Help — Desperately Seeking Ideas for Japanese Host Family Gifts!

by Katy on April 2, 2010 · 42 comments

My older son is going on a two week long class trip to Japan in 17 days, and will have the incredible experience of staying with two different host families. He also went to Japan after fifth grade, so I know that the host family gifts (omiyage) are a really big deal. I want to give gifts that are generous, unique to Oregon yet are still welcome. I don’t want to be cluttering up a home that’s thousands of miles from my own, and of course I want stay within budget.

Tall order? You betcha!

When my son last visited Japan, we knew the stats of each host family way ahead of time, but such is not the case with this trip. This unfortunately means the gifts have to be somewhat generic.

So far I’ve bought two boxes apiece of Tazo tea, (Chai and “Calm”) which is a local company and, according to a Japanese friend, a welcome gift. I do like the idea of giving consumables, but don’t want to burden my son with heavy, breakable or or gifts that are sensitive to temperature shifts, (like chocolate.)

One friend recommended homemade granola, which might work out, but I really want to make these gifts special. After all, these families are going to a huge amount of effort to welcome my son into their homes.

And by the way, I am totally willing to break The Compact and buy new items for this occasion. This is not a time to be climbing up on my soapbox.

Okay fellow Non-Consumers, I need your help. What ideas do you have for Japanese host family gifts? Please, please, please share your wisdom in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

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

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa April 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I’m not sure you can find them still, but what about an Oregon calendar?


Lisa Pie April 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I always like the idea of sending things that are specific from your locale. Since I am from Texas we put Texas (the word) and the state flag on every thing you can possibly make. I do not know if this is true of other states.

But I tend to go for the locally made candies, olive oils, and foodstuffs. Also, a small/medium sized coffee table book about your area is always welcome. I have found that books are so much more expensive in other parts of the world, that this would be am impressive gift as well. Decks of cards with your state or city on them.

Maybe since you started out with the Tazo tea, you could add in some items to go with the tea? Like cute teacups from a local potter? Or local honey? Or a homemade tea cozy for their pot?

I will be checking back to see what other ideas you get and to see what you decide on. What a fun adventure!


Katy April 2, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Lisa Pie,

THANK YOU for the tea cozy idea! My mother made a stack of adorable tea cozies a few years ago from vintage linens/quilts that would make perfect gifts. She even sold them in stores, so they have adorable hang tags. I just called her up and she was able to find three, and will let me take two as host gifts. Yay!

These are all great ideas, keep ’em coming!



Glenn English April 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Anything from Bob’s Red Mill that might work? Also, I think wood is supposed to be kind of expensive in Japan, because they import most of theirs, so some kind of locally made wooden spoon or something could be cool, and it would be easy to pack.


mw April 2, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Before my son went to Japan and stayed with a host family I went to the local drugstore and bought a few things. One was a deck of cards with USA on them, a couple of small LA Dodgers drinking cups (knowing how much the Japanese like baseball), a map of California, and cotton t-shirts with our state logo, one for each family member. I also remember being told how much they enjoy popular American music, so we bought them a couple of cd’s, although I don’t remember the artists. Good luck!


Robyn J. April 2, 2010 at 2:16 pm

What about finding or taking a great picture of a favorite state landmark and then having it made into a puzzle? This would be light and easy to pack and when the host family gets it put together it would remind them of their fabulous American friend. You could so several pictures for that matter, maybe one of just him or even one of your family.

A scrapbook might be fun to create. A few pages could be left for pictures and mementos that he’s like to include during his visit too.


helen April 2, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Two of my kids have stayed in Japanese families as well. Yes, wood stuff like a cutting board (no knives!!) bowl. Oregon baseball caps (they seem to really like ones from UoO or Oregon state that say Oregon on them or have logos), Pendleton blankets (expensive!!). Consumables: marion or huckle berry jam, smoked salmon, dried fancy bean soup mixes, baking mixes (with simple additions and instructions), dried blueberries, and hazelnuts as well as a variety of mainstream cookies in packages from a regular grocery store (oreos, circus animal cookies or girl scout cookies etc.), blue and yellow corn chips and salsa and mix to make guacamole (have your kids make this for them when they are there), saltwater taffy, and carmel corn or poppycock corn. Go to Trader Joe’s and buy bags of nuts and trail mix.


