The Importance of Giving Omiyage
By Lisa Hong
While working or studying in Japan, many take the opportunity to travel around the country. However, some travelers are surprised to learn about the Japanese gift giving culture called Omiyage. Some foreigners find this expectation annoying, although they can often get away with not bringing back souvenirs by playing the “foreigner card”.
Even so, if one looks deeper into the Omiyage culture, it is actually quite sincere and generous. When the traveler brings something back from the region they have visited, he or she is sharing experiences via local specialty.
For me, taking part in giving Omiyage is about including and educating my friends, family, and co-workers. I love sharing what a particular region has to offer. In a few cases, friends were inspired to travel to that region themselves.
In my experience, the most crowd-pleasing Omiyage is shareable and edible, such as a box of sweets. This also happens to be the most convenient and cost-effective route for the gift-giver. Win-win!
Below is a list of well-traveled areas in Japan and simple Omiyage suggestions:
Benimo (purple sweet potato). You can find these in the form of cookies, cakes, tarts, Kit Kat’s, etc.
Goya (bitter melon). Usually served as a savory dish, fried with eggs and Spam. In gift format, you can offer it as a fun cookie flavor (the sugar alleviates the bitter taste).
Lemon. Hiroshima produces the most in all of Japan. You can share this fact with others through lemon-flavored treats.
Momijimanju. Maple-leaf shaped cakes originally from Miyajima, where maple leaves run wild. Traditionally, the cakes are filled with sweet red bean, but you can find other flavors such as custard, chocolate, sesame, etc.
Matcha-flavored treats. Green tea powder is amazing in dessert format! You will find many varieties in Kyoto.
Yatsuhashi. A soft, flat, square piece of Mochi folded into a triangle, holding a dollop of sweet bean paste. Other flavors include sesame, Matcha, cinnamon, etc.
You could offer a box of Mt. Fuji-shaped cookies, but note that Mt. Fuji is actually located in Yamanashi, and there are great many local flavors to be shared!
Seasonal Fruit Flavors. Yamanashi is a huge fruit growing area with many farms offering all-you-can-eat fruit picking. Share what’s in season through fruit-flavored snacks.
Shingen Mochi. Pillowy mochi cubes covered in Kinako (soybean powder) and brown sugar syrup. You may need to prepare this before serving.
Sulfur Egg. Hakone is known for their hot springs and eggs boiled in sulfur water. While I don’t recommend bringing the eggs back from Hakone, I do suggest nose-friendly treats (cookies, cakes) that promise a hint of that sulfur so your friends don’t miss out.
Manju. Hakone is also known for their buckwheat soba noodles, so it would be appropriate to share Manju, which is a cake made of buckwheat and filled with sweet bean paste.
Wasabi-flavored treats. Potato chips, crackers, Kit Kats, the list goes on. Shock and awe your friends!
Mikan (Mandarin Orange). You can find this flavor in candies and jellies, but if you’re kind enough, bring a box of these easy-to-peel crowd pleasers.
Snacks with milky or cheesy flavors. Hokkaido is Japan’s Mecca for dairy production. Good dairy isn’t easy to come by in Japan, so share the love!
Lavender. In the summer, visitors flock to Furano to view gorgeous purple fields. Bring some of that beauty back with Lavender-flavored sweets.
The same Omiyage rules apply for when you are returning from travel outside of Japan. You should’ve seen the look on my co-workers’ faces when biting into Durian candy from Malaysia! But hey, it was authentic and made them more curious about that country.
After being exposed to Omiyage culture, sharing my travel experience through taste has become part of my coming-home routine. There is just something about local flavors that can really transport you to that region!