Omiyage: The Gift You Have to Keep On Giving The social constraint that's actually a lot of fun

    If you've ever traveled to a Japanese tourist destination, you've probably seen omiyage お土産 みやげ. When all the colorful, neatly wrapped packages are displayed in one shop, it can be breathtaking. Most look too lovely or adorable to eat.

    お土産(おみやげ)
    Gift brought back from travel

    But don't be fooled – these cute bags and boxes aren't to be taken lightly. They are part of a Japanese gift-giving custom steeped in protocol, and if you leave town, you better not come back without some.

    Okay, you're not going to get fired from your job or ousted from your apartment if you return from a trip without omiyage. But you might bruise some feelings and maybe even make an enemy or two. Luckily, learning "how to omiyage" is a cinch, and if you follow our six steps, you'll be buying and giving omiyage like a pro. But before we launch into our how-to section, let's make sure you know what an omiyage is.

    The Meaning of Omiyage

    omiuage changing hands

    The simplest definition for omiyage is:

    Gifts you bring back to your family, friends, and co-workers upon returning from a trip.

    If you break the word お土産 みやげ down to its kanji:

    土 – "earth" or "local" (pronounced tsuchi つち or do ど)
    産 – "product" or "delivery" (pronounced san さん)

    Put them together and it can literally translate to "local product." The "local" part is an important aspect of omiyage, and one that separates it from "souvenirs" given in other countries: omiyage should always be products locally made in the place you visit.

    For instance, if you travel from Kyoto to Tokyo, your omiyage should be something made in Tokyo (like the popular Tokyo Banana, a cream-filled sponge cake shaped like a banana). If you travel to Japan from Texas, your omiyage should be from that part of Texas, or at least from the United States. There's even a word for popular souvenir products associated with a region: meibutsu 名物めいぶつ. Which normally translates to, "famous product," or "specialty product."

    Getting back to the kanji, you might think putting 土 and 産 together would give us どさん or つちさん. But of course, we know that's not true. It becomes みやげ. To find out why some kanji don't have the readings you think they will, check out our articles on on'yomi and kun'yomi and unusual readings. But in the case of お土産 みやげ, there's a different reason all together.

    A Brief History of the Word Omiyage

    edo period pilgrim leaving his village

    The "omiyage" pronunciation originally comes from two different kanji みや and (the け becomes げ thanks to rendaku, or "sequential voicing"). When we break down 宮笥, we get:

    宮 – "shrine" (pronounced miya みや)
    笥 – "box for ofuda at a shrine" (pronounced ke け, changed to ge げ by rendaku)

    During the Edo period, when people took sacred trips to Ise Grand Shrine, it took days or weeks to get there. These journeys weren't cheap or easy, so villages would pick a town representative to make the trip for everyone.

    The villagers would hold a fundraiser and give the representative senbetsu 餞別 せんべつ, or the money they collected, so that they would pray for them. After the representative traveled and prayed for the villagers, they brought miyage – paper amulets from the shrine – back for the village. Giving a traveler senbetsu, and then receiving omiyage from the traveler, has also become a Japanese custom.

    As this custom caught on, shops began to sell local products around Ise Grand Shrine. They started calling these products miyage, but instead of using the original kanji 宮笥, they applied the reading to the kanji 土産, because they were "local products." Thus, a hybrid kanji with a different reading was born. The honorific お was placed in front of 土産みやげ and that's the origin of the word "omiyage" we see today.

    Omiyage should always be products locally made in the place you visit.

    At first these products were non-perishable items, because pilgrims walking on foot needed gifts that would last several weeks. But with the rise of the railroad in Japan, sweets and foods like manjuu 饅頭まんじゅう became more common.

    Nowadays a lot of people use "omiyage" and "souvenir" interchangeably, but are they really the same? Not quite. Omiyage isn't just a souvenir – in fact, you could say the word souvenir trivializes omiyage.

    Omiyage vs. Souvenir

    Both "omiyage" and "souvenir" imply something a traveler buys that represents the trip. But from here the two words diverge. Here are the biggest differences:

    Omiyage Souvenirs
    Bought for others Bought for yourself, sometimes others
    Friends and family expect omiyage Few people expect souvenirs
    Has a price range No price range
    Has to be from the place you visited Can be from anywhere
    Usually food Can be anything
    Must be packaged properly Does not require packaging
    Obligation Optional

    Even the attitude behind buying omiyage differs from souvenirs. A souvenir is a way to say, "Hey, look where I've been! Wish you could've come." Or, "Here's that thing I knew you would want while I was at that place you like."

