Omiyage – “souvenirs” or “gifts” from Japan

Chris’s cousin and her husband have been living in Chiba, just outside Tokyo, for the last six months while studying a ministry course at a local university. As their time is coming to an end, they are trying to give away as many of their temporary dorm items as possible, while also buying as much “omiyage” as possible.

“Omiyage” is a Japanese word for “souvenirs” or “gifts,” for when you return back to your home after travels. This practice seems to span a number of cultures. The couple of times I went to China and and Vietnam, I was also expected to bring home gifts for all family members.

The Japanese take the practice of “omiyage,” and gift giving in general, pretty seriously. Gift giving is a way to show gratitude to those you care about or are indebted to, and also a way to display appreciation for those you love and respect. In general, gifting money is not something the Japanese do (I guess they’re not as green-hungry as the Chinese, haha), so the act of giving actual things is of utmost importance and a sign of respect/love. Granted, I’ll admit ignorance and say that I have not visited every Asian country, but from what I have observed in my last almost 38 years is that when the Japanese give gifts, they give gifts. All gift items need to be displayed beautifully (for when you are in the process of choosing what to buy while in the endless Japanese department stores or food halls), wrapped and packaged beautifully, and presented just so. This is probably why the gift boxes for food items, for example, is so detailed and beautiful: while shopping, not only do you typically see a model of what the contents in a box are on display, but if it is a cookie or cake that you are buying, they even show you a very accurate model of what the inside (the innards!!) of the cake/cookie look like when cut in half! Now, if that isn’t precision, then I do not know what is!

On Saturday, our last day in Japan, we spent a few hours in Ginza, a popular shopping district in Tokyo. There, we visited a food basement, where I perused and got googly-eyed over endless delicious Japanese snacks and treats, as well as Japanese teas. I knew I wanted to purchase some tea as gifts and for myself. So I went to two different tea stands, had tastings, and enjoyed tea banter with my English/broken Japanese and the friendly salesperson’s Japanese/broken English, along with the helpful technological assistance of language translation mobile apps. Other than obvious words I would know, such as the major Japanese tea types (matcha, hojicha, gyokuro, sencha), as I was getting ready to pay, I also recognized yet another Japanese word: omiyage! She was asking me which of the items I purchased would be gifts. I quickly told her, and she rushed to very carefully wrap one of the boxes, creasing each edge, and taped the sides so meticulously. Not only this, but she also included extra handled gift bags so that once I got home, I could even present the gorgeously wrapped box in a handled bag with the a design matching the wrapping paper for the boxed gift. The next tea shop I went to did exactly that again, except they gave me even MORE handled bags and gifting pouches to ensure that if I changed my mind about which items to give as gifts, I could still beautifully present an omiyage to a loved or respected person.

Well, that is service and gift culture to the max. Environmentalists may argue that this is all wasteful and contributes to the needless destruction of trees and forests, that it adds to our ever growing climate change problem. But I would say that the gifting culture of Japan could build bridges and create relationships for those of us still remaining in a burning world.

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