There is so much to say about omiyage that it merits a post of its own (to go with the theme of the JET application and post departure).
Omiyage is an amazing and stressful thing. It is awesome because it is nice to get little gifts frequently and your desk to be filled with snacks at almost any given moment, but it is stressful because you have to think about what works and what doesn’t, what’s good and what isn’t. Japan is a big gift giving culture so get used to it (and be prepared to be assimilated into it). When in Japan, it is very easy to figure out what to get people, but coming from your own country, that might be a little trickier. So here are some tips for your omiyage before you come to Japan:
Who are you giving omiyage to?
You will be preparing a lot of omiyage to give to many people. The main people you want to give it to are your principals, vice principals, and supervisors at your schools. These are probably the bare minimum requirements, but it is a good gesture to give a small something to everyone. At your base school, you would want to give special things to the English teachers and then a small communal thing for the rest of the teachers. At your other schools, just the communal thing works but if you are feeling rich/have that much space in your luggage, you can get them individual things too. I made little gift bags for the teachers and added in extra things for my principals and vice principals. Then I had boxes of teas and candies for the general teachers.
Aside from your schools, it might be a good idea to give a small something to your neighbors and landlord at the place you are living at (if you have any). The mayor too if you happen to meet them.
What omiyage works:
- Individually wrapped food of some kind. I cannot stress this enough but individually wrapped food is going to be your best friend. Food in general is going to be your best friend here, but in terms of omiyage, if it is individually wrapped, you are golden. Local candies or snacks that your city or state or country is famous for or originated in your city/state/country works well. Alcohol too! Don’t be discouraged when bringing alcohol and thinking you will be seen as an alcoholic or something (that thought will soon disappear when you realize the amount of drinking parties there are and the opportunities to drink). I brought California wine for my principal at my base school and he seemed to like it. But just keep in mind the amount limit when taking it on the plane. Local teas work too. Just get a few boxes of Western teas and bam! You have about 20 pieces of omiyage you could give out throughout the year or add with other omiyage. It helps if your city or state or country name is on every piece, but that isn’t too necessary (and frankly, you may be hard pressed to find that anyway). But yes, something that says “I am from ____! Here is a snack!”
- Small trinkets with your country or even city name on it. Here is a pro tip for you: hit up your local city hall, tell them you are going to a foreign country to work, and you are wondering if they have anything you could bring as gifts. City halls usually have things with your city name on it and are always wanting to promote their city, especially internationally so no doubt they would give you stuff. I was given a huge envelope filled with pins, pencils, bookmarks, keychains, and luggage tags with my city name on them FOR FREE! The free part is the most enticing part so try it!
- Handkerchiefs. You will be arriving in summer and it is hot and humid as balls. Sweat towels is a thing so giving one would work perfectly.
- (If you can) Things made in your country. I was embarrassed to find out that the university pen I gave to one of my vice principals was made in Japan instead of the U.S. Double check that shenanigans! And if you are from the U.S….erm…good luck. Nothing is made in the states anymore! HENCE, candies 😀
- If you want to bring some things for students, coins from your country works like a charm. Students of any age are excited to see different kinds of money and they will ask you questions about it. As an American, I got questions like “why is the dime smaller if it is worth more than the nickel?” and “can I buy a juice with this much?” You know what else doesn’t get old, no matter what age you are? Stickers. Students go nuts for stickers. If you could (and I wish I did this), bring unique stickers like fuzzy ones or scratch n’ sniff (if those are still around).
- Things that melt. I learned this the hard way and now I have a backup that came a little late… If some of your foods melt, give that out early and don’t wait like I did. In terms of chocolate as omiyage, totally doable but again you are arriving in summer. Freeze it before you take it on the plane. Wrap it tightly so it doesn’t melt all over your clothes if it does melt and give it out immediately.
- T-shirts. Just because you don’t know the sizes and Western sizes tend to run larger than your typical Japanese person. But hats are acceptable.
- Root beer flavored things. Apparently that isn’t a very well received flavor here. The same goes with licorice flavored things too.
- Mint flavored things too. Apparently students don’t really like that flavor.
- Anything too expensive. What can happen is that the person you give a gift to will give you something in return. You wouldn’t want the person to feel bad in receiving it and/or feel like they have to repay the favor with a gift of equal value. Simple is always better.
When do you give the omiyage?
I have heard that it doesn’t super matter when you give it but if you want to get it done and out of the way, I would suggest giving it out in the first couple weeks you arrive at your base school and then on the first week of school at your other schools (if you have any). That way all of your teachers are there and you could use it as a conversation piece. But if you are shy (like yours truly), then throughout the year is fine too. As long as you give it at some point. I am still sitting on some myself that I will give out at one point or another.
Omiyage throughout the year
No doubt you will be traveling and going on cool trips outside of your prefecture. It is customary to bring some omiyage from a place you went for your coworkers. Now, this is somewhat left to your best judgment (and you will get a feel for it once you are here). Personally, whenever I have to take days off to travel somewhere relatively far, I bring back something for just my base school (sometimes my other schools if I have enough space to carry it). Some people don’t do this and that is completely fine too. It is up to you how you feel about it but gift giving is a thing here and Japan is well equipped with all of your omiyage needs when you go on trips within Japan. There are even omiyage shops with a variety of items you can choose from so they already did the choosing of the gift for you. Just need to count how many coworkers you have and how many are in a box and you’re done! A good tip is to buy omiyage with the name of the city or place you went to (or something that is super popular from that place).
- You can include a nice little note with your omiyage. It shows that you took a little extra time and care into it and you thought about the person, even if it is a saying that you wrote for everyone. There is a Japanese phrase お世話になります. This roughly means “Thank you for taking care of me (in advance)”. I wrote it on little cards and attached it to my omiyage. Don’t know if they were read or not but I was proud to write it haha.
- Keep a stash of omiyage at home just in case you meet a new friend. I know it is a lot to carry when you first get here but if you are able to get things shipped to you during your duration here, be sure to ask for some candies or trinkets and stash them. Again, you will be immersed into this gift giving culture so prepare for any and all situations where a small gift is nice. For instance, I was meeting a new friend that I was introduced to online for the first time for baking soda she was giving me. I thought wait a minute! I have these lollypops from home that I can give to her and her family! So I pulled out four different flavors and gave them to her as a little “nice to meet you. Let’s be friends!” gift and she also gave me Tim Tams. I didn’t expect the Tim Tams so it was a good thing I had those lollypops! 😀 So yes, future gifts for future friends, good idea to have them.
If you have any other omiyage questions, feel free to leave a comment below. I would be happy to answer any inquiry you have 😀