You know when you go on holiday to some exotic clime and you think, “Oh I’ll buy a little something for the office from here. You know, just to be nice.” You do this and everyone in your office appreciates the kind gesture. What happens is Japan is, “Oh, I better not forget to buy something for the office or they will regard me as scum.”
Yes, in Japan buying a little something for the office is basically expected of you. You not only have to buy them when you go on a big holiday but also if you go on a weekend trip somewhere. I dunno about you but when I worked in an office I definitely did not expect random snacks every time someone went on a weekend trip to Margate.
These little gifts, known in Japanese as omiyage, can be just about any small foodstuff. Generally sweets, chocolates, cakes or jelly but can also include stuff like sake and cheese. Omiyage is what I blame for there being no Japanese version of Mars Celebrations, but that is another story.
Omiyage is also another example of not being able to trust anything your Japanese-English dictionary says. The usual translation for omiyage is generally souvenir. Don’t trust that definition for a second. The always useful Dictionary.com defines souvenir as:
“A usually small and relatively inexpensive article given, kept, or purchased as a reminder of a place visited, an occasion,etc.;memento.”
Sure, omiyage is generally small but souvenirs are supposed to be a reminder of a place visited. Many times the place that you have just visited may hold no special meaning for the person receiving the omiyage or, at least, none that you are aware of. This is it just something that you must give to co-workers/family/friends, simply because that is what people do.
The best meaning for omiyage I can think up is:
”A small gift (usually food) that you must give people after you have been on a trip, otherwise they will think you are rude.”
Omiyage is so ubiquitous that shops dedicated to the selling of it are at just about any location of vague interest. Anywhere even just a little bit touristy has these things all over the place. Worse is that in the many shinkansen stations and airports dotted around Japan there are now omiyage shops which specialise in goods from other regions. So, say a couple who live in Tokyo visit Kyoto for a weekend, they no longer have to bother with the difficult process of thinking of others while there. They can just buy some random stuff from Kyoto at Tokyo train station when they return. Even madder there are now companies that have “Omiyage catalogues” which deliver this stuff to your door. So you don’t even have to take the time to go to a shop.
To me omiyage seems to be a thing that people are expected to do rather than stuff given out of the goodness of their heart, which is kind of sad. But perhaps this culture of gift giving has lead to the BEST THING EVER MADE™.
I recently went on a trip to Yamanashi, the prefecture where Mount Fuji is. We went for a drive up to the base of the mountain and there I found something incredible, Mount Fuji shaped melon bread. Anyone who knows me will be aware that I think freshly made, bakery melon bread is the greatest of all Japanese food. Shaping it in such a cool Japanese way just perfects it. Not only that it was, hand on heart, perhaps the greatest melon bread I have ever tasted. Having sampled it for myself I realised that I had to share its greatness with others. So, I am telling you about it dear readers and I also bought a couple to share with my house-mates.
THAT was done out of the goodness of my heart, as they are British folk no omyiage is expected but this find is something that I just had to give them a chance to try.