On my first weekend trip this semester to Osaka and Kyoto, I was unsure of what to bring my former host families as an “omiyage” or souvenir, from my new home, Tokyo.
I asked the staff at my dorm, and they told me without hesitation that it was banana cake. Michael-san added with glee, “I LOVE omiyage culture.”
I felt like it was a burden. That I knew my friends were expecting gifts, and a specific, bulky one at that. My dad suggested that maybe it would be better if I showed up empty handed or with some bagels to represent my own heritage instead of Tokyo capitalist omiyage.
I arrived empty handed. I was bombarded in Osaka with boxes and bags of sweets that my former host families and friends had prepared for me or found randomly in their house (maybe even not yet expired and re-gifted).
In the U.S. we assume souvenirs to be a broad range of items like magnets, post cards, or stickers. In Japan it’s most often associated with pre-packaged desserts.
Omiyage and regional foods may be capitalist constructs but they are an absolutely treasured piece of Japanese culture.
At the train stations and airports, duty free shops sell beautifully wrapped boxes of individually wrapped cookies, cakes and candies specific to that very location. They aren’t overpriced until you realize how many people will be expecting them. When you return from your vacation, people will ask you if you tried Gengis khan, melon and Shiroikoibito if Hokkaido, Ube cake, Orion and Blue Seal ice cream if Okinawa, Takoyaki and okonomiyaki if Osaka, matcha and mochi if Kyoto, and so on, expecting to be brought home decorative boxed versions.
Ramen can even be an omiyage. Every region of Japan has its own style of ramen that you just HAVE to try if you visit. The whole ramen alley in Hokkaido has countless holes in the walls that are seemingly carbon copies of the same ramen restaurant. They all have two menu items, spicy miso ramen or corn butter ramen. The ramen in Tokyo usually offers Shoyu or tonkotsu broth, or sometimes miso and chashu as well. An alleyway in Kyoto boasts a ramen restaurant representing every different regional style.
When my old friend from Japanese class at Tulane came to visit from Fukuoka, she brought me and our other two friends each a pack of instant ramen as an omiyage to show us the special broth of her region.
When I visited Hokkaido the last couple times I bought Shiroikoibito. They’re the best cookie ever! Super thin sugar cookies filled with white chocolate. It’s obviously not so special; probably pretty easy to make and definitely easy to find dupes of in convenience stores. But the packaging is so beautiful and iconic to Hokkaido that it’s not just about the cookie. I bought a box to take home to my parents when I head home in 4 weeks, but I ended up breaking into it. Oops!!!!
This past week in Okinawa, since it’s famous for Benniimo (purple sweet potatoes), I had to buy 3 different purple sweet potato omiyage for my friends in Osaka and my family back home. Regional specialties of Okinawa also include Orion beer, blue seal ice cream, and Spam. They sell Spam everything, from bags to flip flops to cans, as souvenirs.
I can only anticipate leaving the country with a fourth bag filled with omiyage from our Japanese family friends, which is exciting but also a heavy burden I’m willing to endure.
Omiyage culture is the pure manifestation of capitalist pressure in Japan. But they’re so delicious! This is another quirk about Japanese culture that is quite lovable and unique.
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