Japanese culture is big on gift-giving, which is no surprise given how many stores offer wrapping services and how many items come in special gift sets. When Japanese people go on trips abroad or even within the country, it's usually common practice to purchase souvenirs from the area and give as presents to family and friends. And with airports and even convenience stores in Japan selling specialty souvenir items, buying an omiyage ("souvenir" in Japanese) has never been easier. I have oftentimes waited until the very last minute to buy Japanese sweets and snacks at the airport to give to close ones whenever I go back to Saipan. That being said, receiving a present that has been given a lot of thought is one of life's many little joys, and presenting someone with a gift that will truly put a smile on their faces shows how considerate you are of their interests and personalities.
But doing so is easier said than done, especially when you're traveling in a new area and are unfamiliar with what souvenirs to buy for whom. That's why I've divided this article into three categories: acquaintances, people in the workplace, and close friends/relatives. A good rule of thumb is: the closer you are to that person, the more effort and thought you should put into the gift. With that in mind, let's jump straight into it!
Acquaintances (a.k.a. most of the people on your Facebook friend's list)
This includes your neighbor that you usually say hello to every morning or that guy in school that you have many classes with and get along with rather well, but never actually hang outside of school. So why would you ever need to buy someone you're not that close to a souvenir? Usually, it starts with this situation or something similar enough:
A: B-san, what are you plans for Golden Week?
B: Oh, I'm actually traveling to Taiwan with my family. A: That sounds really fun! Don't forget to get me a souvenir *wink* (probably just kidding) B: *laughs* Of course! (not really sure if person is half-joking, half-serious) So now you're in a situation where you're not sure if that acquaintance is really actually expecting something from you when you come back from your trip. Luckily, there are many cheap options for buying souvenirs for friends you're not exactly close to.
Kit Kat chocolates
I always make sure to buy packages of different Kit Kat flavors because they're so easy to give out to friends, plus they're always a crowd favorite. I want to make a distinction though: the Kit Kats that I buy for acquaintances are not the ones you see at the airport in the fancy boxes that cost up to 1,800 yen. What I'm referring to are the ones inside plastic packaging and are miniature in size.
I prefer buying these because they are significantly cheaper than the ones sold in the box packaging, usually less than 300 yen per package. In addition to green tea, they also sell other flavors such as strawberry, raspberry, and other seasonal flavors.
Stationery and Small Items from 100 Yen Shops
100 yen shops in Japan are actually a great place to go souvenir shopping without breaking the bank. And if you visit larger shops such as Daiso or CanDo, you can find many cute things such as stationery and other small items. Compact mirrors from Daiso (108 yen each): Cute mini-notebooks from Daiso (108 yen each): Smartphone accessories from Daiso:
Cheap Facial Masks from Drugstores
Drugstores carry a variety of facial masks that come in different prices, but the cheapest ones are from a brand called "Pure Smile." They are usually sold around 100 yen, making them super affordable for the beauty gurus in your life.
Also under the same brand are these pads that you place on your lips to moisturize them. They are also around 100 yen at most drugstores.
People in the Workplace (a.k.a. you have to see their faces almost everyday so might as well make the experience pleasant)
Whenever someone took vacations at my previous internship office, we would always look forward to when they return because it usually meant one thing: free treats for everyone. Our office had a common space where people would place whatever souvenirs they brought from overseas for other people to freely take. It's a scientific fact (not really, but enough evidence exists to prove otherwise) that people are in a much better mood when they have food in their stomach. If you return to the office with treats in hand, you'll be sure to make everyone's day a little happier.
Yoku Moku Cookies
The ideal souvenir to bring for colleagues is food that comes in some form of box or tin, preferably with the contents individually wrapped to make it easier to distribute. One of my favorite Japanese souvenirs are cookies from Yoku Moku. Their most famous product is their cigare cookies which have a rich, buttery taste that melts in your mouth. Their cookies come individually wrapped inside a beautiful metal tin that can be repurposed after you've finished eating everything inside. A pack of 30 sells for 2,160 yen (tax included) making it quite a bargain for cookies made of high quality ingredients.
