Word of Mouth: Omiyage

Omiyage, [oh-mee-YAH-geh] noun: the Japanese word for small gifts, usually edible, purchased for friends and co-workers while on a trip.

Unlike in the Western world, where souvenirs are thoughtful but not expected, in Japanese culture buying omiyage is not optional. But there is an upside to this obligation: receiving omiyage in return, and with it a tasty peek into someone else's travels.

In Japan, every region is known for a food specialty of some kind. The small city I lived in, Ogaki, was famed for its delicious and abundant groundwater, so a water-infused red bean jelly called mizu-yokan might be a typical omiyage purchased by visitors. Figuring out each place's specialty and then buying a box of it to share with my co-workers was one of my favorite aspects of traveling in Japan.

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But even better was coming into work on Monday morning to find an array of perfectly wrapped treats on my desk, small tastes of the places my fellow teachers had visited over the weekend. I asked questions about unfamiliar snacks, which led to interesting conversations about food and travel. I learned so much from omiyage — not only about, say, the history of rice crackers, but also about my co-workers, their lives and the wonderfully food-centric culture they lived in.

Have you ever received omiyage? Is there a regional food specialty where you live?

Related: 5 Souvenir Ideas for Food-Lovers and their Kitchens

(Images: Anjali Prasertong)

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Anjali is a former private chef who is currently pursuing a graduate degree in nutrition, with plans to become a registered dietitian. She lives in Los Angeles. You can read more of her health-focused writing at Eat Your Greens.

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