Japanese culture is filled with gift giving, and no gift is more common than the omiyage. Usually translated as “souvenir,” omiyage is a bit broader in usage, encompassing all sorts of travel gift situations. Taking a trip somewhere? Make sure to bring back omiyage for your coworkers. Have friends coming from overseas? You might want to give them some omiyage to remember their trip by. And of course, if those same friends offer to show you around their country, it’s only polite to bring them an omiyage as a show of thanks, if you take them up on their offer.
But what kind of Japanese omiyage from Japan is most likely to be a hit with foreigners? Japanese Internet users offered the following suggestions.
The list starts off with the most obvious choice, a folding fan. Sure, it doesn’t get any bonus points for originality, but that’s just because it’s such a tried and true choice. Lightweight and easy to pack, a folding fan is instantly evocative of Japan, plus a real lifesaver for visitors to the country during its humid summer.
Another artistic choice is a furoshiki, a patterned cloth used for wrapping and carrying bundles. The versatile furoshiki can also handle the duties of a tablecloth or tapestry, and many stores which sell them also stock inexpensive hanging frames.
Similarly, you could go with an assortment of washi, paper produced using traditional Japanese techniques. Washi is a bit trickier to find a use for than furoshiki, but the variety of designs and textures available make it a unique and beautiful decorative covering, as well as the paper crafts such as origami.
A less delicate item that instantly says “Japan” is a bokutou, or wooden sword. Be advised, though, that despite what anime and Japanese role-playing games may have told you, few, if any, bokutou have the power to cut through concrete, even if the wielder raises his chi levels first.
However, as these suggestions come from Japanese nationals, it stands that the majority of the suggestions follow the conventional logic in Japan that the best omiyage is something that the receiver can eventually use up, thereby precluding the need to store it permanently in his home.
As a result, food is by far the most common omiyage. Some of the gifts that got the happiest reactions were Japanese takes on Western staples, such as uniquely-flavored potato chips or Kit-Kat varieties.
▼ KFC Potato Chips. Because Japan never stops dreaming.
Of course, Japan also has a rich culinary heritage of its own for gift givers to draw on. One choice is yatsuhashi, a traditional confectionary from Kyoto. The dough used for yatsuhashi is either folded into a triangle, with a dollop of sweet bean paste placed inside, or baked until it has the consistency of a cracker.
Another high class delectable on the list is yubeshi. Made of sticky rice flour and commonly flavored with the Japanese citrus fruit called yuzu, yubeshi has been a popular treat in Japan since the 12th century, and is sliced thinly before eating.
Another pan-generational favorite of Japanese with a sweet tooth is uiro, one of the many variations of the Japanese rice cakes collectively called mochi. Uiro, which comes in flavors such as sweet red beans and green tea, may not be able to match yubeshi’s lengthy history, but it has been around for at least 300 years.
You don’t have to go old-school to find a uniquely Japanese confectionary, either. One commenter related stories he’d heard of the island of Hokkaido’s signature omiyage, the white-chocolate wafers Shiro Koibito, getting a chuckle out of foreigners for its name, which translates as “white lovers.”
▼ All snickering aside, they really are delicious.
Should you need a gift for someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth, there’s always a nice bottle of sake. Or, if the person you’re shopping for isn’t a drinker, you could go with one Japanese citizen’s unique recommendation of a bottle of yakiniku sauce, like the kind used at Japan’s ubiquitous grill your own meat restaurants.
▼ On one hand, we could get up on our high horse and be offended by the implication that all foreigners like meat. On the other, we really do have some serious steak hankerings right now.
And in the unlikely scenario that you find yourself in need of an omiyage for someone who somehow hates art, sweets, booze, and even delicious, delicious beef? There’s one last suggestion from the list’s contributors, which even follows the protocol of being something the receiver can use up, which at the very least any American will be able to utilize.
Unorthodox? Definitely. But you can’t deny the inherent generosity in sponsoring another person’s choice of five-dollar beer, tip included.