Kimberly in So Cal April 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm

We went in 1998. We took liquor (something your son won’t do), Jelly Bellies (huge hit!), Knott’s Berry Farm items (we’re in So Cal), Beanie Babies (they were a big thing back then and we took bald eagle BBs), and other local and American food items. Oh, we took CDs too.

If I went again I would take small designer leather goods (incredibly expensive there) and other designer items (scarves, etc.), even thought they aren’t specific to our locale (most aren’t even made here, LOL). I’d take local stuff too, but I think I’d take designer goods rather than the liquor. I knew that our host family’s daughter was into designer goods but didn’t realize how it gripped the country.

Depending on the ages of the children in the family I would think about rubber stamps and stickers with American sayings. Also die-cast American cars; I say this because some of our Japanese friends have brought die-cast Japanese cars/motorcycles for my boys. I usually receive small scarves, handkerchiefs, home decor items (trays, mobiles, etc.), Japanese food stuffs, fans, etc.


Mariko April 2, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Hey! My mother is going to Japan in a couple weeks, and she loaded up with See’s Chocolates. If you want to stay local, you could get some small boxes of Moonstruck Chocolates. It shouldn’t be too hot in Japan just yet, so it probably won’t melt. If you’re concerned about melting, though, how about hot chocolate?

Coffee is also usually welcome. Half-pound bags of Stumptown would probably go over very well.

Nuts tend to be expensive, so sometimes my mother will take bags of nuts from Trader Joe’s. In fact, you might do well to explore the nuts section there! Pistachios are popular, and dried fruits are a good choice, too, like dried blueberries or cranberries.

Good luck!


Katy April 2, 2010 at 3:15 pm


I sent my son with a huge stash of See’s lollipops last time. He was instructed to give them to grandparents, cousins, tour guides, etc. I think he may have eaten a lot of them himself, but I will buy them again.

I’m hesitant to send him with Trader Joe’s nuts, etc. since they’re not exactly festively packaged. I guess I could put them in cute gift bags though.




Mamadrums April 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I like the Bob’s Red Mill idea. You can also get nice myrtlewood gifts at Made in Oregon.


Katy April 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I do have a Bob’s Red Mill coupon from my Chinook Book. It’s so far away, but I will have to be in the neighborhood when I pick up my son’s glasses. Good idea.



Cindy April 2, 2010 at 2:46 pm

my husband just got back from Japan and they are crazy about cellphone charms – the little things that dangle from the handle cord. So if you could find some of those ….. A small picture book about Oregon would be good. I collect tea towels when I travel.


Alicia April 2, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I’ll second or third the idea of a picture/coffee table book. I took one about the backroads of america with me to france when I was in high school, and the family loved to page through it and ask me questions about the places. even though I hadn’t been to most of them, I could share what I knew about the regions of the country. Maybe something on the national parks would be a good place to start — something with dramatic pictures.


marianne April 2, 2010 at 3:27 pm

i am curious about the food. i know that the US is strict bringing food and vegetation into the states. does it work that way in Japan? If not a problem, how about some of those recycled paper cards that have flowers in them to plant?


NMPatricia April 2, 2010 at 3:42 pm

I am with Marianne. When we have gone abroad, they want nearly nothing in the way of food products. We had to talk really fast to get some packaged energy bars through customs. I haven’t done this into Japan, so I don’t know about their rules. I just know it can be really tricky.

I would guess that nearly anything in the Made in Oregon stores could give you an idea. I suppose you could even puruse their catalog on line too.


Tara Morrison April 2, 2010 at 4:27 pm

We usually receive regional gifts from my in laws who are some what in your neck of the woods( Walla Walla) and my faves are Bobs Redmill items (particularly the hazelnuts!), Wine, and smoked salmon or a Pendelton wool throw.


Laura April 2, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Is your son in the Immersion program at MTMS? Or the International School? Our daughter is in the Mandarin Immersion program, and leaves for her two weeks in China in just 5 days! She is taking a travel coffee mug for the dad, something I made for the mom and some Pendleton items (mousepad, coin purse and tissue holder) for the daughter.

