Asians Bearing Gifts: The Omiyage in Japan

Magnets. Consolatory t-shirts. Key chains. Knick-knacks. That’s what I would bring whenever I brought souvenirs of my travels back home. I also only ever purchased them for close friends, family and people I like. And myself, of course. All that changed after moving to Japan. 

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If you live and work in this country, it’s pretty much expected that you bring back souvenirs for your colleagues, friends and family. It’s a custom that utterly confused me when I first came here.

Unlike other countries, souvenirs (omiyage) here are usually a small food item that’s beautifully and individually wrapped. Don’t you dare present it in a brown paper bag. Yes – the wrapping matters. A lot.


Before coming to Japan, I only really bought souvenirs for a handful of people. And then suddenly I was doing a headcount of all the staff members in my office as well as other personal and non-personal relationships.

Boy, did the bill add up. Ouch. 

It’s a time-consuming process, too. Figuring out the best option based on weight and price. When I returned to Japan from my winter holidays in Taiwan, my omiyage collection weighed as much as suitcase. I did not enjoy lugging all that weight from the train station to my apartment. 

Coming back empty-handed if you’ve travelled within or outside of Japan is a huge faux pas. Now that I’ve been here for a while – I also know that giving or receiving an omiyage is very much a conversation starter. You went Taiwan? How was it? How was the weather? Blah blah blah. 


Different regions in Japan also specialise in different produce, so usually an omiyage from a particular region would showcase that. And sometimes it’s not even about the ingredients, but the shape or style of the omiyage. For instance – Kamakura is renowned for its pigeon-shaped cookies.

I’ve given and received more omiyage than I can count. I receive so many that I’ve actually accumulated a secret stash at home and in my desk drawer in the office. To be honest – I prefer keychains and knick knacks. But don’t tell anyone. It’s our little secret. 

Author: Dipa

Tarot Tales from Japan

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