The Japanese culture of Omiyage

Posted by Swan Domergue on

The Japanese culture of Omiyage


konbinisan omiyage blog article

In our previous article about the long and interesting history of the Kit-Kat chocolate bar in Japan, we mentioned that the success of the Nestlé's treat was partially due to the culture of Omiyage in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

In Konbinisan, our team members had the opportunity to travel a lot and all around the world. For many travelers the best thing about globetrotting is to discover an unknown culture, and the specific customs of a country and it is known that the Japanese culture is full of specifities when it comes to manners, habits and traditions. 

Let's discover in this article everything about Omiyage!


The meaning and History Omiyage?

In the article about the History of Kit-Kat in Japan, we have briefly described the Omiyage as a souvenir. Indeed we could not find another word in English that would correctly translate this term, but this is mainly due to the fact that Omiyage can roughly be qualified as a present that you will bring back to someone in your social circle from a trip. However the reason why you will buy this present, the person to whom you will offer it, the kind of goods that you will buy, and the traditional history behind this gift differ completely to what you are usually calling a souvenir.

The word Omiyage (お土産) consists of the kanji 土 (tsuchi) which means earth/ground and 産 (san) which means product. Therefore we can literally translate it  as a local product used as a souvenir.

According to the historians, the tradition of offering  Omiyage goes back to the Edo period (from 1603 to 1868) when the Tokugawa shogunate which was the feudal military government of Japan, implemented the policy of the Sakoku (鎖国) that consist of closing Japan to any other countries. At that time, foreigners were strictly prohibited on the archipelago, and most of the Japanese were not allow to neither go abroad. Although Japan was already unified it was still expansive to move around the country and only the richest people were able to afford that. Also the reasons for travelling were not the same as they are today, indeed the main purpose was to go on a pilgrimage in the countless different temples in order to visit Buddha. Naturally the pilgrims needed a souvenir to bring back to their hometown as a good luck charm but also as an evidence of their visit to the "household of god". At this time, most of the travelers were collecting talismans, rice wine cups and other religiously significant items. By sharing those souvenirs with their relatives, pilgrims granted good luck and fortune to whoever received the sacred item.


Old japanese travelersBuddha in a japanese temple


Nowadays things have evolved, peoples do not only travel for religious reasons and the form of the souvenirs have concretely changed. However the tradition of Omiyage is still strongly implemented in the Japanese culture.

 A rumor says that Omiyage can also a sign of fidelity in a couple. The regular sales representatives travel a lot for their job. Business trips are usually not an enjoyable experience, you rarely have time for sightseeing, you only talk about business and so on... However, it apparently became an acceptable excuse for some of the unfaithful partners who whill pretend to go away from home for a business trip while they will actually spend a night or two with their lover in a hotel near their home. Therefore, Omiyage will serve as a proof of the business in the concerned region.

offering omiyage

The difference between Omiyage and souvenir?

When you travel to a place that you don't know, you will often buy souvenirs for your friends, your family or even yourself to remember the fantastic trip that you are doing. Tourism is something that we all enjoy, and want to keep in our memory and obviously a huge business has been established on this trend for many years!

Today you can find some souvenirs shops in all the touristic cities of the world with a bunch or different goodies, post cards, statues, t-shirts to sell at different prices. Near the most visited landmarks, there is even some street vendors who will try to sell you souvenirs that they will randomly take out of a big plastic bag at a really fair price. This industry is flourishing to a point that during my last trip in Italy, I saw a guy in Saint Mark's Square (Venezia) selling miniature Eiffel Tower made in China, and guess what, many potential buyers were looking at his commodities! Japan is not an exception, if you go to Asakusa for example, you will see a long avenue toward the Senso-Ji full of souvenirs stores and stands selling all kinds of goodies. However when it comes to Omiyage it is slightly different...

For most of them, Omiyage are edible products, that are always conditionned in a convenient and nice box wrapped into a thick and shiny colorful paper, each treat are individually packed since the goal is to share them, the treat itself can be sweet or savory. Always nicely designed, the Omiyage is always made out of specific product of the region where you buy it. When you look at it, it seems to be a luxury box of biscuits that makes you feel like to try it.



Japanese souvenirsJapanese omiyage


To whom do the Japanese offer Omiyage?

In contrary to souvenirs, Omiyage are solely dedicated to others, and it is a kind of "obligated gift" to give to your friends, relatives and last but not least your co-workers. In a situation of going to a business trip (and even on a one day trip), if you do not bring an Omiyage to your office when you get back to it, you will definitely give a bad image of yourself to your colleagues. Whatever the relationship you have with them, you are expected to bring Omiyage back from your business trip.


What kind of Omiyage to offer?

Omiyage are always related to a local region of Japan. It gives to the receiver an opportunity to try the product of a certain region and to the giver the chance to prove that he/she has been to this concerning region. Absolutely each region of Japan has at least one (but usually many) Omiyage that is generally based on a specific product that the region is famous for.

For instance, the archipelago of Okinawa has a lot of Omiyage made out of Goya and Sweet Potatoes, the region of Kumamoto offers a bunch of sweets based on chestnuts and the Hokkaido area produce a lot of them with melon and strawberry.

Each region has various specialties and most of the time you will struggle in choosing THE ONE that you want to offer, this is why the Omiyage shops would often let you try samples of Omiyage to help you out in making your decision.



The business around Omiyage ?

We can conclude that Omiyage is a real and unique tradition from Japan that you won't really find in any other culture, it's quite different than a regular souvenir but both also have many similatiries, they are presents, you get them on a trip, you can offer them and  it's also a huge business !


Where to buy Omiyage ?

That would probably be the easiest part of your next trip to Japan as Omiyage are absolutely everywhere! You can find them in malls, super-markets, convenient stores and even sometime in vending machines!

Obviously many vendors have stores near the touristic landmarks and you can also find countless Omiyage to sell in service areas, train stations and airport since many travelers will by them at the very last time.


omiyage shop
omiyage shop

 How much cost an Omiyage ?

Despite their fancy looking and their high quality, Omiyage are usually affordable gifts. As we noticed, their is a countless kinds of Omiyage so their price will obviously depend on the size and the raw materials used to make them but in average, for a regular box with a dozen of treats you will pay between 500円 and 1500円 (between 5$ and 15$).


We hope that you could discover a new aspect of the Japanese culture, feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions about the culture of Omiyage ? Would yourself bring an Omiyage back home as a souvenir from Japan ?





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