Omiyage: Ritual Gift Giving in Japan

A special kind of agony in travelling to Japan—especially if one has numerous friends—is ritual gift-giving. The need to bring a souvenir omiyage is problematic for non-Japanese (NJ) on several levels.

Japanese guidelines for omiyage are complex. While it’s clear to a Japanese person how much should be spent on a gift or what is appropriate in a given situation and relationship, that’s rarely clear to the NJ. No NJ wants to learn that a gift wasn’t quite correct after the fact.

In addition, there’s no NJ equivalent for regional crackers or bean cakes that can be grabbed—already wrapped—at the airport or train stations as Japanese people do. After 2001, if NJ omiyage are exquisitely wrapped (as they are supposed to be) they could be torn apart by a dutiful customs official. That adds the necessity of carrying gift wrap along as well.

More importantly, omiyage take up space and add weight.  Since I carry only one carry-on suitcase with a 10 kilogram limit, finding gifts that are value-appropriate, flat, light and Canadian without being kitsch or cliché is a particular challenge. Though everything always fits into my case, it seldom meets weight restrictions.

One solution I’ve come up with is to courier the omiyage and wrapping materials to my destination ahead of my arrival. A bit pricey, but that works just fine if the courier prints the address correctly. (Insist on proof-reading as a mistake is more headache than having to bring a second suitcase. Trust me on this.)

Dragging my sturdy tote full of gifts to the enkai I’m thrilled to finally unload the lot.  No need to strap that bulk to my suitcase handle during the next leg of my jaunt to Kyoto, Hiroshima and beyond. But I’ve overlooked one thing.

As my friends greet me, they press gifts into my hands. Soon a collection forms around my seat and under the table that looks as if I’m set to open a boutique. By the end of my 5 days in Toyohashi I have received more than twice the omiyage I brought with me.

My dai kichi fortune. I listened to my gut. When I packed, I tucked in two sturdy tote bags.

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