I am pretty sure that everyone knows what a souvenir is. Do you happen to know what an omiyage is? Omiyage (お土産) is basically the Japanese version of a souvenir. Traditionally, when someone from work or the lab goes on a trip, regardless if it is for business purposes or casual vacation, it is common to bring back small gifts for the team. Most of the time, omiyage is going to be a food or sweet, individually wrapped with an elegant presentation. Tourist stores sell big boxes with dozens of carefully wrapped snacks, so that you can leave one at each desk without any concerns. The default option is usually a cookie or cracker, like the Fuji-shaped senbei cracker from the lakes at the base of the iconic volcano.
However, the most popular omiyage is probably special-edition KitKats, different for each prefecture of Japan. For example, the Sendai edition is “zunda shake”, made with the local edamame beans of the area. The Okinawa edition could not have any other flavor apart from the local specialty beni imo, a purple sweet potato.
On the other hand, downtown Harajuku, is full of cosmetics stores. Thus, Harajuku omiyage are special face masks depicting scenes from old Tokyo, called Edo, on the package. However, the standard omiyage from Tokyo is Tokyo banana, a soft cookie shaped like a banana. As for the rest of the prefectures in Kanto, the list includes pigeon sable (hato sable, 鳩サブレー) from Kanagawa, a peanut-shaped cookie filled with peanut paste (peanuts saichu, ぴーなっつ最中) from Chiba and a manju made from rice flour and sweet red beans (jumangoku manju, 十万石まんじゅう) from Saitama. Similarly, the most popular souvenir from Kyoto is a maccha-flavored cake (kyobaum, 京ばあむ), from Osaka is a set of juicy pork buns (butaman 551 horai,「豚まん」 / 551蓬莱), from Hiroshima a manju shaped as a maple leaf (momiji manju, もみじ饅頭), from Nagasaki a pork-filled manju (nagasaki kakuni manju, 長崎角煮まんじゅう) and from Hokkaido a white chocolate cookie with an interesting choice for a name (white lover, 白い恋人).
Logic dictates that since you visited a specific place, you need to bring back omiyage representative of that area. Here comes to play the concept of meibutsu (名物), namely popular products of each local area. When I first came to Japan, I was so excited to see others leave omiyage on my lab desk. So, I started to carefully pick the most popular, most interesting snacks to bring back from every excursion. After some time, I started hearing comments like “where did Elena go again”, prompting me to stop, in order to avoid people labeling me as “all play-no work”. Instead, I started looking into the meibutsu of each city, not in order to gift them, but in order to enjoy myself during a trip. In Nara, the old capital during the 8th century, one can find amazing traditional confectionary, usually based on rice flour and sweet red beans.
A lot of tropical trees are cultivated in the sub-tropical island of Amami-Oshima, making it famous for sweets made with dragon fruit or mango. As for another Oshima “big island”, in Izu-Oshima everyone suggests trying the local spicy bekko sushi.
The large west port of Joetsu in Niigata, being next to the sea, is famous for its fresh fish. The local specialty is therefore grilled fish and seafood.
Other areas are famous for their vegetables. Nozawa-Onsen, a village in Nagano, is popular not only for onsen hot springs, but also for the homonymous vegetable nozawa, similar to spinach. The local specialty of the village is a steamed bun filled with fresh nozawa and scallions. Heading east, Shizuoka is famous for its greens; green tea and strong wasabi.
The definition of food culture and fun lies in the city of Osaka. When visiting, it’s worth trying onokomiyaki, which is commonly described as “the Japanese version of pizza” and takoyaki, fried balls of dough filled with octopus.
Since Japan has 47 prefectures, I couldn’t describe all omiyage and meibutsu in this blog post ( but one can start by checking omiyage here and local specialties here). Regardless, it is easy to identify them, since all tourist shops are selling basically the same things. Japanese peopel love lits, so it is easy to find detailed rankings with worthy omiyage from every prefecture. Before your next trip to Japan, consider looking into the local meibutsu. This way, you can also learn some more details regarding the climate and geography of the area you are about to visit.