Tourist shops everywhere in Japan are filled with colorful boxes of local sweets that are perfectly portioned for sharing. These are omiyage. At work, it’s almost expected that you bring back a box of omiyage filled with a specialty product from the area your business trip took place in, and friends and family often purchase omiyage for those who weren’t able to make the trip. Many argue that giving omiyage is a distinctly Japanese custom; Yuichiro Suzuki, author of Omiyage and the Railway, explains in an interview with Yahoo! Japan.
Don’t they have omiyage abroad?
Omiyage is translated as “souvenir” in English, but the two are a little different. A souvenir is something that the person who is doing the traveling buys for themself to remember the trip. In Europe and the United States, train station and airport stores are filled with key chains and other non-food items for this purpose. But Japanese omiyage typically consists of food items produced in the area the trip was taken in. Also, omiyage is not intended to be consumed by the traveler and is instead given out to coworkers or friends.
But what about chocolate covered macadamia nuts in Hawaii?
These were created by Japanese-Americans who were most likely influenced by Japanese omiyage culture. France also has Mont Saint-Michel cookies which are popularly purchased for the same purpose as omiyage, but these are exceptions. The amount of food-related omiyage in western souvenir shops is overwhelmingly low compared to shops in Japan.
But there are many types of candies and foods sold at tourist spots in China and South Korea…
I agree that there are. But in Japan, omiyage is associated with the history of a specific region, for example Ise City’s Akafuku rice crackers or Gunma prefecture’s famous Kusatsu Onsen mochi. In general, this is not true of omiyage elsewhere.
I see. So when was omiyage first seen in Japan?
The origin of omiyage is unclear, but it is thought that the custom began in association with sacred pilgrimages. Those who visited Shinto shrines were expected to bring back evidence of the pilgrimage to their families in the form of charms, rice wine cups, or other religiously significant items. It was thought that the protection granted to pilgrims would be transferred to whoever received the items brought back from the sacred trip. This is said to be the beginning of omiyage.
So at that time, manjuu (steamed yeast buns with filling) and other foods that are commonly purchased as omiyage today didn’t exist?
Back then, food preservation techniques were limited and people traveled by foot so they could only carry light items such as medicine, money, and ear picks. There was only room for the essentials.
Does that mean that the types of food products increased once the railway system was built?
That’s right. For example, Shizuoku Prefecture’s Abekawa mochi originated in a small tea house next to Abekawa River. After the development of the railway system, gyuuhi, a sugary gel confectionary, was made instead of mochi because it lasts longer and can be taken on long trips. At first, many people complained about this new style of Abekawa mochi, but it eventually became known as a specialty product associated with the area.
In your book, you mention that specialty regional foods such as Akafuku mochi in Ise or millet dumplings in Okayama Prefecture were not popular before the Edo period, but have been widely accepted since modern times.
Omiyage culture has been around for a long time, but it’s because of institutions that support the modern state such as the railroad, army, and imperial house that Japanese people have come to have a deep relationship with omiyage.
Is this type of research about omiyage popular?
Research concerning culture anthropology is progressing, but only a handful of people are studying how omiyage came into existence. It’s possible that the majority of those researching Japanese history don’t like sweets.
Mr. Suzuki makes some interesting points when distinguishing the difference between Western souvenirs and Japanese omiyage. Do you agree that the two are different? Is the purchasing and giving of omiyage a distinctly Japanese custom?
Source: Yahoo! Japan