Believe it or not, train stations are one of the best places to buy gifts in Japan. Train station omiyage (gifts brought back from your travels) are usually edible, representative of the local culture, and are well-received by everyone from colleagues at work to friends or neighbors.
Whereas in the west we tend to keep a person’s personality and their likes in mind when buying a gift, thankfully in Japan, it’s much easier—just buy what’s most popular! In convenient Japan, you’ll find most of the decisions already made for you, so all you have to do is decide how many pre-giftwrapped boxes you want of each item, and you’ll soon be on your way. You can even wait until you’re on the train to buy them from the vendor pushing their cart up and down the aisles on the Shinkansen.
While initially the array of train station omiyage may seem baffling (hundreds of choices!), in this article we whittle it down to the most popular picks; the things that anyone would love to receive. We’ll start in Hokkaido up in the north and move down the archipelago station by station, highlighting the most popular gifts sold at each bullet train station. At the end, we also offer some suggestions on what to purchase if you’re looking for souvenirs from Japan to take abroad.
Souvenir-buying has died out in many other parts of the world due to globalization and the fact that it is no longer uncommon to fly from one coast to the other or to jet off to another country for work or a vacation. But Japan keeps its traditions, and bringing back something nice and pretty, even if you’ve just come back from a neighboring prefecture, remains ingrained in the Japanese psyche. Cute, beautifully sculptured cakes and sweets are sure to satisfy and show that you were thinking of others (even if you weren’t) while you were away.
What to buy depends on where you’re coming back from, so let’s start at the top of the archipelago as if you were coming back from a trip to Hokkaido, and work our way down the shinkansen line to Kyushu.
Two sure-fire omiyage from Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido are “Shiroi Koibito” (white lady), a type of butter cookie and Royce chocolate. Royce is high-quality chocolate and the most popular picks are from their line of nama choco which is so rich and creamy, it literally melts in your mouth.
▼ Look for the luxurious packaging.
▼ Azuki bean-flavored Kit Kats from Hokkaido
Tip: If you’re not enamored with the most well-known product of a particular place, or if you’d rather go for something more unusual, look for the local Kit Kat flavor! There are reportedly over 100 different flavors unique to different regions including Yubari melon (also Hokkaido), sweet potato (Tokyo), strawberry cheesecake (Yokohama), wasabi (Shizuoka), blueberry cheesecake (Nagano), and miso (Nagoya), we could go on and on!
Tokyo Banana is perhaps the most iconic of cakes bought as souvenirs in the capital city. There are special stores in Tokyo Station dedicated to baking the delicacies and selling them straight from the oven.
▼ While the classic Tokyo Banana is a solid lemon-yellow color, they also come in trendy patterns which helps them maintain their popularity.
▼ Other Tokyo options are cute treats like this Mount Fuji-inspired sugar candy, which can be found in the general omiyage shops at Tokyo Station.
Tip: If you’re not the type to wade through the myriad omiyage in the train station shops, there’s an easier way: buy them from the vendor who strolls up and down the aisles on the shinkansen. She (and yes, it’s always a woman!) will give you a menu like this one and you can just point and pay!
▼ All the major omiyage in one place please!
Baumkuchen is a German cake originally brought to Japan by German Karl Joseph Wilhelm Juchheim in 1919, who opened a bakery in Yokohama in 1921.
▼ Never a dull moment in cake designing—Baumkuchen with matcha-flavored icing.
Tip: Many sweets in Japan are offered in matcha flavor, a distinctly Japanese taste. To add a touch of Japaneseness to even the most Western of sweets, just choose the green colored matcha!
Yatsuhashi (八ツ橋) is loved by foreigners and Japanese alike. Typically displayed so that you can see their unique triangular shape, yatsuhashi is made with a thin envelope of glutinous rice flour and sugar and filled with red bean paste. They are typically cinnamon-flavored and may have kinako powder on top.
▼ A limited edition chocolate version of Kyoto’s “yatsuhashi.”
▼ A Kyoto Kit Kat flavor. The combination of matcha and chocolate flavors is divine!
Tip: Packaging can be a very interesting part of Japanese omiyage. While we’ve highlighted mostly boxed sweets in this article, look around for more unique packaging in the omiyage shops, such as products wrapped in leaves, bark or tied together with rope or strips of dried seaweed.
In Osaka, home of the famous takoyaki octopus balls, you can expect to get snacks anointed with octopus flavoring. As Osaka is also known for its own style of okonomiyaki, it should be no surprise that you can also get okonomiyaki-infused delights as well such as oknomiyaki flavored “jagariko” potato snacks (jagariko is a favorite among RocketNews24 writers and one of the five most popular snacks in Japan). You can even buy okonomiyaki-making kits, with all the ingredients needed to make Japan’s iconic pancakes at home.
▼ Jagariko, okonomiyaki-flavored snacks.
“Daifuku” (大福), small round rice cakes with sweet filling and dusted in confectioner’s sugar, is available virtually everywhere in Japan. If you’re not fond of octopus-flavored or okonomiyaki-flavored treats, you can always get some daifuku which is a little daintier and made with festive white, green or pink mochi. These confitures are filled with anko or fruit. Strawberry daifuku are my personal favorite. Be sure the box has the name of the city you want on it as many omiyage shops carry the archetypal sweets with different city names stamped on them (depending on where you want the receiver to think you just came from)!
