Souvenirs from Japan — Useful or Edible

by Katy on May 9, 2012 · 30 comments

Being a Non-Consumer in Japan is not an easy task. Especially when on a regimented trip (chaperoning eight graders) that includes many, many forays into Omiyage shops. For those not in the know, “Omiyage” are souvenirs, and are imbedded into Japanese culture. Each town has their own specific omiyage, and they are bought by both foreign and Japanese tourists.

Although. . .  in my two weeks in Japan, I saw maybe a dozen foreigners, total. It probably would have been different if we were traveling in Tokyo, Sapporo or Kobe, but our travels took us to Hiroshima and the small towns of Asago-City. We took daily trips to different fun destinations, but even the popular touristy spots (like the hot springs onzen town of Kinosaki) were frequented by Japanese nationals only. And let me tell ya’, those shops did not seem to be hurting for business.

It would have been so easy to pick up a knick-knack here and a tchotchke there, because let’s face it, it’s fun to buy souvenirs when abroad. (Hence, the term “Dutch Tulip Fever.”) But I couldn’t picture any of it being all that fantastic once I returned home. Of course, I already own a zillion Japanese souvenirs, as we frequently host Japanese exchange students and teachers, who always come laden down with gifts.

So I made a self-rule of only buying things that were useful or edible. (Although I did break this rule by picking up a super teeny ceramic Daruma for 125¥ for my older son who collects them.)

Here’s what I bought:

"Rilakkuma" stuff, which my older son loves. I sprung for a Japanese-style lunch box, as he's been complaining that his "Tiffin" doesn't fit into his backpack. I also picked up two chopstick sets for the kids, some cookies, a ball-point pen and a school folder.

My kids *love* Pocky, so I bought one of every kind that I could find. My goal had been to track down the elusive green tea Pocky, but was unsuccessful. My host family thought this was hilarious, and kept saying "Pocky, Pocky, Pocky" to me.

Green tea or "Matcha" flavored treats hold a special place in my heart. (Or arteries, if you want to get more specific.) And that "Cream Collon" candy? Who among us could resist the temptation of someone's creamy colon?!

Unphotographed are two more Japanese reusable lunch boxes with matching chopstick/silverwear sets from the 100¥ store. (Thank you Vanessa from Thrift Core for suggesting that I track one down. And by the way 80¥ = $1 when I exchanged my dollars.) I will give these to my niece and nephew as birthday gifts. I also bought a tiny glass leftover container with snap-on plastic lid from the 100¥ store.

You know, as a gift from me to me. 🙂

I can’t think of anything that I regret not buying, and I had enough spare room in my suitcase on the return trip to store other people’s sake, gym clothes and a neck pillow. I also had enough unspent money to lend Yen to three people and slip extra cash into my younger son’s hand.

For which I requested and received his deepest bow.

Now, to start getting ready for my older son’s five-week trip to Sapporo at the end of June. How do you say “Oy Vey” in Japanese?

Have you come back from traveling with a suitcase full of souvenirs that look junky in the light of day? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Alison May 9, 2012 at 11:55 am

Welcome home! We have traveled all over Europe and resisted most souvenirs. After having lived 2 years in Germany, we have only 6 items that we purchased while there, 4 hand made items and 2 antiques. All of the items are in use and we enjoy them. These things remind us of our travels without overtaking our home. We have found that there is much more satisfaction in experiences than in “things.”

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Maureen May 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm

I bring home magnets — they are small and inexpensive and fit on the refrig. That’s where they stay and people that come into my home know not to touch them. I also take tons of pictures and scrapbook them.

If I do see a really beautiful and symbolic ornament for my Christmas tree I do buy that also, but not more than 1 from each trip.

And that’s me cutting down. I used to buy t-shirts and coffee mugs everywhere we went and I just don’t have the room now. And I have so many t-shirts that getting to wear them and wash them is a pain.

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liberty May 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm

My mother collected (and displayed) decorative spoons from all her travels. I was lucky that she taught me young to pick one easy to find small and inexpensive thing to collect and only buy that.

For the last 20+ years I have (usually) stuck to only buying a pin everywhere I go. I have them displayed in my spare room and they make me happy to look at to this day.

