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Souvenir Suggestions: Omiyage

AT A GLANCE

Omiyage (お土産 pronounced oh – me – ah – geh) is the Japanese word for souvenirs.  Chances are someone at a Pre-Departure orientation has suggested that you bring omiyage to give to your colleagues. If bringing gifts for 70+ people sounds daunting, it is – especially for a first timer. So, to take the confusion out of this very Japanese and somewhat essential gesture, below is a how to guide of sorts.

WHAT TO KNOW

Giving omiyage is highly suggested, though not mandatory.  As you get into the school year, you’ll notice the pleasant frequency of this Japanese tradition.  It is especially common for people to give omiyage if they are returning from a long distance trip.

If you’re still a bit unsure about whether engaging in this tradition is necessary, let’s emphasize that laying out a bucket of souvenirs can be a great way to socialize with colleagues because most will think it an open invitation to talk with you about your trip or gift.  Giving omiyage is also a tasty way to make a good first impression, as your first few moments of interaction are what tend to shape the relationships you’ll build in your new work environment.

When thinking about omiyage, think FOOD. We’re talking small candies, chocolate, baggies of trail mix etc. (more suggestions below). Also if you decide to offer food, each item should be individually wrapped.  Don’t be the one who thinks setting out a jar of jellybeans will get eaten. More than likely everyone will avoid those colorful treats like the plague. To make this clearer, here are the dos and don’ts of omiyage.

DO

  • Bring omiyage that is edible
  • Bring edible snacks that are individually wrapped
  • If you give inedible items, they should be small and usually reserved for your principal or vice principal
  • Give omiyage that are a little more unique/expensive to your principal and vice principal
  • Bring omiyage that is specific to where you are from or where you have been
  • Be prepared to field many questions about your snack if it’s something truly unique to your city/state/country
  • Bring a large enough quantity for most if not all of your colleagues
  • When laying out your gifts, make a sign saying that it’s from you and where it’s from

DON’T

  • Give inedible items (unless it’s a unique gift for a vice principal or principal)
  • Bring snacks that are not individually wrapped
  • Bring only enough for less than 10 people (unless you are giving them directly to a few of the staff)
  • Offer snack items that can be harmful or dangerous (ex: habanero pepper candies)

RECOMMENDED OMIYAGE

Here are a few suggestions for omiyage that you could bring from your home country.  Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and there is room for creativity.  Baking is also OK but make sure to wrap each item individually and be careful to follow the recipe.  You don’t want to be known as the ALT/CIR behind the diarrhea outbreak of the year.

For Principal or Vice Principal

Coffee

A small to medium ground bag for each would be best.  Bring your favorite brand, as this could be a great conversation starter.  Avoid anything Starbucks related because the brand has already managed to infiltrate most Japanese corners, malls, and cerebral cortexes.

Small jars of regionally specific jam/jelly/marmalade/syrup

Knott’s Berry Farm has a great selection of baby-sized jars of jam and jelly. Alternatively you could make a few jars of your own, if you happen to enjoy making preserves.  Or if you’re a New England or Canada native, maple syrup tends to go over quite well.

Key chain featuring name of your city or state

Most tend to shy away from offering trinkets because they’re more likely to get tossed into the receiver’s catchall drawer. If you simply must bring some really cool key chain you saw, make sure it has your city’s name or state on it somewhere.

Soaps

Fun shaped soaps could be a great choice.  Those from Maine, USA might want to seek out the lobster variety.

Baseball Paraphernalia

You’d be surprised at the amount of baseball data one avid Japanese fan can hold.  A hat or keychain could be a nice choice.  Avoid bringing t-shirts or sweatshirts as trying to find correct sizing could make things more stressful than necessary.

*NOTE About Your Supervisor

For ALTs, a JTE will be assigned to act as your supervisor for the first 8 months of your contract.  This person will be responsible for helping to make your transition to Japanese life a little less stressful.  He/she will be expected to go to great lengths to help take care of you so you should consider bringing something special in gratitude.  This gift does not have to be (read: shouldn’t be) as grand as the items suggested for your principal and vice principal but it should be something a little more significant than the fare you set out for the masses.  Think: a double helping of the omiyage suggestions below or a special flavor option.  Postcards also work well as thank you cards.

For General Staff

Tea

Most Japanese are serious tea drinkers so international tea rarely found in Japan is also a great idea.  Basically, anything beyond Japanese green tea would be considered “international”.  As mentioned in the dos and don’ts, make sure that each tea bag is individually wrapped.

Trail Mix Snack Packs

Trader Joe’s has snack packs of raisins, nuts and other dried fruits in the perfect serving size.  These usually go over really well with the health conscious and the PE teachers.

Chocolates

The California based brand Ghiardelli’s has great wrapped chocolate squares with many (often seasonal) flavor options.  Avoid buying a box of chocolates as the usual presentation offers an avoidance situation similar to the aforementioned jellybeans.

WARNING: Japanese summers are hellishly hot and humid.  You and your luggage will spend quite a few hours out in the heat and it is very likely that some of your delicate tasties will melt.  If you decide to go with chocolates, plan accordingly.

Cookies

Feel free to take cookies out of the manufacturers packaging and put them in your own individual packaging to make them a bit more Japanese office friendly.

Candy

A huge Halloween-esque bag of assorted treats (Twix, Milky Way, Reeses, Starbursts, Skittles etc.) is great for buying larger quantities of snacks on the cheap.  Also regionally specific treats like salt-water taffy could make for a few delightfully chewy conversations.