お土産 o-miyage—souvenir

When a Japanese person goes away (whether for work or pleasure), he or she is expected to bring back gifts (usually edible) for loved ones, friends, and colleagues. This is optional in much the same sense that tipping your waiter in New York is optional. The gifts are known as o-miyage, which is normally translated into English as “souvenirs”. This is not quite right though, because in English souvenirs can refer to something you buy for yourself as a keepsake of your journey, and it’s not much of a souvenir if you eat it. When you hand over the o-miyage, you can refer to it as “tsumaranai mono” (uninteresting things) to deprecate its value.

Shopping for o-miyage is a not insignificant additional cost of going on holiday, and could also take up a lot of time if not managed efficiently. Fortunately, however, Japan caters admirably for the traveller’s o-miyage needs.

Every locality in Japan has its speciality foods. These are packaged up nicely and sold in airports, railway stations, and local shops. A typical price for a box of o-miyage treats is 600 to 3000 yen.

For example, the speciality of Shizuoka prefecture is tea, so they offer a pleasing variety of tea-themed o-miyage (tea itself, as well as sweets, cakes and biscuits).

I was impressed by this shop that had spotted a niche in the market and was selling a range of “o-miyage for doggies” (わんこのみやげ):

By the time we arrived home from our trip to Aichi, Tokyo, and Yamanashi prefectures we had accumulated the following selection:

It’s not all a one-way street, of course. On this occasion, I am the one bringing tasty treats for my colleagues, but for the rest of the time I happily sample whatever delights they bring back from their travels.

It is said that there is a salacious side to the o-miyage trade: aribi-ya (alibi shops). These offer a range of o-miyage from different places in Japan, to cater to philandering husbands who claim to have been on a business trip.

By the way, I don’t usually stoop to posting examples of “Engrish” in this blog (it’s an easy target, and more than adequately covered elsewhere). But I found this one fairly charming:

“CHOCOLATE SAND” “Eat the sweets which finished smell richly by using the coffee bean selected carefully.”

Note on the word of the day:

To be honest, I can’t make much sense of the meaning of this word. The kanji seem straightforward enough: 土 (normally pronounced do or tsuchi) means earth, 産 is pronounced san and refers to the produce of a given location. Semantically this does make some sense, given that the goods are so closely associated with a given locality, a bit like the French word terroir. But while these kanji convey the meaning, it is an irregular reading and there is only an accidental link between the word “miyage” and the kanji used to write it. It is tempting to see a connection with the word 宮 miya, meaning shrine or palace, possibly implying an origin in gifts or offerings that you bring to the shrine.

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