▼ Everyone loves daifuku, a great fall-back gift that is sold everywhere, even outside of train stations.
Tip: If you buy your omiyage on the bullet train, you’ll be limited to larger packages that cost at least 1,000 yen (about US$8). If you buy from the shops at the train stations you can get smaller boxes for 500 to 600 yen.
▼ A plank of fresh “castella” sponge cake is displayed in a bakery.
After you come back from that amazing hike up to the waterfall just outside of Shin Kobe station, be sure to pick up some Kobe favorites: “castella” cake, pudding or “fugetsudo,” a wafer, often with sweet cream inside.
▼ Fugetsudo, also called gaufres, can be very large.
Tip: As fugetsudo often come in durable yet decorative tins, they make great gifts to take overseas.
▼ This character-likeness is reflected in a steam-cake from Himeji.
Add a bit of character to your omiyage! Never turn down a chance to buy something that celebrates a moment in the history of the place you’re visiting. Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hyogo Prefecture that recently reopened after a five-year renovation, introduces the newly minted “Shiromaruhime” character on the package. Shiromaruhime, a glob of white mochi, was born on April 6 and is reportedly a singer and who likes to sip green tea in the Himeji Castle garden.
We found a box of “steam cakes” that presumably imitate the shape, color and puffiness of the new character. The box of cakes comes with a sticker of Shiromaruhime too!
Tip: Most omiyage have expiration dates on the packages. Be sure to check the sticker on the side or back of the box, especially if you are giving a gift with filling inside it, which may either expire within a few days or need refrigeration. Also, be careful not to wait too long to give someone their gift as no one wants to receive a gift that has already expired!
▼ The expiration date on this one is Oct. 11, 2015. (Remember: in Japan dates are written YY/MM/DD)
▼ The Peach Boy Momotaro and his friends—a dog, monkey and pheasant—on the cover of a box of “kibidango.”
Speaking of characters, Momotaro (the Peach Boy) is the local hero of one of the most famous folktales in Japan. The story goes that there is a demon who lives on an island in the Seto Inland Sea who terrorizes the Peach Boy’s village in Okayama Prefecture. Momotaro attempts to save his people by seeking out the demon and killing him. He entices a dog, a monkey and a pheasant to accompany him to the demon’s island by offering them confections called “kibidango,” that his mother made for him. The foursome slay the demon and kibidango continues to be a popular treat to buy as souvenirs.
▼ Kibidango can be packaged individually or several together on a skewer.
Okayama is also famous for fruit, such as peaches and muscat grapes, so you’ll find all kinds of fruit-flavored specialties.
▼ Muscat grape-flavored pudding
▼ Peach-flavored Calpis drink
Tip: If you’re taking a gift to an office or a group, choose something that has many pieces as opposed to a snack that cannot be easily shared.
▼ Up to 30 people can enjoy one of these dango with a cup of tea!
▼ The outside wrapping of these cakes highlights Miyajima’s epochal deer (messengers of the gods) as well as Japanese maple leaves.
If you’ve been to Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage site located on the maple tree-speckled Miyajima island with the huge “floating” torii gate, then you’ve probably tasted the freshly baked traditional favorite: momiji cakes. Momiji manju, with manju red bean paste filling, are patterned after the leaf of the Japanese maple (called momiji) and you can watch them being made by special machines inside the sweet shops on the island. These delectable morsels are available with a variety of fillings such as custard and chocolate. Momiji cakes are quintessential delicacies of Hiroshima.
▼ Momiji manju treats–super yum!
Tip: Individually wrapped treats like these allow people to be able to take the goody home with them if they don’t want to eat it right away (or intend to give it to someone else to eat!).
▼ Despite the scene on the cover of the box, which looks like one chick is trying to mount the other, this is not the case.
▼ See? They’re just best friends.
These too-cute-to-eat “Hiyoko” cakes are really popular and although you can get them in Hakata (Fukuoka), they come with the names of other cities stamped on the box as well, indicating that they are widely received. So this is a common all-round gift that you can pick up in many different train stations. This is one we bought straight off the menu card from the vendor on the shinkansen.
Tip: Many sweets come with a leaflet containing an elaborate explanation of the background and ingredients of the treats.
Shikoku is the only of Japan’s four main islands that is not on the shinkansen line. But you can still buy their local products such as Sanuki Udon from many of the omiyage shops at major shinkansen stations on Honshu.
▼ Sanuki udon in a more interesting envelope-type package, bound with string.
Tip: As these packages of udon illustrate, souvenirs aren’t always sweets. The true meaning of meibutsu (local product of note) includes crafts and local produce as well, so don’t be afraid to pick up something that’s not sweet or even something that is non-edible.
- Bonus: Things to take overseas
▼ The duty-free section at the airport offers omiyage specifically for air travelers.
Japan’s airports are a great place to find a variety of omiyage to take to friends, family or colleagues overseas. There won’t be as many traditional Japanese sweets, but pre-packaged snack foods don’t expire as quickly, and are light and easy to transport. Many say “Made in Japan” on them, making them the perfect choice for those living elsewhere.
▼ Grape-flavored Pocky
So now you have lots of ideas to pick and choose from for gifts. Go ahead and try them all and don’t forget to let us know what your favorites are!
All images © Amy Chavez/RocketNews24 unless otherwise noted.