Buying omiyage お土産 in Japan is a lot of fun, because there are omiyage specific to every region, and I often end up buying as many omiyage for myself as for family and friends ^^;;
However, when it’s time to buy omiyage in the US to bring to Japan, I always have a difficult time. The first time I went to Japan I had to buy omiyage for a host family I hadn’t yet met and for friends that I hadn’t yet made. I had a vague idea that omiyage meant souvenirs, but when I went out to shop for them I had a lot of trouble figuring out what to buy.
Now when I go to Japan, I always bring omiyage for people I know, as well as bringing a few extra omiyage in case I meet new people. And I still have trouble finding omiyage. Part of this might be my own particularity in trying to find the perfect gift for friends and family, but I think it also has to do with the lack of omiyage culture here in the US.
However, I have slowly started to get a better idea of what kinds of omiyage to bring for friends and other people I may meet in Japan, and I wanted to share it with others traveling to Japan.
When you live in Japan and visit another prefecture or even another country, you bring back omiyage for your friends, family, and coworkers. Often, the omiyage is food that is in small, individually wrapped packages inside of a larger package, so that it is easily shared among coworkers or friends. Usually these food items are specific to the prefecture within Japan, or something famous from a foreign country.
Non-perishable food items are a great omiyage for people you don’t know because they work for men, women, and children. If your home country or state has a unique food item, that might be a good choice. It’s best if it’s something that isn’t too unique, and that people outside your country can eat. If your home country is India and you bring the spiciest food on Earth as omiyage, it might not be suitable for all palates, so you might choose something a little more tame. Of course, if you know your close friend likes it as spicy as possible, that’s a different story. Japanese people aren’t as concerned about food allergies, so unless you know you are meeting someone with a specific food allergy, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about it.
Food items that are expensive in Japan but not quite as expensive in your home country, like Godiva chocolate, can be a good choice. Ghiradelli chocolate isn’t very well-known in Japan, but it can provide a good opportunity to talk about its origin in San Francisco. Chocolate bars in general are always a good choice, and you can bring interesting combinations like bacon and chocolate, chili and chocolate, and pomegranate and chocolate.
Food ideas for omiyage
- Chocolate bars – good for everyone
- American holiday-related snacks (Easter chocolate bunnies, Christmas themed candy, Halloween candy) – good for everyone
- Skittles – not found in Japan, good for everyone
- Potato chips – best for friends
- Local goods (jams, maple syrup, local honey, spices) – unique foods that are good for all palates, best in factory sealed packages
- Chocolate-covered macadamia nuts – good for everyone, many Japanese people love them
Note on Food Import Restrictions: Be careful about food restrictions when bringing food into Japan. Beef jerky is banned and will be removed from your suitcase, as well as any other dried beef products (like packaged dry soups). Fruits (not processed) need to be checked before you bring them in, and grains and nuts can be confiscated as well. Make sure to check all restrictions before you take food items into Japan or they may be confiscated!
When traveling within Japan, buying collectible items for friends and family back home is pretty easy because Japan has so many unique crafts and traditional local arts. When buying collectible items to take to Japan as gifts, I think it helps to try to look at the items as an outsider to your country would. Everyday items to you can be fascinating gifts for foreigners.
Japanese homes and apartments can be small, and when bringing collectible items from your own country as gifts for people you don’t know you should take this into consideration. If it’s someone you know well, it’s easier to figure out their taste. Buying a collectible item from your home country to display for your host family is also thoughtful, even if you don’t know their taste. It’s best to keep the item reasonably sized, both for the ease of bringing it overseas to Japan and for the receiver to display it. If it’s an item that can be used everyday, that is even better.
For example, I have brought beach-themed magnets and small statues from California, small black bear statues from Montana, and Native American crafts from the southwest for my host family, close friends, and my in-laws.
- Local arts and crafts – something from your home country, best for close friends or a host family
- Magnets with your city name, country name, university name, etc – best for host family or close friends
- Merchandise with your university name or city name (mugs, t-shirts, etc.) – good for friends or a host family, US size S or M will probably work well for most Japanese people
- Postcards from your home country/city – good for everyone
Best Omiyage for Men
If you are buying for good male friends, you can probably make the best decision about what to get for men you know. If you don’t know them well, or are meeting them for the first time, try these ideas! I also resort to food if I’m really at a loss, because everyone likes to try new food.
- Neckties – good for businessmen, make sure to pick a pattern that’s not too crazy
- Alcohol – good for men of legal age, you can pick up alcohol beforehand or at duty-free stores in the airport, and be sure to buy something American made for best results
- Unique T-shirts – good for younger guys you have met at least once, vintage-inspired T-shirts are popular, and US size S or M will probably fit most Japanese guys
Best Omiyage for Women
I always find it easier to buy for female friends, since I’m a female(?), so here are a few ideas!
- Stuffed animals with your university name, city name, country name, etc. – good for both younger girls or women
- Lotions, bath soaps, or other beauty products – high quality brands with subtle scents are best, since some people can be put off by strong scents, but you don’t have to spend a fortune and you can get the smaller sized bottles
- Fine stationery and note sets – these can be found at bookstores or gift shops and are easy to pack
- Custom or local jewelry – unique jewelry sets are great for female friends, but some Japanese women don’t have pierced ears
- Aprons, kitchen tools – every woman can use kitchen tools, especially unique ones that aren’t available in Japan or that your friends might not normally buy for themselves
Best Omiyage for Children
I don’t buy omiyage for children very often, so this list is what I think I would bring, and it’s far from incomplete. I hope that it will provide some starting points for your own omiyage purchases!
- Thomas the Tank Engine – Thomas is huge for very young children, mainly boys
- Disney Princesses – Disney princesses, especially Frozen, are big with very young girls
- American snacks – Goldfish crackers, fruit snacks, etc. for kids can be good, but American snacks tend to have more sugar than Japanese snacks so you might check with the parents first if you don’t know them well
- Age-appropriate toys – kids like toys, and if you know the age of the children you will meet, toys from your local store will be great omiyage
- Unique clothes – clothes from specialty stores can be good gift ideas, but make sure to check the children’s clothes sizes before you buy
Don’t Forget the Gift Wrap!
In Japan, omiyage comes in attractive packaging. When you buy gifts in stores, they will wrap it nicely with paper and ribbon and put it in a store bag. Part of omiyage and gift-giving culture in Japan is the presentation of the gift, and so attractive, neat wrapping is important. American stores can sometimes provide gift wrapping for a fee, but Japanese stores do it for free and I love it.
When I bring omiyage from America, I usually wrap it myself. Well, wrap it might not be the right term since I use gift bags. I find gift bags are easier to wrap presents and still provide a great presentation. I started out putting omiyage in gift bags and packing them in my suitcase, but I quickly realized that the bags would get disheveled, and that makes the presentation look sloppy. So now I pack gift bags and tissue paper separately, and wrap the gifts when I get to Japan.
I hope that these suggestions will help you if you are buying omiyage before visiting Japan, whether for a brief trip, to study abroad, or to visit friends and family. I hope that these suggestions help other people having trouble thinking of good omiyage ideas! If you have any other omiyage suggestions, please let me know in the comments!