    The sentiment behind omiyage is similar to an apology, as in "I'm sorry I left. Please take this gift. Thanks for holding down the fort."

    Omiyage vs. Temiyage

    Another word used interchangeably with omiyage is temiyage 手土産てみやげ.

    Omiyage and temiyage are both "thoughtfulness" gifts, but temiyage isn't something you bring from your travels. Instead, it's a gift – usually food or drink – that you "hand" to someone when you visit them as a guest (that's why there's a "hand" 手 in the word). It's a custom you see in most countries, like bringing a bottle of wine or a snack to the host of a dinner party. Except, with temiyage, there's a list of etiquette rules:

    1. Don't buy anything right near the host's house (they'll probably be able to tell anyway).

    2. Avoid homemade items, like cookies you baked or socks you crocheted, unless you know the person really well. If the recipient is your total bestie, it's fine. Otherwise avoid the homemade to be safe.

    3. If your temiyage is flowers, give them at the entrance and not after you've entered the room where the event is being held.

    4. If you're giving anything but flowers, it's okay to wait until you're inside.

    5. If your temiyage is in a bag or wrapped in furoshiki, take it out of its packaging when greeted by the host. Otherwise it's "hiding your heart" which is considered rude.

    6. Fold the paper bag after you take the temiyage out, and in more formal situations, take the bag back home with you. If it's a casual affair, you can ask the host if they wouldn't mind throwing the bag away for you.

    7. If you're giving temiyage at an outdoor event, it's okay to give your temiyage while it's still in the bag, but make sure to do so holding the bottom and the handles of the bag so it's easy to receive, and say:

    • ふくろのままで 失礼しつれいします。
    • I'm sorry that it's still in a paper bag.

    How to Omiyage

    tourist in omiyage shop surrounded by souvenirs

    With so many people expecting a pretty present from your journey, searching for omiyage can feel stressful, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, hunting for deliciously attractive goodies in colorful omiyage shops can be one of the highlights of your trip. All it takes is a little planning. So here is our simple how-to-omiyage guide to make "souvenir" shopping the enjoyable experience it's meant to be.

    1. Make an "Omiyage People" List

    For a smooth omiyage experience, the first thing to do is make a list of everyone you're shopping for. This ensures you don't accidentally forget someone, and it also prevents a panicky search at the airport five minutes before boarding time for your boss's boss who you suddenly remembered.

    People to include on the omiyage list:

    Living in Japan Business Trip to Japan Homestay in Japan On the JET Program
    Family Bosses Host mother Principals
    Friends Interpreters Host father Supervisors
    Close neighbors Anyone you'll be interacting with Host brothers and sisters Japanese Teachers of English
    Co-workers   Host everybody  

    The list could go on. These are just suggestions to get you started. Bottom line: you can never bring back too many omiyage. If you end up with leftover gifts, just eat them (it's mostly food, after all).

    If you work at a large company in Japan, don't fret about buying each and every worker an individual present. It's okay to bring one big pack of omiyage for the workers to share (and then maybe – but you don't have to – a separate gift for your bosses, which you give privately). For instance, it's easy to find large boxes of individually wrapped treats at most omiyage shops in Japan. If you're coming from another country, like the United States, buy something similar, like a box of individually wrapped Ghirardelli chocolates. Just make sure there's enough to go around the office.

    2. Make an Omiyage Shopping List

    To further streamline your omiyage hunt, think about what kinds of gifts you'll get for each person ahead of time. You don't have to know exactly, that would take the fun out of the search. But if you have a general idea (food versus non-edibles, for instance), you won't have to keep doubling back to shops you've already visited after realizing you should have picked up those Tokyo Bananas for him and those designer socks for her.

    Deciding on food for everyone is a great plan and maybe the best way to go. Treats like cookies, candy, rice crackers, daifuku mochi, and little cakes are all great omiyage ideas. They're popular, customary, and relatively inexpensive. And buying something edible for everyone on your list makes your shopping simple, since fun snacks and sweet treats are what omiyage shops are known for. Plus, it's important to give a gift that people will like. It's hard to go wrong with a super cute box of Kumamon Butter and Chocolate cookies, or an elegant package of colorful wasanbon 和三盆わさんぼん, a buttery sugar treat made in Kagawa prefecture. Even better, edible things go away after you eat them, meaning people won't be stuck with tons of knick knacks littering their homes.

    Still, you might want to get a special someone – like your boss or best friend at school – something outside the (candy/cookie) box. But only do this if you know what that person really likes. If this is the case, anything with a brand name will be a hit. This could be perfume, cosmetics, scarves, socks, ties, bags, hand towels, or even jewelry.

