Finally! You’re going to study abroad in Japan, the land of cat cafes, Studio Ghibli, and sumptuous cuisine. If you’re like most students, you’ll be staying with a host family to experience daily life in a Japanese home. You want to make a memorable first impression when meeting your host family — a good memorable first impression, not a bad one, like taking your shoes off and stepping on the floor of the genkan in your sweaty socks, much to the chagrin of your host parents (I speak from experience here). No one wants to have only horror stories to tell friends and family. This is where omiyage comes into play.
Japanese people are very conscientious about gift-giving, much more so than Americans. Omiyage (お土産) translates to “present” or “local product” but its social meaning extends far beyond its literal one. By giving your host family omiyage, not only are you starting things off on a positive note, but you’re also showing respect and indicating your willingness to learn more about Japanese customs.
Just because you’re a foreigner doesn’t mean you’ll be let off the hook that easily, so it’s recommended you put some effort into finding omiyage. But what kind of omiyage do you give them? Heaven forbid you give them something that was actually made in Japan, but you also don’t want to give them something cheap that will break right away. So where do you start?
Here are some things to consider when looking for the perfect omiyage.
1) Set a price range.
Being a student, you’re often strapped on funds. You don’t want to be more broke than you already are, so setting a budget for your omiyage will help you save time and money. For example, decide to spend no more than $20 on any one omiyage. You can also choose to either buy one grand omiyage for the entire host family or small individual omiyage. My host family consisted of three members, so I decided to buy individual omiyage. I went so far as to buy a catnip toy for their cat, which he loved for about 5 minutes before batting it under the couch to disappear forever. The grand total came out to just under $30. Stick to your budget and you’ll stress less.
2) Shop locally.
Don’t shop at the dollar store, or at the airport right before your flight to Japan. While it may be easier to just visit the mall and buy all your omiyage there, your host family will appreciate something unique that’s either made or sold in your hometown. A little bit of a personal touch is always welcome. If you’re lucky, you’ll already be in contact with your family prior to your arrival. I received a letter and a couple pictures from my host family about a month before my departure. My host mom wrote about the family’s interests in soccer, cooking, and cats. Knowing this, I narrowed down the list of possible omiyage to ones related to those things. If you don’t know anything about your host family, feel free to ask for advice from your friends and family.
3) Avoid clothing.
Okay, so you’re scouting out your campus store and imagining your host family decked out in your school colors. Let that particular fantasy be just that — a fantasy. First off, college merch is expensive (at least it was at my college). Second, sizing runs a bit differently in Japan, and a medium here may be a large there. Third, it’s a little awkward to ask for sizes, and just as awkward to buy the wrong sizes. A friend of mine bought T-shirts with her university logo, but they were way too big for her host family. No feathers were ruffled, but it’s still something you should try to avoid. If you do plan on shopping at your campus store, go for something smaller and cheaper, like key chains, magnets, or coffee mugs.
4) If you’re gifting food, beware of expiration dates.
It’s common in Japan to buy local or specialty foods as omiyage. If you want to gift a food unique to your area, be very selective. Cookies can crumble, and liquids can leak. Triple-check those expiration dates! You may scoff at them (I know I sometimes do) but your host family might not. No one wants to receive expired food, and it might definitely be considered an insult, which would reflect badly on you. I accidentally gave one of my host mom’s friends some cookies that were expiring the next day. Suffice it to say I was embarrassed listening to my host mom apologize on my behalf. Be smarter than me.
5) Make sure it’s easy to pack.
You’re already limited on packing space. If you come across something that could be omiyage, think about how you’ll be able to pack it. Is it fragile? Can you layer it in between clothes or other items? Is it heavy or bulky? I bought a small set of olive oils for my host parents and wrapped them in two plastic bags to prevent a disaster in case they broke. Fortunately, they didn’t, but better safe than sorry.
And there you have it. Most of the above is a blend of personal experience and common sense. The omiyage culture can be rather tricky and will take time and experience to fully understand it, but hopefully these tips will help you get started and please your host family.
Happy omiyage hunting!