I will occasionally purchase a piece of jewelry made with a local stone. I have ruby earrings from Thailand and Jade from China… When I wear them they make me happy and I love that I have a story to go with them.

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Laura May 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm

What, no Men’s Pocky? Or maybe they stopped making that one.

I am 100% with you on the matcha flavored treats. YUM. We made several stops at 100 yen stores last year – we brought each of our daughters several Japanese snacks and were able to find most of them there. It was interesting that there were always several people in the store buying 100 yen bread, eggs, milk, etc. (this was in downtown Tokyo) to help keep costs down.

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Katy May 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm

They have “Pocky for Men” here in the U.S., but I didn’t see any in Japan.

Katy

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Kelli May 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm

For me, it’s been a maturity thing….I used to head to the gift shop whenever we went somewhere. Now, I just don’t want or need any of that type of “stuff” in my house.

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Katy May 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I’m able to resist the cute souvenirs, yet am also highly immature.

It’s my super power. 😉

Katy

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Valerie Heck Esmont May 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm

When I travel I mainly work on taking great photos to remember the trip. The only thing I collect is decks of playing cards when we travel. Each state or country we go to I get a deck of playing cards with a different theme (normally a theme of that country). They are light, cheap and won’t break in the suitcase. Other than that on our last trip to Thailand I bought some clothes, food that I ate, some Thai soup spoons and a few Buddha statues. While we were there I came up with a Christmas list and we did our Holiday shopping. The exchange rate was so good and it made sense to get interesting Thai gifts for our family. For all the Women I got these neat bird whistle necklaces (yeah jewelry), and we got a few other things for different family members. I’m working on using my pictures right now to make a book on blurb about our trip. I normally don’t buy anything without knowing what it will be used for and where it will go. I have some family that Hoards and I try to stay far away from that tendency.

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Katy May 9, 2012 at 1:28 pm

I have a deck of cards from a long ago trip to Scotland that I love. There was a store that sold nothing but playing cards, and I could have stayed in there all day long.

Katy

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Katy May 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I took the crappiest photos. I am at a point where I realize that my 2005 digital camera is too crappy for my current needs. It has to be held absolutely still to not be out of focus, and the pictures all have a very flat quality to them. However, it is simply not in my current budget to replace it now, so crappy it is.

Katy

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Kristen@TheFrugalGirl May 10, 2012 at 10:58 am

I have a new Canon point and shoot that I like quite a bit…it’s no SLR, but it’s also got a much more budget-friendly price point. I’ll review it on my blog soon, and I think you should keep it in mind!

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Katy May 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Thanks for the tip. However, we just found out that our older son’s Japan trip is going to cost at least $600 more than we thought, so we’re in lock-down mode.

Katy

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betsy May 9, 2012 at 1:42 pm

I studied abroad when I was in college, and one of my cousins gave me the best advice: find something really special while you are there and spend $100 or $200 on it (in other words, a LOT on a college student’s budget). Don’t buy anything else. I came home with a little table that has beautifully inlayed wood on the top. And I’ve used it in every place I’ve lived in since. On another trip, I was traveling with a friend who works in an art gallery, and she really wanted to go to a specific art gallery in one of the cities we visited. I came home with a cool traditionally-beaded panel that hangs on my wall, on which I spent basically all of my discretionary money for that trip.

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Katy May 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm

I love this! Thanks for sharing.

Katy

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Jennifer G. May 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm

I LOOOVE Pocky!

I just got back from San Francisco (live in GA), and I made sure not to buy a bunch of stuff that would lay around the house.

I brought home a painting and a few edibles. I feel good.

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Lynn D. May 9, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I love Japanese cotton fabric. I probably would have bought a few yards of interesting patterns to make into cloth napkins.

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Katy May 9, 2012 at 7:55 pm

I already have a fair amount that I received as gifts.

Katy

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Bauunny May 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Well…..I try not to bring more junk in to my house. However, if I am going to be somewhere long enough to consignment shop, I do a search of possible locations before I go. It is fun to see how they differ around the country. I also should confess that last spring I treated myself to a wonderful workshop retreat in Arizona (after much agonizing about whether I could or should spend the money). On the final day I bought a beautiful handmade necklace (I met the artist) that was definitely a splurge. That said, I have never regretted it as I love it still, it is totally unique and it reminds me of a time in my life when I gave myself the gift of selfncafe.