    Deciding on food for everyone is a great plan and maybe the best way to go. Treats like cookies, candy, rice crackers, and little cakes are customary and relatively inexpensive.

    When traveling outside of Japan the most important thing is that the gift represents the country you're visiting. For instance, my Japanese teacher, who now lives in Los Angeles, says that when she goes back to visit Japan, she brings local omiyage like Trader Joe's cookies and Bath & Body Works candles, because the packaging looks so American. According to her,

    Products from Bath & Body Works are popular because they have many different kinds of soaps, creams, and candles with various scents that don't exist in Japan. Also, Japanese people love Trader Joe's bags, cookies, and coffee beans, because they are cute and American.

    She added that if people like to drink, American wine or liquor are also popular. "Something that is not accessible in Japan is always a good idea." She warned that the biggest blunder when coming from another country is to bring back something "made in Japan."

    3. Strategize Your luggage

    a pink suitcase

    This step might seem trivial, but don't take it for granted. You made a giant list of people you need to buy for. Where are you going to store all those omiyage after you buy them? Plan ahead.

    If you're going to Japan, leave space in your luggage for temiyage you're bringing to hosts and friends.

    If you live in Japan and travel somewhere, bring a separate duffel bag or collapsible luggage you can store in your main suitcase. That way, you can fill the extra bag with gifts for co-workers, family, and friends. If your omiyage are precious breakables (like crumbly Kumamon cookies) consider transferring your clothes and personal belongings to the soft duffel bag, and filling the now-empty suitcase with fragile presents. Or wrap your gifts in your clothes for extra protection.

    When I asked my professor if Japanese people pack with omiyage in mind, she said, "Yes, people bring extra bags! When I buy omiyage, I choose things that will fit in my suitcase, but sometimes I buy too many omiyage and end up bringing an extra suitcase back."

    So before you finish packing for the trip, check your lists and try to envision how much room you're going to need. Packing a foldable duffel bag inside your main suitcase might save you a trip to the luggage store while on vacation.

    4. Budget

    Fortunately, people expecting omiyage don't expect you to spend a lot of money on them. In fact, expensive omiyage could cause embarrassment and uncomfortable feelings of obligation. On the other hand, your gift shouldn't be dirt cheap, either. Imagine someone went on vacation and brought you back a solid gold Rolex. Then imagine someone brought you a half-eaten sleeve of Oreos. You'd feel awkward in both situations. Sticking to a budget prevents this.

    According to Japan-Guide, it's typical to spend between ¥1,000–5,000 per person, while Gift Land suggests spending ¥2,000–3,000. It depends on your budget and how well you know the person. A ¥100 shop could even do the trick for some of the people on your list. And in the end, it's the thought (and omiyage-giving) that counts.

    5. Plan at Least Half a Day to Shop

    Depending on the length of your shopping list and whether you're going the all-edible route or straying off the foodie path into the more time-consuming "other" territory, you should set aside at least half a day to shop for omiyage (as Koichi suggests). Of course, if it ends up taking only an hour, you'll get extra bonus time to do whatever you want. But at least you'll be covered in case choosing flavors of Kit Kats and custard-filled cakes becomes more complicated than you expected.

    6. Present Your Omiyage

    And now for the big moment (drumroll): the act of giving your gift! But how to give omiyage? Actually, there are no set rules, just a few things to keep in mind.

    First, make sure your gifts are wrapped. If it's sold as omiyage in Japan, it will probably already have nice packaging, or packaging will be offered to you at checkout. But if you do buy gifts that aren't pre-wrapped, wrap them! The wrapping is almost as important as the gift, so make sure the end result is attractive and presentable, even if you have to pay someone else to wrap it for you. If you've got furoshiki lying around or buy a few extra, you can use them to wrap a box or a wine bottle.

    Make sure your gifts are wrapped. If it's sold as omiyage in Japan, it will probably already have nice packaging, or packaging will be offered to you at checkout.

    Second, when bringing a group gift of individually wrapped foods to the office, place them on a communal table that everyone can see and choose from. Individual gifts at the office should be given privately so as not to offend anyone.

    Finally, when giving omiyage, don't be offended if it's not opened right away. Depending on the person and the gift, they may open it there for you and everyone to share, or they may set it aside to open later.

    Omiyage Etiquette

    foreigner throwing omiyage at japanese host father

    We've already covered some omiyage etiquette in the sections above but there are a couple of other things you need to know:

    1. If your omiyage is for your boss or someone older than you, hold the gift with both hands when giving it to them to show respect. In fact, it's nice to give a gift this way to anyone.

