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Omiyage: Japan’s Souvenir Culture

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Souvenirs are a universal concept. You go on a trip, and buy something to bring home as a token of the memories from your time. In Japan, the word omiyage isn’t just a direct translation for souvenir. It is a custom, a culture, an industry. Omiyage represents an entire culture of give-and-take and an industry that shows nothing but the best in design and variety. The common definition is an edible souvenir, usually a small snack representative of the place it was made in.

Shingenmomo, a peach-flavored baked confectionery from Yamanashi prefecture

Shingenmomo, a peach-flavored baked confectionery from Yamanashi prefecture

Being such an important and quintessential token in Japanese society, omiyage typically comes in boxes that contain individually wrapped portions. This is precisely so because of the notion that omiyage is bought to be distributed, to family and friends and co-workers. It is a small act of generosity that exists to keep good relations with others by showing them that you thought of them. In Japan, many people have the common idea that there is an obligation to bring souvenirs back for the people around them. No matter how small and simple it may be, it is treated as an act of courtesy to bring a token of their travels. This etiquette is bred in Japanese culture, thus founding a whole industry of omiyage.

It isn’t just reserved for overseas vacations, either. Even just hopping over the regional borders to visit another prefecture warrants a souvenir. The virtue of picking out souvenirs in different prefectures though, can be found in the variety. Japan has 47 prefectures, and each of them have their own specialties and characteristics that become a unique motif in the omiyage they offer. Aomori, for example, is famous for being the biggest producers of apples in Japan and thus have many apple-flavored souvenirs. In Yamanashi, on the other hand, you might see Mount Fuji printed across the packaging all over due to their reputation as a popular spot for viewing the famous mountain. Or you might go to Osaka, and find snacks imprinted with their distinctive Kansai dialect.

Castella sweets from Osaka prefecture

Castella sweets from Osaka prefecture

Omiyage is found not only at airports, but at train stations and local souvenir shops where they are stacked in colorful abundance. Whether they’re taking their time while milling about or rushing to pick up a box before their departure time, it isn’t rare to see people crowded around the boxes of omiyage piled up on the shelves. There are so many varieties and designs that you’d need to take your time to pick out a suitable box. Which has the nicest packaging? Which is the most popular flavor? Which contains enough to feed the entire office? Many factors can go into choosing the most suitable omiyage to bring back.

There are, of course, popular omiyage that serve as the go-to souvenir. What are some of the famous products of Japan?

Tokyo Banana (Tokyo)

From Tokyo Banana's official website

From Tokyo Banana’s official website

To many foreigners, Tokyo Banana is synonymous with Japanese souvenirs. The fluffy, custard-filled cake is one of the most popular sweets manufactured in Japan, famous for its trademark banana shape and numerous flavors. While the original banana custard flavor set the benchmark, its descendants can be found in all sorts of varieties from maple to honey to caramel custard that come in unique patterns.

Official website: https://www.tokyobanana.jp/language/en/

Hato Sable (Kanagawa)

From Toshimaya's official website

From Toshimaya’s official website

When visiting Kamakura it’s hard not to spot the Hato Sable, one of the region’s most popular souvenirs. The buttery cookie is known for its iconic dove shape, and has been manufactured by confectionery maker Toshimaya since 1894. Over a century later, it continues to be a delicious emblem of Kamakura and a highly recommended omiyage of the region. Rich in both taste and tradition, Hato Sable is an exquisite yet affordable delicacy beloved by locals and visitors alike.

Official website: https://www.hato.co.jp/hato/index.html

Shiroi Koibito (Hokkaido)

From Ishiya's official website

From Ishiya’s official website

Originating from Hokkaido, Shiroi Koibito is manufactured by Japanese confectionery company Ishiya. The Langue de chat cookie is beloved for its “White Lover” branding, packed in its signature green wrapping and presented in a box that depicts Hokkaido’s Mount Rishiri. With a white chocolate layer sandwiched between two thin cookies, the gentle flavor and soft yet crisp texture of Shiroi Koibito has whetted appetites and melted hearts for years.

Official website: http://www.ishiya.co.jp/language/en/shiroi_koibito/

ROYCE’ Nama Chocolate (Hokkaido)

Chocolate lovers will want to get their hands on this fine line of chocolate—for decades chocolate manufacturer ROYCE’ has made a name for themselves with their first-class technique and produced chocolate of the highest quality. Their Nama Chocolate is famous for their velvety, featherlight texture that melts in the mouth. You’d be sure to impress anyone with the refined flavors that define the enjoyment of this unique chocolate.

Official website: https://www.royce.com/contents/english_product/

Potato Farm (Hokkaido)

Not a sweet tooth? Snack company Calbee packs a punch with their Potato Farm line up, a collection of potato snacks that each have plenty of crunch and flavor. These are a fail-proof gift, because who wouldn’t want to receive snacks that they can easily munch on any time? Potato Farm comes in easy pocket portions, but they’re so addictive that they could make anyone want to eat more. They’re great gifts, but you might want to buy an extra pack or two for yourself.

Official website: http://www.calbee.co.jp/potatofarm/en/about/

Some might see it as an obligation, or an unnecessary transaction between acquaintances. But omiyage continues to thrive as a tradition, because of the social value it brings to the table. It’s a great opportunity to share memories with people, or even just express some goodwill. Besides, who wouldn’t like delicious snacks? Whether you’re the giver or receiver, omiyage is a treat made with the care and pride of its hometown.

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College student in Tokyo and lover of Ghibli and Hello! Project.

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