Our son lives in Japan, and has done several homestays. Most appreciated items he took along were things from Pendleton (wool throw, etc.) and U.S. games (Yahtzee, Uno, TriOminoes, etc.). Although the actual games were made in China, they don’t (or didn’t) have them in Japan, and he had a good time teaching and playing the games with his host families. The one item they didn’t care for was candy–too sweet for Japanese tastes. Quality American coffee (anything but Starbucks.) is appreciated as it’s expensive there. The something-from-Bob’s Red Mill suggestion is a good one too.


Gerard Kiernan April 2, 2010 at 6:01 pm

a book about oregon seems like a nice idea, as well as a locally made item like a cutting board.

I always enjoy turning international friends on to maple syrup, but then again, I live in New England.

My sister lived in japan for a couple years and I will check with her as well about things that are coveted from north america


Diana April 2, 2010 at 6:13 pm

I would think a wood item would be nice. Myrtle wood only grows in two places in the world, Oregon being one of them. You didn’t mention how long you had to prepare, but you can sometimes find really nice pieces of Myrtlewood at Goodwill. Candle or incense holders, bowls, etc.


Jennifer April 2, 2010 at 6:25 pm

The first thing I think of when I think of Oregon is berries. Like blackberry or boysenberry jam maybe, it’s breakable, but not fragile. Or maybe something made out of an abalone shell or something?


Christina Propst (aka Gerard's sister) April 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Handmade craft greeting cards (recycled/handmade paper/dried leaves etc)
Handmade wood/stone letter opener or pen (opener must be packed in checked luggage these days).
Local Oregon moonshine (kinda kidding…but…that’s what the host Dad really wants, trust me.)
A small wood hand-turned bud vase.
Handmade/woven cloth coasters or doilies – the lady of the house will go for it.

I’d steer clear of the nuts, choc, Trader Joe’s, & the food in general schtick as you can get pretty much all of that there and the Japanese taste in sweets in particular is so VERY different from ours. Unless you are going with a known super-$$ brand to impress (Godiva, Cristal) forget about it. Also a pain to schlep.

Basically: think small, flat, local, natural or alcoholic…or you could burn an East-meets-West karaoke CD and have Ichiro sign it for bonus points! 😉 If your kid is a teenager, have him burn a CD for the house-teens & decorate it with U.S. cred.


Katy April 2, 2010 at 10:15 pm


I’d surely be happy to share from my stash of moonshine, but I think my 14-year-old son’s teacher might frown upon it.




jenniwaka April 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm

I lived in Japan for 9 years and have a Japanese hubby and I think that most if not all of these items sound good. I also added some other ideas in a comment on Facebook just now so I hope you get a chance to look. You don’t need to break the bank or even break the Compact entirely. Those tea cozies will probably be interesting to them culturally as well as appreciated because they’re homemade.

I have given calendars, picture books or matted/framed artistic photos of local scenes/sights, quilted items, berry jams, and seasonal or Americana kitchen towels which were all well received. I would stay away from CDs which are becoming more and more available in Japan. Also, for customs it’s probably best to skip any foods that aren’t sealed, canned, jarred or dried. Flower seeds might make it through customs but aren’t really a good idea environmentally.


Christy April 2, 2010 at 10:57 pm

I used to live on the Oregon Coast. Not sure if you could make it down there, but you can often find those blankets there that have information about the Lewis and Clark trail, or just general sights of Oregon near or around Seaside or Astoria. Also, there was that PBS documentary about the Lewis and Clark trail that may be good.Another idea may be to have your son take some photos of Portland, or even of items around your yard (i.e. native plants, trees, birds) and frame them up or put together a book through a website like Snapfish or Kodak Gallery. Time may be of the element here, so not sure if these are practical suggestions. Don’t forget a Pink Martini CD! Thomas L. and I used to take piano lessons together!!!!


Marie-Josée April 3, 2010 at 4:48 am

Wow, such great suggestions. I love your tea gift and I think they will really appreciate it. I also think the coffee suggestion is really great, as well as anything baseball. My two suggestions are : mugs with Oregonian markings, and canvass or nylon purchase bags from all-American companies: Whole Foods, Macy’s etc. (with matching umbrella’s!), and if you can budget it in, backpack’s with baseball or any other American logo, brand. These are practical gifts and I am sure the hosts would appreciate them.


