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Gift Giving in Japan: A Traveler's Guide to Japanese Omiyage

Updated on June 18, 2012

A Discerning Eye, Judging Your Gift

If your host happens to be a grumpy old man, expect this glaring eye if you bust out Willy Wonka Nerds or Fun Dip as your 'American' gift.
If your host happens to be a grumpy old man, expect this glaring eye if you bust out Willy Wonka Nerds or Fun Dip as your 'American' gift.

Those Pesky Japanese Customs

Omiyage, or in simpler terms, 'gifts,' are used like social currency in Japan. Any office worker or teacher will come back with at least a biscuit for each of their co-workers when they return from a trip from outside of their general area, and ESPECIALLY when returning to work from abroad.

Here's where this guide applies to you, the presumably non-Japanese person who wants to know what to get their gracious hosts in Japan. Because you'll be going to Japan from someplace really cool and foreign, your hosts will be curious about all sorts of aspects of your different life. Therefore, choosing the perfect omiyage will satisfy your desire to be mannered and your host's curiosity over what you're all about.

What Not to Bring

I don't want to be grimy towards dragons or anything, but use this shirt as an example of what should be avoided.
I don't want to be grimy towards dragons or anything, but use this shirt as an example of what should be avoided. | Source

Last Place: T-Shirts

Clothes in general are tricky to give to someone as a present. What with sizes, taste, shrinkability, and itchy tags, it's a good idea to stay away from garments when considering gifts to give to your Japanese hosts. Chances are your lovely gift will end up as pajamas, and eventually, 20 years down the line, your hosts will look at the holey T-shirt, covered in various stains, and think of you as the messy person who gave them what will then be a rag with writing. There are, however, exceptions.

Exception #1 - Your hosts have oddly made a specific request of you.

Exception #2 - It's an "I Love NY" T-shirt, which according to my searches on J-forums seems to be popular.

Long section short, buy the T-shirt only if your last name is Versace or Lauren. If you're a person who has a hard time buying good looking clothes even for yourself, read on.

Good Luck Getting This Through Customs

Did you know your standard cat from a pet store in Japan would run you about $1000?  This could be your host's most valuable gift yet.
Did you know your standard cat from a pet store in Japan would run you about $1000? This could be your host's most valuable gift yet. | Source

#4: Ecobags

Starting I don't know when, but much to my dismay, supermarkets in Japan have largely stopped providing free grocery bags. Instead, they encourage you to buy the supermarket's own personal bag and in exchange, they bag your groceries for you. If you give your hosts a neato-bandito ecobag that has some sort of local flair to it, the recipient will be bagging their own groceries, but they'll be doing it in style.

The Downside

Your hosts lose the privilege of having their groceries bagged (but not all places do this anyway).

The Upside

Your hosts gain unfathomable levels of vogue and become grocery divas.

The Top 3 - Consumable Items

The top 3 all consist of consumable items, the perfect gift by many standards. They're instantly enjoyable, they usually have audible wrappers that prep your appetite and get you excited, and they give everyone something to talk about for a few minutes ("I wonder how they make these" "Are these whole macadamias?" "I like the goat emblem on this soap" etc).

A classic example of an organic-y / natural soap that would set any philanthropist's heart a flutter.
A classic example of an organic-y / natural soap that would set any philanthropist's heart a flutter. | Source

#3: Soap

Soap is a justifiable member of this list, but my tone towards it will be abrasive because I personally don't care for it as a gift. Who wants to get something as a present and then have their next step be going to the bathroom in order to use it? Sounds like food poisoning to me.

Personally speaking, soap has had a fairly high success rate as a gift (barring the ginger-citrus soap I got for my grandparents, who believe spit is a good antiseptic for minor cuts). Most people I've talked to seem to agree.

The key to buying a good bar of soap for your hosts is to go to a 'natural products' store and buy some neat looking package that doesn't have a corporate logo on it. A mix of scents that are clearly defined would also be a plus, so it's not just "Fresh" scent that's written on the label.

At the very least you'll ease your host's mind by giving them soap. Knowing you're a hygiene-conscious person, they'll probably only wash the sheets once after you leave.

