10 Must-Buy Food Souvenirs From Japan
One of the best and most popular things to do when you travel is feast on local flavors. Every culture has certain spices and ingredients combined in a way to make a distinct cultural taste. "Washoku", or Japan's traditional foods, are so intricate and unique that the country's cuisine has been added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. After you tour and taste around Japan, you will want to bring some of those flavors home—to remember your trip or to give as gifts for your friends and family. The best way to recreate memories of a great adventure is through evocative foods and aromas. Plus, many potential food souvenirs are inexpensive, small, easy to pack and much more useful than trinkets and plastic paraphernalia from tourist stalls.
So many food shopping choices — Photo from Flickr by tetsuo shimizu
To stock your pantry back home and bring the flavors of Japan to your own kitchen, check out this list of 10 must-have items. Most are easy to find, all are legal to bring back and, of course, each one is an essential part of the washoku tradition.
1. Shichimi Togarashi
Hand blended shichimi togarashi at a festival in Tokyo — Photo from flickr cc by telluride
Interestingly, this spice is not only a great souvenir for foreigners visiting Japan, but also for locals. Japanese traveling domestically purchase it from temples, shrines and festivals around the country. Created in the 17th century, shichimi togarashi (seven flavor chile pepper) is a spicy-savory mix of coarsely ground chiles and six other ingredients that vary by region, maker and chef. Many Japanese vendors offer signature blends. In addition to the chiles, the most common ingredients include sansho or Sichuan pepper, citrus peel, sesame, poppy seeds, hemp seeds, ground ginger, garlic, shiso (a Japanese herb) and nori (seaweed).
2. Sansho Pepper
Another delicious spice you can take home is sansho. Despite its name, sansho pepper is not a pepper. Made from crushing the berries from the prickly ash tree, the flavor of this ingredient is earthy with a hint of lemon. Sansho pepper is usually sold ground, but you can buy the berries and grind it yourself if you like. Sansho is typically used on grilled foods like yakitori (chicken) or unagi (eel).
3. Locally Made Soy Sauce
Specialty bottles for sale from a soy sauce factory gift shop in Gifu, Japan — Photo from Flickr cc by Guerric
Of course, you can get soy sauce back home. Kikkoman has made sure this staple ingredient is available around the world. But you have not really tasted soy sauce until you try some from a handcrafted small soy brewery. Two things you can find in just about every area across Japan are locally brewed sake (rice wine) and small batch soy sauce.
All soy sauces have in common the umami savory taste—great on fish and chicken, made into a glaze or as a soup base. Soy sauce is probably THE staple item of the Japanese kitchen. You can buy cheap serviceable soy sauce in big containers, but the handcrafted local stuff is usually in smaller bottles. Keep your eye out at luxury Japanese supermarkets and, of course, while traveling. In Tokyo, check out one of my favorite soy sauce makers, Kayanoya. This maker even has a gorgeous high-end shop in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. Many soy sauce makers offer tours of their factories. Explore traditional methods on one of the tours and tastings and then bring some home!
4. Snacks That Travel and Cute Food Gifts
Adorable snacks decorated with famous characters are great food souvenirs — Photo from Flickr by Alpha
At least in my world, everyone loves food souvenirs when I get back from an adventure. Japan has a multi-billion dollar industry focused on local snacks from Hokkaido to Okinawa that are packaged to give as gifts. The tradition of giving omiyage (souvenirs) to your co-workers, friends and family when you travel is deeply ingrained here, and you will literally find endless choices as you travel around the country. This packaged food is always tasty, quite often cute, and sometimes a bit strange to a western palate—but new flavors are part of the fun! Most areas have a mascot and you can usually find adorable food inspired by these kawaii (cute) characters and by other famous icons like Hello Kitty. Be careful to avoid things that might get crushed in transit or spoil in the heat. But even with those cautionary warnings, you will be able to find amazing food presents to take back with you.
5. Anything With Yuzu
On the must-buy list. Concentrated Yuzu juice and yuzu kosho make great food souvenirs — Photo from Flickr by kattebelletje
Yuzu is a lemony-lime-citrus fruit in Japan. I love it. Really... I'm obsessed. I am sure if you try yuzu, you will be too (I even have yuzu lip balm)! Some great ways to take yuzu back home as a gift or for your pantry—yuzu kosho (flavored pepper), yuzu soy sauce, yuzu paste and yuzu concentrated juice (often used in amazing cocktails). You can even find yuzu potato chips and rice crackers!