Marie-Josée April 3, 2010 at 4:54 am

Another of my two cents: If you do choose to go with the wood suggestion, I would go for something discrete such as picture frames.


Laurie April 3, 2010 at 10:26 am

Since mrytlewood is unique only to two places in the world – Oregon & Jerusalum, how about something small made of it? Perhaps a dove or bird, or some peaceful type animal.


monique April 3, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Our japanese friend bought hundreds of dollars worth of maple syrup to send home to friends and family when he stayed with us. Not sure if it is produced there…but it sure was a hit. The idea of picking up cards and pencils, etc with American flags is cute, but since most of those items are produced in Asia, the “Made in China” sticker sometimes takes away from the novelty of getting “American” items.


tammy April 3, 2010 at 5:04 pm

I know this sounds simple, but what about a map of your city/state with brochures about landmarks and things to see. Free items- likely available at hotels or visitors centers and might facilitate conversation. And they’re easy to pack. Perhaps you could even wrap gifts in maps of Portland! This sounds like such fun Katy. Hope your young man has a great time.


Fox April 3, 2010 at 7:26 pm

When I went to Japan, I brought a few Texas-themed small hand towels (not the usual hand towels, but the more wash-rag sized ones). In Japan, everyone has their own handtowel with them, and it’s unusual to see paper towels in bathrooms. It’s a generic, useful gift. I’ve got a couple from my trip there…I have one that’s a little grubbier that goes to work with me, and the nicer one that I use when I’m not expecting to be washing blood or solder flux off my hands. 😛


Meg Austin Haskins April 4, 2010 at 2:36 am

I live near Charlotte, NC and our family of five, hosted a Japanese exchange student, back in ’02-’03. We exchanged many gifts, throughout the school year, with her family in Gamagori, Japan. I love all the suggestions from your readers; esp. the local wood and picture/landmark ones & can attest to the small, personal towel. Chisato brought one w/her & used it every day. Here are a few things she LOVED: biscuits (she told us the only place to get biscuits in Japan was @ KFC! So I taught her how to make them & sent her family a recipe. Also, she had never seen canned, refrigerator biscuits & thought they were divine!), She loved Little Debbie Snack Cakes; especially Fudge Rounds!, after a trip to the Dollar Store, we decided on Corn Cob Holders & Potato Peelers—-she had never seen those & thought the women in her family would like to try them out!, her dad was a baseball fan, so we sent an Atlanta Braves cap, we went to Build-A-Bear & she made a bear for her sister, and Japanese study photography in school & special papers, but scrapbooking was all new to her, so any little photo kits from here, would probably be interesting to them. We visited local places like the Carolina Panthers Stadium & The Biltmore House and took photos & picked up simple postcards. I think simple recipes are great to share, or even a local cookbook…can’t wait to follow your son’s trip!


WilliamB April 4, 2010 at 3:38 am

My sib lived in Japan for years and I asked a couple of Japanese friends about this. This is what they said:
– as a whole, the Japanese are *very* status and brand-name conscious;
– homes are tiny by our standards, so think small;
– the wrapping is almost as important as the gift;
– local is good but only if it’s not kitchy, the significance might need to be explained;
– food preferences are very different, among other things US’ans like things way too sweet, so tread cautiously.

Taking these guidelines and the above ideas together, I recommend something small and intricate made of myrtlewood, or local blueberries, or salmon would all be good. Then get fancy and careful with the wrapping.

What won’t work for a family you’re staying with is anything that looks like you got it for a couple bucks at the local drug store. Decks of cards, postcards, maps, pins, etc.

I hope he has a great time.


Sarah April 4, 2010 at 8:28 am

Maple syrup is a nice gift, and very American! Or maybe local honey?


Kristin April 4, 2010 at 6:56 pm

I have a friend who has a daughter living in Japan, I asked her for ideas, here’s what she said:
“I am trying to think of what I have brought along. I know that Katy did not want to send chocolate, but Leah’s father-in-law really likes chocolate. I know that Leah has given a lot of people in Japan pure maple syrup and special pancake mixes. She also has given them different types of salad dressings or dips. If I think of something else, I will let you know.”


