Omiyage: the reason why travelling light in Japan is next to impossible

I’m heading down to Tokyo tomorrow for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, and after that I’m taking a break from study to meet up with friends. I’m only going for a week, and so I had planned to travel light. I’ve gotten fairly good at that over the last few years and was looking forward to cramming everything I need into a medium-sized shoulder-bag.

But then I remembered . . .

In Japan travelling light is near-impossible. For one simple reason:


If you don’t know much Japanese then you might be thinking I’m referring to some kind of mystical force barrier. Or maybe an offering you have to make to pacify the crows.

Not quite. Omiyage is kinda the Japanese equivalent of ‘souvenir’ or ‘gift.’ Except that there’s a whole load of culture tied up in that word. Culture that, to be honest, I still don’t fully understand.

So anywho, here’s what happened when I tried to do my packing.

lots of omiyage next to my bag


Nope, that’s not an optical illusion. My omiyage was the same size as all my clothes and stuff.

Looks like I’m going to need a bigger bag.

Because there’s quite a lot of expectations when it comes to omiyage. I remember one time hanging with some folk in Japan, talking about one of our friends who was on a 2-day trip to (if I remember correct) Korea for a conference. Someone said, “I wonder what omiyage he’ll bring back.” I suggested that maybe he wouldn’t bring any back. Like maybe he wouldn’t have time to buy any. The look I received in return was somewhere between pity, disdain, and utter confusion.

My understanding is that giving omiyage is part of how you express your thanks and appreciation to people. It’s a way of letting people join in with the experiences you have whilst you’re away from them. Kind of like saying, “I really wish you could have been there with me, and I’m sorry for not being around to help you when you needed me.” In a way that’s a very good thing for someone like me, because expressing all that stuff in Japanese is much harder than handing over a box a chocolates.

Plus some of the folk I’m meeting up with I haven’t seen for literal years. I’m really excited to see them, and I’d be bringing gifts anyway. So I’m not really complaining about the whole gift-giving culture. Except I do feel a bit unsure at times whether I’ve given enough (or possible too little, but on my budget I doubt it). Plus I know for some people it can become a real burden. Putting aside the need to double your luggage size, omiyage are often not very cheap, especially if you have to buy them for a whole bunch of folk.

Then there’s the fact that Japan can create trains that travel at 500kph and yet somehow still be one of the most inefficient countries on the planet when it comes to packaging. I guess the idea is, ‘If something’s worth wrapping, it’s worth wrapping twice.’ The problem is that makes it really, really hard to travel light. And I like to travel light.

But I guess that’s part of the point of moving to another culture. Sometimes I have to make compromises. And sometimes I have to make those compromises whilst I’m still working out how and why things work the way they do.

Still I shouldn’t complain too much. I am after all, going on holiday.


But how about you? Had any similar experiences? Or can you shed any light on omiyage-culture?



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