    2. Don't give anything in sets of four, which is considered an unlucky number (death 死 and four 四 are both pronounced as shi).

    3. If the recipient of your gift politely tells you, "No, thank you," insist that they take the gift. They expect the gift, want the gift, and expect you to push until they break down and take the gift. It's just polite for them to decline a bit before giving in.

    4. If you're a foreigner, don't think you're off the hook and don't have to buy omiyage. Yes, you get off easier than someone who is Japanese, but giving omiyage will go along way toward building good relationships with the people you know in Japan. They'll respect you more for it, and it will help remove the stigma around your foreignness.

    5. When presenting your gift, don't talk about how much the recipient is going to love it, the way you might in other countries. In fact, Japanese people do the exact opposite, practically apologizing for the omiyage they are about to give. Here's what to say when giving omiyage:

    • くち 合うあ かどうかわかりませんが
    • I'm not sure if it suits your palate, but…
    • 気に召すき め  嬉しいうれ  のですが
    • I hope you will like it…
    • 心ばかりこころ   ですが
    • It's simple, but…
    • ほんの 気持ちきも ですが
    • It isn't much, but…
    • 評判ひょうばんのお 菓子かし 聞きましたき    ので
    • I've heard it's a popular sweet…

    The Best Places to Find Omiyage in Japan

    three beautiful omiyage boxes

    Teramachi Street Shopping Arcade in Kyoto has 170 shops to choose from. you'll definitely find omiyage for everyone on your list.

    One thing you'll never have to stress about in Japan is finding omiyage. It's everywhere. Just close your eyes, spin around a couple of times, and start walking in any direction. But if you want specifics, here are general places that usually have all kinds of omiyage to choose from:

    • Train stations (major stations are known to have some of the best omiyage shops)
    • Department stores (the top floor is usually toys, games, and stationery while the basement sells food)
    • ¥100 shops (for those on a shoestring budget)
    • Bookstores (books are fun and super cheap, but weigh down your luggage)
    • Any tourist attraction
    • Any street known for shopping
    • Airports

    Many cities also have near-famous one-stop shops that are known for their assortments of non-edible Japanese goods, so I'll list a few here.

    Tokyo

    Oriental Bazaar, located in Harajuku, has been around since 1916 and is one of the most popular omiyage stores in Japan. It's got three stories of everything from books and stationery to kimono and antiques, but no food here. Prices are moderate.

    Nakamise in Asakusa, is packed with omiyage (and tourists). You can definitely get all your shopping done here, just be ready to push your way through hordes of families and amateur photographers.

    Ameyoko is a traditional shitamachi 下町したまち (downtown) in Ueno, positioned conveniently near Ueno station. The name is short for Ameya Yokochou 飴屋横丁あめやよこちょう, which means "candy shop alley." It used to be the place to go for candy shops in the postwar period, but now it's home to little storefronts selling clothing, jewelry, chocolate, and dry goods.

    Osaka

    Umeda is Osaka's gigantic shopping district, besides Namba, Osaka's other gigantic shopping district. Umeda is in the north and Namba is in the south, and between the two is Shinsaibashi, a 650 yard long shopping arcade. Between these three destinations, you've got shopping arcades, department stores, and underground shopping to fuel all your omiyage needs. You might even need to buy an extra suitcase just to store all the goods you'll be giving away.

    Kyoto

    Kyoto Handicraft Center, located right near the Heian Shrine, is a mega store, split into two buildings, filled to the brim with just about anything you can think of: woodblock prints, dolls, washi paper, books, Japanese cosmetics, ornamental swords, pearls, T-shirts, and all kinds of sweets. They even have workshops where you can learn traditional crafts. And best of all, they'll ship overseas so you don't have to buy that extra suitcase.

    Teramachi Street Shopping Arcade just off Shijo street has everything you need and more. There are mostly clothing stores here, but with 170 shops to choose from, you'll definitely find omiyage, big or small, for everyone on your list.

    More Than an Obligation

    three people sharing omiyage and smiling

    To omiyage newbies, this custom may seem like a pain. Having to shop for co-workers, family, and friends every time you travel can feel like a tax on your time (and your wallet). But please understand that omiyage play a special part in Japanese society. They oil the cogs of the social machine you live and work in every day. Though you may not have a name for it, your home country has similar rules. It's all about how we live and function together as human beings.

    So keep that in mind while perusing the colorful aisles of omiyage shops in Japan. It's not just shopping, it's relationship strengthening. And don't forget, what goes around comes around. Every single person who gets an omiyage from you will most likely get omiyage for you in the future.

    Happy travels!