Andrea April 5, 2010 at 5:27 am

How about some “go-green” type of things–reusable grocery bags (handmade by someone local); travel coffe/tea mugs with local Oregon coffee shop logo printed on them; one of those traveling bamboo silverware kits like Beth on Fake Plastic Fish uses?


Tracy Balazy April 6, 2010 at 8:01 am

My friend Todd lived in Japan for a couple of years, where he taught English language. I posed your question to him, and he said:

Food, or locally made goods. Food is big in Japan. There are always some kind of food shows on TV, dramas tend to include some reference to food, or are often set at a place where the food is unique to the region, then showcased as part of the script. I tend to take items that reflect Michigan–art by Michigan artists, foods such as honey or jams … . Or, if you know where you will be staying, find out what the people you will be staying with like. Stuff like coffee is expensive in Japan, but its nothing for us to buy a pound of gourmet coffee here for ten or fifteen dollars. So, stuff that is high of price there, so somewhat inaccessible, but cheap here works good too.


Jay April 7, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Some smoked salmon. They have packs of it that don’t need to be refrigerated, right? That’s local, and goooood.


jocelyn May 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm

I’m going to study abroad in Japan soon, so looking through the comments were a big help! I will be buying presents for a host parents and a sister and brother.

I was thinking of getting the brother a Yankees hat (as I am from NYC), the sister a shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch (a lot of my Japanese friends LOVE Abercrombie & are ecstatic when they get it as presents, since there are only two Abercrombies in Japan). For the parents I will probably get some tea from mariebelle, maybe moleskin notebook (not sure if that’s too creative), and maybe something from the MOMA store in NYC! Hope they will enjoy it 🙂


Phoebe November 10, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I’m going to be staying with a host family in Japan in May for about two weeks while I teach English to elementary, middle, high school and graduate school students.
All of the ideas that I have heard so far are great.

I was thinking that maybe as a gift for the entire family I would get a painting of my hometown in California (I live on the coast and there are a lot of local painters), and a coffee table book about the history of my city. Then for the mom I was thinking about getting her a coach purse and maybe some locally made chimes. For the dad I might get some expensive cologne like my dad likes and a Angels or Padres Baseball Sweatshirt. I have not yet found out whether the family has a son or daughter or both, but if they have a daughter I will buy her a Madame Alexander doll, and some perfume from Macy’s. If they have a son I will buy him some stuff that would appeal to his age group from SeaWorld. I will also give the family a National Parks book, as well as some photographs in a book of places in America that I have been. I think that they might enjoy seeing some photographs of the Carlsbad Flower Fields, and of the Torrey Pines. If they have a newborn baby I might also purchase a baby blanket from Nordstrom’s and some toys for the baby such as a Madame Alexander baby doll.

I’m a history major so I want to make this experience as culturally and historically significant for them as for me.

Technically I live in two cities because my parents have a condo in Orange County, so I have more things to choose from to give my host family.


Katy November 11, 2011 at 9:25 am


I think you’re bringing too much. To bring large scale gifts to people you don’t know is somewhat iffy. I know you want to be generous, but buying decorative items for people you don’t know is not always welcome. Also, not everyone likes perfume. (I know I would be counting the seconds until I could get rid of it.) The coffee table book is a good idea.

Gifts that are always welcome are food based gifts that are a local speciality.

Have fun!



Lyavel June 10, 2013 at 2:45 am

I’ve heard honey is watery and exspensive in Japan. I am considering studying abroad soon, and I was considering that if I did, I should think about gifts to give the host family. By the way, etiquette is apparently extremely important to the Japanese (though most times you’ll be forgiven because you’re foreign), so study up on that. There was a lot I never even thought about. But anyway, I was wondering, we keep a few hives of bees and have several jars of honey…would that be an appropriate gift (at least, for the parents)? Its not really from my region, Kentucky isn’t known for much portable stuff, but I could probably find a few other things at the farmers market and mall. Would this be appropriate? Would it survive the plane trip if I wrapped it in something to cushion it?

Thanks for your help, this site gave me several ideas!


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