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Katy May 9, 2012 at 7:56 pm

When my sister lived in Seattle, we would always hit up the local Goodwills, which are awesome!

Katy

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Marcy May 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

Katy, a question. Is there such a thing as a thrift store in Japan? I am travelling back there later in the year (with some fellow thrift store fanatics) and would love to do some thrift shopping. Though of course this would not really be for clothing since I am decidedly *not* japanese sized.

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Katy May 10, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I asked an American who was living in Japan, and she said that there are a few resale shops, but they specific things like appliances or clothes. Of course, this was a pretty small town, so it might differ depending on where you are.

Katy

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FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist May 9, 2012 at 7:25 pm

I’m with Betsy, above: one or two special items. Sometimes that’s a piece of pottery or art; sometimes it’s jewelry; from Paris it was a beautiful scarf and the perfect red lipstick. Otherwise it either has to be food or something I can hang on the Christmas tree!

I struggle with gifts others bring back. The badly “handmade” doodads from places I haven’t been…no thanks. But the Pecorino Romano a friend brought back from Rome, well, yum.

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Lilypad May 9, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I used to go to visit relatives in Germany and Austria every year, and I bought locally made earrings whenever I could—good enough quality to last but not expensive. They were easy to transport. I also frequently kept matchboxes from restaurants where we ate. When I lived in Innsbruck, Austria, before coming home I splurged on a hand-painted pitcher and glass set, plus schnapps glasses. This style is a traditional handicraft of Tyrol. More than 20 years later, I still cherish them and use them whenever possible. (Well, I don’t drink much schnapps any more, but they remind me of the old country!)
p.s. I’ve never tried pocky but have to do so now!

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A Frugal Spinster May 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm

I rarely travel but in the winter of 2010 I went to a wedding in Florida. While there, I searched the local thrift stores in vain for a “Florida” tee shirt or mug (I wasn’t about to spend retail prices) I did find a book about the Everglades. Besides the book brought home a handful of shells and a plastic bag full of Gulf Coast sand, very different from Pacific Ocean sand. When I got home I purchased a nice bowl at the thrift store to display my treasures and I smile every time I see it. Oh, and I did bring back 100s of pictures and lots of memories, the best souvenirs of all.

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Lisa C May 9, 2012 at 9:17 pm

I like to buy clothing & accessories when I travel. Not cheesy souvenir t-shirts, but a scarf or hat or purse or something made by a local designer or craftsperson. Local junk food (with names or packaging that translate oddly into English) is always good too.

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Diedra B May 10, 2012 at 5:20 am

you didn’t happen to try kaki no tane did you? peanuts and spicy “persimmon seeds” made from some kind of starch.
I’m addicted. Luckily there are stores here and there in New York that sell it.

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Lisa S May 10, 2012 at 6:26 am

Many years ago in Glacier NP I came across a small book called Through Glacier on Horseback. I bought it on a whim for $6 and it sort of changed the way I souvenier shop. Now I look through the books for something uniquely about the area we’re camping in (those are the kind of vacations we take). And since we tend to return to the same areas every few years, I don’t necessarily get a new book each time. These aren’t your typical souvenier books. They tell stories…about early exploration of the area or an early biography, etc. More historical I guess. Over the years I think I’ve collected 6 or 7 really interesting little books. They’re fun to reread when I feel like it’s been too long since I’ve been in the mountains.

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Jennifer May 10, 2012 at 12:56 pm

I collect Christmas Tree ornaments from the places we travel too. Small, cheap, don’t get in the way, and we get to think about and relive a little bit of each vacation for 1 month of the year.

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Pamela May 11, 2012 at 4:39 am

Ha! All my stuff from Japan is very treasured, but I haven’t been back there since I came home 14 (!!!) years ago.

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karen May 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I sought out postage stamps–easy to carry & useful:) for domestic travel, I get a library card from the city we are visiting.

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