Omiyage: How to Fit Right in at Work when Giving Japanese-style Gifts and Souvenirs

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On July 31, 2018
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Photo by Jorge from Brazil

We all love to get presents, especially when they come from an unexpected or seemingly unlikely source. So, I was pleasantly surprised last week when I arrived at one of my schools and found a big bag of fresh apricots (something of a local delicacy here in Nagano) on my desk.

I soon found out that this lovely gift had come from the friendly — yet somewhat uncommunicative — teacher who sits opposite me in the teacher’s room. Apparently her garden has a number of apricot trees and everyone got a bag of the delicious fruit that day.

That night as I sat back on my sofa, eating an apricot and catching up on some Netflix, I thought to myself: “I must get that teacher something nice when I go back to Scotland for Christmas.” Then the quandary hit me: What could I buy for this person? She’s a sweet woman, but beyond nodding and saying good morning to her once a week in the teacher’s room, I know absolutely nothing about her.

Welcome, friends, to the world of omiyage, or souvenirs, Japan’s unique approach to gift giving that can be, at times, quite baffling.

Anyone who has been in Japan for any length of time — and plenty of the online, self-appointed authorities on the country and culture who haven’t —  will tell you that the group dynamic is a fundamental underpinning of Japanese society. One way this collectivist approach manifests most obviously is with the idea of gifts. When someone in the school goes on holiday, they usually bring back a small present for everyone on the staff. It’s also generally accepted conduct that when someone gives you a gift, you should reciprocate at the next opportunity. With everyone in the office included in this ritual, as we are all part of the same team, the cycle ever revolves. As such, one has to tread very carefully when buying gifts. You need to consider everyone within your group, not just the ones with whom you are especially friendly.

Depending on how big your school is — or how many you visit in a work week — this could mean anything from around 20 to more than 100 people. So, I quickly ruled out buying bottles of 21-year old Glenmorangie (my favorite Scottish whisky).

If you’re traveling within Japan, then the obvious and most commonly occurring omiyage you’ll be presented with is senbei (rice crackers). I’ll be honest though: I’m not a big fan of the dry, salty snacks, especially right now in the middle of a heatwave, when I already find myself going through gallons of bottles of water! At only ¥1,000 or so for what usually amounts to about 50 or 60 pieces, senbei is a great option for those on a budget or that last minute panic buy at the train station or airport as you get ready to return home.

I however, like to be a bit more original.

For about the same price as a box of senbei, or maybe just a little more, many souvenir shops at train stations and airports across Japan also sell chocolate or other sweets local to the area.

Some examples of this are:

  • Yatsuhashi, a triangular-shaped pastry sweet, usually stuffed with flavored beans or jam. It is particularly popular in Kyoto.
  • Tokyo or Osaka bananas, as the name suggests, are banana-flavored sweets with a local branding depending on the city where you bought them. The wrappers on the ones I bought in Osaka had the Abeno Harukas building on them, whereas the Tokyo bananas had Tokyo station.
  • Kobe pudding is a mini dessert from Kobe similar to a crème brûlée.

Of course, for foreign teachers like us, when we get a holiday in summer, chances are we probably go back to our home country or somewhere outside Japan. However, the obligation of omiyage remains.

Welcome to the world of omiyage, or souvenirs, Japan’s unique approach to gift-giving that can be, at times, quite baffling.

I have found down the years that, much like when you buy omiyage in Japan, colleagues appreciate it if you can get them something that’s unique to the place you are visiting or at least something they cant buy locally.

As an example, last time I was in Scotland, I bought a couple of large bags of “fun size” Mars bars (though in all honesty, whoever at Nestlé thought it was “fun” to make a Mars bar that’s about a quarter of the size it should be needs to be fired). Still, the small stature, low cost and easy availability makes chocolates and other sweets from your home country an excellent souvenir choice.

Another time, I went for something more uniquely Scottish (and probably if you look around in your home country, you may find an equivalent). There’s a shop in Edinburgh that sells what they claim is the “World’s Smallest Bottle of Whisky.” It’s about the same size as the cap on a ballpoint pen and you can buy packs of 10 for about £5 (about US$6.50 or ¥750), which considering the state of the U.K. economy is probably about ¥100 these days!

Of course, when buying alcohol-related gifts, even novelty ones such as this that aren’t really intended for drinking, you need to be careful. Most Japanese don’t have any serious religious or moral objection to alcohol, but there’s no harm in double checking just to be sure. A caveat if you’re a teacher: don’t bring alcohol into school when there are students around. It could land you in trouble. Also, another point regarding students: It’s generally not the done thing to buy gifts for students — there’s just too many of them.

Sometimes, we just forget to buy omiyage, since we’re having such a fun time relaxing and enjoying our holidays. In cases like this, the airport shop is your friend. These are great places to buy omiyage for a couple of reasons.

First, you’ve already checked in, so you don’t need to worry about having perceived dangerous items such as cosmetics, foods or liquids being confiscated before you head to the gate or having it impact your luggage allowance. (On a side note, does anyone else find it dubious that a 747 jet can apparently carry a space shuttle but it can’t handle more than 30 kilograms of luggage per passenger?)

Additionally, airport shops often have gift boxes of omiyage-type items available purposefully for just this occasion. You will, of course, pay a bit more because that’s just what airports do with their “captive audience” but personally, I think it’s worth it for the reduced hassle of not having to fit omiyage in with the rest of my luggage.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just isn’t possible to buy gifts for your coworkers. Maybe buying souvenirs just isn’t your thing or you don’t have enough time or money to cover everyone. As a foreigner, you’ll probably get a free pass on this, as most Japanese I’ve worked with are self-aware enough to know that omiyage is a uniquely Japanese concept. However, you may find that colleagues who gave you gifts in the past may not do so in the future if it isn’t reciprocated. It’s unlikely, but possible.

Overall, gift-giving is a personal choice. But I am a great believer in the idea of reciprocation. Since I came to Nagano a few months ago, my colleagues have been extremely generous in their gifts and their hospitality towards me. I look forward to repaying that in January when I bring back some suitable souvenirs from Scotland.

Do you have any suggestions for good omiyage gifts from your country or at airport or satellite shops here in Japan? Leave a comment and tell us your ideas!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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