Souvenir Culture

I’ve talked about souvenir culture in some previous posts, but since this will be my last post before I leave for the U.S. and I’m getting ready to make my souvenir list, I thought I’d write a more detailed post about what makes a good souvenir/gift and when to give them.

If you’re coming to Japan for the first time and meeting or staying with a Japanese family or Japanese friends, you should definitely bring a souvenir.  This small act of gift giving shows you care about your hosts and the effort they’ve made to put you up, and can also serve as an ice breaker.

Stuck on what to give?  One of the best things you can bring is something that’s famous or popular in your home town.  Japanese homes are often smaller with less room for clutter, so something small or something that can be used quickly is appreciated the most.  Local food and drink items tend to go over especially well, but I’ve also given bath and beauty product sets or toys for friends/families with children.
If you’re traveling from somewhere in Japan to stay with a Japanese family or friends, take a popular local Japanese food item from the town you live in or small accessories/knick knacks that you think they might like.
If it’s just a casual dinner/get together at someone’s house, or you need something in a hurry, ready made food stalls that line stations and malls and sell baked breads, a roll cake, cookies, etc. are perfect.  If you don’t have much money to spend, even giving something simple like mikan (oranges/tangerines) during winter or home grown vegetables/herbs are seen as a nice gesture.
You’re also traditionally expected to bring back a souvenir for friends and all of your co-workers (including your boss(es)) when you go on a trip.  Because of this, I generally try to avoid telling people where I’m going if I don’t plan on brining back a souvenir for them.

The best kind of souvenirs for the office are boxes or packages of individually wrapped, small local snacks and sweets.  They’re easy to pass around to your co-workers, or leave on their desk if they’re away from it.  For friends it’s polite to give a whole box or package of local snacks/sweets, or other small items that are associated with that place like a phone straps, bracelets, cute pens, pouches, etc.)

A popular souvenir from Korea, for example, are small packs of flavored seaweed and single beauty masks.  One from Hawai’i might be macadamia nut snacks or macadamia chocolates.  People who go to London often bring back small, cute tins of tea.

The problem that I usually run into is what to get the same group of people, since giving the same kind of thing over and over looks a bit thoughtless.  Luckily there’s always something trending each year, so here are a few items that I’m considering picking up this time around:

  • Mason jars – mason jar drinking glasses and salad kits are popular, and with mason jars hard to find and expensive in Japan, I know a few people would enjoy receiving one
  • Loom band bracelets – a really hot item for kids at the moment, and the kits are often easy and inexpensive to find overseas
  • Baby or kids clothes from the U.S. – shopping after Christmas sales are easy on the wallet, and Japanese people tend to enjoy Western fashion
  • Bath and beauty projects – those small hand sanitizers from Bath & Body Works always go over well, as do some of the Christmas beauty sampler packages Philosophy and other brands do annually
  • Small household items – things like Glad press n’ seal bags, small tissue boxes with seasonal designs, eco friendly bags/totes, etc. aren’t readily available in Japan and my married friends really appreciate receiving them
  • Candy, chocolate, and condiments – some stuff you just can’t find anywhere here, like Trader Joe’s spreads, honey mustard, Hershey brand chocolate, certain types of nuts, chips, etc. tend to go over well with other expats

Travel magazines at bookstores always have a section on shopping and souvenirs, so I also suggest taking a look at some of them if you’re stuck on ideas!

As you can probably tell, you’ll definitely need to set aside part of your travel money (and suitcase space) just for souvenir shopping. 😉

– J


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