6. Sake, Shochu, Umeshu, Awamori
Shots, shots, shots, everybody! — Photo by Nathan
Setting up a cool hipster bar in your house? You need all four of these spirits that are common in Japan. You can find huge producers of each as well as small boutique brewers and shops. Prices range from cheap and cheerful to break the bank. Sake is the well-known rice wine that goes perfectly with Japanese food and can be used for cooking and for cocktails. Shochu is a distilled spirit, high-octane (45% alcohol), and makes a good base for drinks. Umeshu is plum wine, made from fermenting Japanese green plums in spirits (most commonly shochu mentioned above). Sweet like a dessert wine, this delicate sipping drink is great on the rocks or with soda water. And finally, lesser known outside of Japan, Awamori, a local high-alcohol content rice spirit from Okinawa. We've seen the signs that Awamori may be the next big export overseas, so beat the influencers and trendsetters by taking some home from your Japan adventure. You don't have to go to Okinawa to find it (though that is a great option). Awamori is available in better spirits shops in Tokyo and other big cities. Cheers!
7. Goma Dressing and Other Sesame Delights
Make your own goma dressing by grinding sesame with a mortar and pestle— Photo by Marco Ooi
I think Japanese sesame (goma) dressing is so delicious. Great on salads, this dressing also makes a nice dipping sauce for a vegetable tray appetizer. You can also find a wonderful goma sauce in small bottles—great on grilled pork and chicken. In fact, any Japanese sesame product—sesame butter, oil or candies—would make a fantastic addition to your at-home pantry or a great present for your foodie friends. You can even buy sesame seeds to take back. Be sure to get your own Japanese-style grinding bowl and wooden stick to make your own goma paste for cooking! This customized half-grinder half-mortar and pestle is very durable and still easy to pack in your suitcase. Though you can't pack it to take home, I also recommend trying some yummy goma ice cream while you are in Japan.
8. Miso (Red and White)
Packs of miso are easy to pack and very versatile in creating Japanese dishes — Photo from Flickr cc by amanda
As mentioned above, Japanese food is famous for the 5th element of taste—umami. The cuisine of Japan would not be the same without miso, which is one of the main umami-creating elements in local dishes. Miso comes in many varieties. The two most famous types are white and red. Miso is made from soy beans, like many items in Japan. In this case, the soy is fermented with salt and a special fungus called koji. Miso is high in nutrients, protein and vitamins. Miso can be used to "pickle" vegetables, as a base in soups, made into sauces, glazes, and even added to Japanese wagashi (sweets), where it stars as a sticky glaze over soft mochi dumplings. Miso is starting to gain popularity worldwide as various famous chefs experiment with this quintessential Japanese ingredient. You can buy many different types of miso in easy-to-pack plastic pouches.
9. Wasabi Snacks
Novelty? Wasabi Kit Kat are certainly an interesting use of this strong and spicy flavor — Photo from Flickr cc by Bodo
Wasabi has become more common overseas as sushi restaurants have spread around the globe. Most commonly known as a condiment for sushi and sashimi, this horseradish-like root is made into a paste that can be used in many ways. High-quality wasabi paste can be bought in Japan to take back home. Be sure to experiment while you are here and try the many popular wasabi-flavored items on offer. I have even tried wasabi ice cream, which was better than I expected! If you have time to travel around the country, in Nagano Prefecture you can visit the amazing Daio Wasabi Farm, a kind of agricultural theme park where wasabi is cultivated. Recently, even Kit Kat chocolates have gotten into the spirit by offering a wasabi-flavored candy bar! Be sure to pick up a few wasabi items to take back as food souvenirs. Most are quite inexpensive and this spicy strong flavor is iconic in washoku cuisine.
10. Green Tea and Matcha
Matcha set at a traditional shop in Akasaka — Photo by Lauren Shannon
You have already heard, I am sure, that green tea is a superfood. The healthiest version is matcha, made from grinding green tea leaves into powder and drinking them directly! You will find no end of green tea drinks, loose tea leaves, matcha-flavored cakes and candies that all make great food souvenirs. Matcha can be quite bitter, which is why this beverage is usually served in small portions with a traditional Japanese sweet to offset the bitterness. You should certainly stop by a tea shop and try some. Dobashien in Akasaka has been serving and selling the highest quality green tea since 1892 and is easy to travel to in downtown Tokyo. Your superfood loving, culinary friends will be especially happy with a green tea souvenir. And you can enjoy your own home cooked Japanese food even more if you brew some sencha or genmaicha varieties of tea to sip while you remember your trip.
Happy eating or as they say in Japan: Itadakimasu!