A Solid Bourbon

An example of a good quality, and just pricey enough, whiskey to bring.
An example of a good quality, and just pricey enough, whiskey to bring. | Source

#2: Alcohol - A Mature Runner-Up

I don't want to start off this segment with a sweeping generalization about Japanese people, but as far as I can tell they like to drink. There's a special term called "Nomyunication" that accurately describes what goes down most nights here among business people. See the bit of English at the end of the word? The part before that is from "Nomu" which means "To drink", and put drink and -cation together and you get how most socializing in college (and, gasp, high school) occurs.

Back to the point. Alcohol is a good idea for hosts without children. However, what with globalization and international trade being what it is, you should aim for local brews. A nice bottle of American bourbon or some microbrews would excite many a citizen here.

The only downside to bringing alcohol is that it's heavy. The upside is you'll probably get to lighten the bottle with your hosts over dinner one night.

Do

  • Bring something American, like bourbon, and something hard to find here, like Maker's Mark or Knob Creek (eek, your bank account).

Don't

  • Bring something that an international corporation produces, like Johnny Walker or Bailey's. They have it here at reasonable prices.


A Delicious Old Timey Cow Tale

Source

#1: Candy - The Champion of All Gifts

Candy is universally accepted, and is so good that people are willing to commit crimes against babies to acquire it. If you bring your hosts/friends something local, not too sweet, and perhaps in the shape of something fun, winning their favor will indeed be like 'taking candy from a baby'. Because candy is a panacea to any omiyage woe, here's a short list of tips on what to buy:

Do

  • Buy something local that is individually wrapped (extra importance placed on individually wrapped).
  • Buy something distinctly American, like cowtails or saltwater taffy, if you don't have a local candy shop near where you live.
  • Consider bringing some maple syrup if you live in an area that's famous for it. It's possible to buy it in Japan, but getting that authentic maple syrup is difficult.

Don't

  • Buy liquorice (99.9% of Japanese people I've given this to have hated it, and I now dole it out as a prank)
  • Buy the sweet variety of a candy, as most Japanese palettes don't accept our overly sweetened American food (They basically scream "AMAI", which means sweet, after every bite they take of standard American candy)

A Final Set of Tips

  • Bring something that can be shared
  • Bring something that has a personal story behind it. If you bring some candy that's really gross but you grew up with it, the authenticity will override the bad taste for your hosts.
  • Most Importantly, try to bring something local so that there's no danger of you giving them a repeat gift, and of course, to add that "Only-in-America" quality to your offering.


Now, I strongly suggest that you take the quiz below to see if you've been paying proper attention and can be trusted to buy gifts for some picky J-Hosts.

Test Your Gift Buying Prowess: Select the Best Gift for the Person Described


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Quiz Results Explained

Now before your inner perfectionist starts stamping his or her feet, realize that you aren't supposed to get 100% on this quiz. This is because there's no such thing as a completely right or a completely wrong gift. In other words, as long as you don't get 60% or below, consider yourself perfectly prepared to pick out an appropriate gift.

Now that you know how to buy as close to the perfect gift as is humanly possible, consider reading my Hub about visiting someone's house in Japan and learn how to give that gift.

If you have any specific questions about gifts, feel free to ask in the comments!

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    • Bob Zermop profile image

      Bob Zermop 4 years ago from California, USA

      Hahaha, this is a fantastic hub that I'll be referring back to. I've always been fascinated with Japan, but they still manage to confound me every time with another custom. Just when I think, "Hey, I finally understand the Japanese!", they pull something new on me. Bah :D

      Thanks for this hub, and you also seem to have a couple of others on Japan that I will also check out. Voted up, interesting, useful, and awesome.

    • profile image

      Ruth 4 years ago

      LOL. I've tried t-shirts over and over again because they are easy to pack. bad. We bought eco bags for ourselves on a recent trip abroad. very chic. I'll remember that. Thanks, very fun to read and I LOVE the quiz.

    • Akbok profile image
      Author

      Akbok 4 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan

      Bob Zermop: What a great comment to start off the hopefully soon to be long list. I can completely relate to your frustration with Japanese customs. Even after living here for numerous years I still end up doing horribly rude things, only to find out about it a few hours later from a family member. Thanks for reading and again for the comment!

      Ruth: I love the criterion of 'being easy to pack' for choosing omiyage :D. Thanks for reading and for the compliment on the arbitrarily scored quiz!

    • profile image

      mikeydcarroll67 22 months ago

      I think it just depends on the people that you are visiting. Some may be open to other gift ideas and other families may want something different.

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