to your lucky recipient.
Hojicha by Ippodo Tea
￥3,402 for two packs of 60 grams
Good for 5 months
For the classier consumer, nothing feels more suave than giving your aging relatives a container of expensive tea. This hojicha doesn’t come cheap, but it will enrich afternoon conversations and post-meal relaxation sessions.
Sennari by Ryoguchiya Korekiyo
￥3,618 for box of 20
Good for 7-10 days
The outside of these sennari (sweet bean filled pancakes) are made to resemble another popular cake, castella. Sweet bean-filled castella cakes are a staple of the Japanese sweet market, and the history behind them makes a good story too. The sponge cakes gained popularity over 500 years ago in Nagasaki, when communication with the Portuguese led to the introduction of their flagship confection. Taking that as initial inspiration, the insides of these cakes are then packed with sweet bean paste, combining the best of two culinary worlds.
Assorted French sweets by Henri Charpentier
￥3,024 for large box
Good for 21 days
Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris. It’s true… And so it’s only fitting that Japanese gourmets find themselves obsessing over the mastering of French cuisine. French sweets are no exception. Don’t let the name fool you, this confectionary, Henri Charpentier, is a 100% Japanese establishment specializing in western sweets. Judging by Japan’s mastering of so many other industries, these domestically-produced French sweets likely trump the original creations that inspired them.
Kyoubeni by Tsuruya Yoshinobu
￥3780 for box of two
Good for 1 year
There’s never a dearth of sweet bean biscuits in Japan, and this pack provides two varieties, adzuki ogura paste and regular red bean paste.An outside biscuit shell gives a nice crunch to an otherwise gooey delicacy.
Takegawazumi Yokan by Toraya
￥11,664 for four
Good for 1 year
Toraya was founded in Kyoto centuries ago when the emperor still resided there. The emperor, naturally a purveyor of fine crafts and cuisine, patronized the confectionary along with the rest of the imperial family. If you’re looking to impress, then Toraya is for you. Their yokan jellies taste great, and they look even better.
Assorted cake set by Taneya
Good for 15 days
Dainty pink assorted cake sets never disappointed anyone. This set by Taneya is on the pricier side, but that will only help win over the recipient.
Two perfect melons from Shizuoka prefecture grown by Kimura Fruits
While fresh fruit is likely to be denied by customs agents upon arrival, the spectacle of ￥10,000+ melons makes a good story for your friends abroad. The art of perfect fruit is in what’s not shown – one can only imagine the number of specimens discarded due to bruises, overripeness, discoloring and incorrect roundness. The expensive price tag pays for the work involved, not only in growing such fine fruit, but in selecting and curating the perfect pair for your gift-giving consideration. The fruit will surely be eaten in a few days time, but the memory will last forever.
That’s what gift-giving is for, anyways: creating memories. Even if the recipient forgets what you gifted them, their memory of you, the gift-giver, will undoubtedly be bolstered through the transaction, allowing for continued periods of harmonious social intercourse. And when it comes to gifts, everyone’s happy when they’re edible. Happy shopping!
*All of the items mentioned above can be easily purchased on the basement floor of department stores throughout Japan. If going through a main transportation point – like Shinjuku station in Tokyo, or Umeda station in Osaka – note that the number of department stores increases exponentially to such a degree that aimlessly wondering in any particular direction will guarantee an opportunity for shopping.