Roots and manners of omiyage

Omiyage translates to souvenir in English, but the meaning is much deeper than the word makes it sound. It’s nice getting a souvenir from someone who’s been on holiday, but it also opens up conversation about the “wheres” and the “whats” of the trip – a natural conversation starter. In Japan omiyage isn’t always from a trip, and it isn’t just a nice gesture either, it’s almost a requirement, and there are a few points of etiquette that go along with it. So read on for some tips.

What is OMIYAGE?

Omiyage might translate to souvenir, but it’s a little different to what you might be used to. Typically a snack of some kind, it’s usually a mark of gratitude to those around you. It might be thanks for being afforded the time off work to go somewhere nice, or for just being invited to someone’s home. In Japan, gift giving is an important part of the culture, and omiyage works to open up conversation and keep up social bonds. It can also help to reignite stagnant connections with people you haven’t been so good at staying in contact with. In my house, it’s also a great way to keep good relations with neighbours when we have a noisy 3 year old charging around all day. So, it might seem like a pain to people not used to the constant gift-giving and receiving, but it can be totally worth it! 

Origin and history of Omiyage

It’s thought that omiyage has roots in the custom of pilgrims bringing back items as evidence of their trip to a sacred shrine. People would bring back religious items such as shrine charms and it’s thought that the power of those items would be transferred to those that received them. 

Omiyage culture became more mainstream in the Edo era when for many, a trip to Ise shrine was a once in a lifetime dream. But the expense of travel made it impossible for most to visit, and so villages would choose a representative by lottery to travel to the shrine with the prayers of the other villagers. The representative would bring back “miya-saki” (a  kind of pastry) for the villagers which essentially contained the blessing received at the shrine. As Ise shrine became more popular, the number of shops selling special products for visitors increased and the items became known as o-miya-ge. Firmly establishing the custom in Japanese culture.

Manners, How to give, how to get

1. Purchasing close to home is a no-no

Carrying a bunch of souvenirs home can be a pain, but try to purchase something from the place you're visiting and not wait until you get home and just buy something at the station/local airport. Going to Okinawa and coming back with Tokyo Banana as omiyage looks a bit lazy and inconsiderate.

2. Avoid expensive items

Souvenirs that are too expensive could make the recipient uncomfortable, so it's best to choose things that aren't more than about 2,000 to 3,000 yen. Sweets and snacks are by far the most popular things to give as omiyage and in Japan everywhere seems to have something in particular it's famous for.

3. If there is more than one, divide items

If an item is to be given to a group of people instead of an individual - like a group of coworkers - you should choose something that is already divided and individually wrapped. This is usually the case with Japanese sweets and snacks anyway, so you won't have to hunt too hard.

4. When to pass it over

How you give the omiyage depends on the situation and setting. If you're visiting someone at home, the best timing is after going through to the guest room, but if it's something that has to be put in the refrigerator immediately, you can hand it over at the entrance. In an office situation, consider how things are normally done, for example, some offices are more casual and the omiyage may simply be left in a common area for people to help themselves to. And, if it's a friend that you're meeting up with, any kind of timing is fine, but consider whether or not they will have to carry it around with them for a long time.

5. Take it out of the bag or wrapping before handing it over

Paper bags and wrapping cloths are meant to prevent the item from getting dirty, so it makes sense that you should take the souvenir out before giving it, but make sure to take the bags home with you and not leave them for the receiver to deal with!

However, if you do have to give the item with the bag - if it has to be carried home, for example - try not to use a bag that's too battered and dirty. Often when you buy omiyage you'll be provided with two bags: one bag for you to use, and a second bag (or bags, depending on how much you have bought) that is put in with the item that you can use when you give it.

6. What to say

When giving souvenirs, it's polite to say something of course. Sometimes Japanese people humbly say "つまらないものですが... / tsumaranai mono desuga... / It's boring but..." to the receiver. Originally it was a gesture of humility to honor the other person and to lighten the burden that someone might feel from getting a gift. These days, it might be better to say something less negative sounding though: "I hope you like it," or "I heard this is a popular sweet" etc. Personally from friends, I've heard all kinds of things, but the most common thing is to hear a description of what it is if it's from a foreign country, or to hear that it's a popular omiyage from a certain place. Some even say how good it tastes!

7. How to pass

Formally, make sure you are facing the person you're giving to and pass with both hands. More casually, to be honest, any way of passing is fine, so don't worry about it!

8. How to receive

Receive with two hands and then put the item somewhere, treating it with respect, i.e. don't just throw it onto the nearest table. You can also take it to a different room. Usually, I take omiyage that I receive at home into the kitchen until we're ready to enjoy it with our guests or alone later.

9. Thanks after receiving

Before putting it away somewhere, it's polite to take a look at the contents of the gift, and give another thanks to put the giver at ease and assure them that you're happy with what they've chosen.

10. For flowers

In the case of flowers and other home decor items, it's polite to put it out as soon as possible. It's especially nice if the giver can see it out on display.

11. For sweets

It's nice to enjoy them with the giver if it's possible to. For example, if you're at home, you might put the sweets out with some tea.

Souvenir Etiquette By Situation

1. When bringing souvenirs for a client

Japanese business can involve a lot of entertaining, and an easy way to make a client happy in these situations is to bring them some kind of omiyage. This isn't quite the same as going on holiday and bringing back a nice souvenir, this kind of omiyage is mostly to grease the wheels of communication and bringing a gift can definitely be a good conversation starter - especially if you choose something from your home country, or something that has been in the media recently, even something that is hard to get hold of would be great. Snacks should, again, be individually wrapped and removed from any bags before being given. An even better impression can be given by providing enough of the omiyage to be enjoyed by everyone in the other company or department - depending on the size of course!

Depending on the amount given, the price should still be around 2,000 to 3,000 yen.

2. When bringing a souvenir to a company or workplace

It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that it's essential to buy a souvenir for your workplace when you go on a trip with paid holiday or special leave. It's a way to show your gratitude for being able to have time off to enjoy a trip.

In this case, because the omiyage can't be eaten immediately so try to get something that keeps as long as possible - and don't forget that individual packaging! And don't forget to get something that reflects the local culture and specialties. It's better if you can hand over the omiyage personally, but that's not always possible, so put a sticky note with a personal message on the item and leave it in a common area.

3. When giving omiyage to your boss and superiors

It's easy to get lost when it comes to what to buy and how much to spend when you're invited to the house of a superior. IIt might be private time outside of work, but you still want to make a good impression, so it's a good idea to try to figure out beforehand what your boss might like. Do they like alcohol, drinks, snacks? Sticking to food is a safe choice, but go for something that you know is good - maybe it's something your own family enjoys and would be happy to receive.

Budgetwise, things can vary a lot, but sticking to the 2,000 to 3,000 yen guideline should be fine.

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