Omiyage translates as “souvenir,” but it doesn’t refer to things you buy for yourself as mementos from a trip. Rather, it means gifts you bring back for friends, relatives, neighbors and coworkers. Japanese immigrants who came to work on Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations in the mid-1800s brought their traditions with them, including the giving of omiyage. It is a practice many kama‘āina have adopted, even those not of Japanese descent. Giving omiyage is an expression of aloha, a way of showing gratitude and goodwill.
The omiyage custom supposedly began centuries ago when people in Japan made long pilgrimages to Shinto shrines. They were expected to bring back charms, sake cups and other religious objects for their families, the belief being that those items carried the same blessings the worshippers had received from the gods at the shrines.
Shopkeepers near the shrines also began selling local products for the faithful to take home to their loved ones. These products were called miyage, meaning “gift.” The honorific prefix “o” was added, explaining the origin of the word omiyage.
Because people primarily walked to shrines on foot back then—journeys that sometimes took weeks—omiyage initially had to be non-perishable, lightweight and easily packed; think fans, tea, knives, ladles, obi (kimono sashes) and the like. With the development of Japan’s efficient railway system beginning in 1872, edibles such as mochi, sweets and biscuits became common omiyage, too.
Need to pick up a few gifts on your trip? According to omiyage etiquette:
- Regional food specialties make the best omiyage.
- Choices should include items grown or manufactured in the place you visited.
- The wrapping should be neat and attractive; the outside appearance of omiyage is as important as the gift itself.
- Don’t buy anything in sets of four because that number is considered unlucky (the word for death and four are both pronounced shi).
- When presenting omiyage, follow the Japanese penchant for modesty, prefacing the giving with something akin to “It isn’t much, but…”, “This is simple, but…” or “I’m not sure you will like it, but…”
Traveling among the Islands or outside Hawaii? Popular omiyage includes beef jerky chips from Maui Crisps, mochi and candy from Maui Specialty Chocolates and manju from Sam Sato’s and Home Maid Bakery (Maui); Donna’s Cookies, Big Island Candies and 100 percent Kona or Ka‘ū coffee (Hawai‘i island); Kaua‘i Kookies, Aloha Spice Company seasonings, sea salts and rubs and Aunty Liliko‘i dressings, sauces, syrups and jellies (Kaua‘i); and manapua (baked buns keep better than steamed), Honolulu Cookie Company cookies and anything from Wholesale Unlimited (O‘ahu). Of course, you can’t go wrong with roasted macadamia nuts and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, either.
By the way, gifts you buy in your hometown to give to people you visit are often erroneously called omiyage. The technically correct term is temiyage. All of the goodies mentioned above would make great temiyage, too!