Japanese Sweets such as Hiyoko Manju
Looking for something a little bit more "Japanese"? Then why not buy some wagashi (Japanese style desserts)? Keep in mind that most wagashi have a very short shelf life and should usually be eaten as soon as possible. Nevertheless, there are some that can last a while before expiring, such as hard candies. One of the most well known Japanese souvenirs is Hiyoko Manju. In Japanese, hiyoko means chick and manju refers to a confection usually made with red bean filling. These cute little treats come in the shape of chicks and come with various fillings such as red bean paste, matcha, and chestnut. A pack of 18 sells for 2,160 yen (tax included) and can be found in most shops that sell souvenirs.
Tea Gift Sets for the Boss
While it's perfectly fine to buy in bulk for everyone at the office, you may feel compelled to buy something more special to give to your boss. While sweets or snacks are good as well, perhaps a more thoughtful and out of the box present would be a tea gift set. This is an especially good option for when you're not sure about their food preferences or whether they have any health concerns that prevent them from eating certain foods. If you're unsure of which blend of tea to choose, a good selection that suits almost any palette is ryokucha which is essentially green tea. Hojicha is also another popular blend which is made from roasted green tea leaves, giving it a slightly bitter taste. Department stores such as Isetan and Takashimaya offer a variety of tea blends that come in beautiful packaging that's perfect for gift giving.
Close Friends/Relatives (a.k.a. the people I actually want to buy souvenirs for)
When it comes to family and friends, I don't mind spending a little bit more on gifts if I find something that I'm absolutely sure they'll love. Yet sometimes, finding the right souvenir for a loved one can be a challenging task, simply because you're not too sure whether it will go above or below their expectations. The best advice I could give is: if it immediately makes you think of that person and you're pretty sure they'd find it useful or get a good laugh out of it, get it! Gifts that are personal or involve some inside joke are often more appreciated than expensive gifts that are bought with no second thought. But if you're completely stumped, here are some ideas to get you inspired.
My parents are like most Asian parents in that they are very practical, which means they prefer utility over appearance. My mother isn't the type to display souvenir knick knacks or other decorative displays other than the various trophies and awards that my brother and I have accumulated throughout the years. Therefore, I never buy her souvenirs such as keychains and wall decorations since she'd have no use of them. Instead I buy her souvenirs that she actually would use and enjoy, like skin care products and chocolates. My mother is at that age when she's very into anti-aging products, so whenever I go home during school breaks, I always make sure to bring home these collagen powder for her from Shiseido. They can be bought at most drugstore for around 2,000 yen for a 30-day supply.
She is also a huge fan of the Royce Nama Chocolate which melt in your mouth and must usually be consumed shortly after purchasing. They come in various flavors such as green tea, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate, but white chocolate is the ultimate fan favorite in my home. You can almost always find them at any airport throughout Japan and they sell special tote bags that keep the chocolates chilled while you're traveling.
My father on the other hand has more of a salty tooth but finds American potato chips to be too salty for his preferences. A popular type of salty snack that can be found in Japan is called senbei which is essentially rice crackers. When I visited Hokkaido last year, I found these tasty okaki rice crackers that came in unusual flavors such as uni (sea urchin) and hotate (scallop) which are both famous in the Hokkaido region.
Unfortunately for me, neither of my parents drink alcohol (at least not with the same vigor and enthusiasm as I do) so I usually never bring back Japanese sake. But if your parents or in-laws are ones to enjoy fine spirits, then bringing back a nice bottle of nihonshu would be a great souvenir. But let's be honest, bottles are heavy and fragile, making them not very travel-friendly. In that case, these Japanese sake that come in barrels rather than bottles are a cuter and more convenient alternative. After you've finished drinking all of the sake, you can keep the container as a nice little display.
For grandparents, a nice teapot set would be a lovely gift, such as this Nanbu cast iron teapot originally produced in the Iwate Prefecture of Japan. They are usually more on the pricier side (around 7,000 yen) but these teapots are highly durable and made to last a very long time.
For younger children, a great place to buy souvenirs is Kiddy Land which is a shop that sells many products and toys featuring famous Japanese characters such as Hello Kitty, Doraemon and Rilakkuma. It's hard not to feel like a little kid again once you enter Kiddy Land because you'll be wanting to buy everything. Not really into the cutesy stuffed toys? No problem, there's an entire floor in the Kiddy Land Harajuku branch dedicated to Star Wars.
The Disney Store in Japan also has many cute products for children and even adults. A great souvenir item to give to kids is the Disney Tsum Tsum stuffed toys as they are small and adorable and they cost around 500 yen each.