Photo: すしぱく on Pakutaso

Beyond Sake & Matcha – 10 Under-appreciated Japanese Souvenirs

When I first visited Japan many years ago, I was asked to bring back sake, something with a katana, and tea. As I kept coming back, everyone in Canada was at a loss as to what I could bring back as a light and affordable gift. Here is a list of ten souvenirs (excluding typical Japanese omiyage which I also tend to cart back) in no particular order that would make for great and surprising presents for those not so lucky to be able to come to Japan. You’ll notice that many gifts from this list can be purchased from Loft or Tokyu Hands, my go-to stores for interesting and classy souvenirs- as a bonus, many of these products have “Made in Japan” options!

Umbrellas

Why: Many Japanese umbrellas double as parasols with UV-block included. They also have a myriad of beautiful patterns, shapes, and sizes at different price points. Some are also extremely lightweight for carrying in your everyday while others are built to withstand the highest of winds. A good middle-ground with an array of styles, intended use, and prices can be found at the Loft or Tokyu Hands chains countrywide. $-$$$

Aprons

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Why: Aprons, both unisex and gendered, are a feature in every department store on the kitchen and home goods floor as well as the chains mentioned above and for good reason: Japanese aprons are typically made of better fabric, last longer, and have more available patterns, and colours than anything I could find in North America. A must-buy for all the home chefs in your life. $$-$$$

Alcohol That Isn’t Sake

Underrated Souvenirs

Why: Sake, or nihonshu [日本酒] as it is called in Japan (sake 酒 is the general word for alcohol), is the go-to boozy beverage for visitors; it has the most presence outside of Japan and has an alcohol content similar to wine. But, Japan has other great and affordable types of alcohol to sample as well, such as Japanese whisky [ウイスキー]; shochu [焼酎]- a strong liquor usually made of Japanese sweet potato, barley or rice; awamori [泡盛]- a very strong Okinawan liquor distilled from rice or millet; and umeshu [梅酒]- plum wine. $$-$$$$

Bath Salts

Photo by 大川和恵 on Wikimedia Commons.

Why: As with the other products on this list, bath salts in Japan come in an astounding variety, some for medical purposes, others for relaxation, and still others meant to beautify you in some way. Bath salts which are more “Japan-themed,” like those which claim to smell like certain onsen [hot springs] or have scents like Japanese cypress (a great unisex option!) can make especially great presents. Find them in drug stores, the chains above and even Muji. $

Coffee

Underrated Souvenirs

Why: Japan imports 80% (80!) of Jamaica’s coffee and kissaten [coffee shops] across Japan are known for their unique roasts and meticulous preparation. Specialized coffee stores, such as the popular import chain Kaldi Coffee, and Japan-based roasters are great places to find rare and delicious beans. Department stores, such as Mitsukoshi, also have stands in their depachika [department store basement food paradises] that showcase a variety of beans, usually including a house blend. $$-$$$  

Watches

Photo by MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr.

Why: Japan is the home country of three of the biggest watch brands in the world: Seiko; Casio; and Citizen. There is also a wide selection of international brands for sale in Japan and, although the flagship stores are in Tokyo, department stores across the country have jewelry and watch floors as well where you can peruse the latest luxury models. You can also check out Japan’s largest discount chain, Don Quijote or Donki as it is affectionately called, for cheap versions of the big brands as well as domestic-only watches at unbeatable prices. $-$$$$ 

Pass Cases

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Why: Before coming to Japan, I never realized that IC card/commuter pass cases could be style icons! Yet, many Japanese stores, from clothing shops to stationary stores to Loft and Tokyu showcase a seasonal rotation of designer pass cases, of every colour, style and pattern, often with matching accessories to attach to your outerwear or bag. These could be an unexpected souvenir for all ages, with designs to appeal to even the fussiest recipient, such as pass cases decorated with anime characters, made of genuine leather, and decked out in floral-patterns. $-$$

Face Masks

Unappreciated souvenirs
Sheet masks

Why: As popular as Japanese skincare regimes have been over the last thirty years, few beauty products have entertained the internet so much as face sheet masks…until they began appearing in stores worldwide! There are sheet masks in Japan at every price point and targeting every beauty woe and they really are worth every penny for their time-saving properties. Check out drugstores, cosmetics stores, such as Plaza, and Tokyu/Loft for a wide selection. $-$$

Accessories

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Why: Japanese accessory stores, such as well-known brand Anemone [アネモネ], are staples of every shopping mall and carry a range of products from hair accessories (clips, bows, ribbons, headbands, ties, etc.) to jewellery that make for ideal affordable presents for a fashionable crowd. A bonus is that it is easy to find well-priced pieces that are still following the current trends and are “Made in Japan” which up the cachet of your gift. Word of warning: “earrings” [イヤリング] in Japanese refer to non-hole earrings while “pierce” [ピアス] corresponds to the English word for earrings. $-$$

Curry Packs

Underrated Souvenirs

Why: Rather than returning home with just snack foods, such as the delicious but somewhat cliché Japan-only Kit-Kat flavours, Japanese curry packs contain an entire meal. Milder and sweeter than Indian curries, Japanese curry is a nostalgia food reminiscent of the postwar period and often served in cafes and family restaurants. However, in department stores, grocery stores and even convenience stores, you can buy the homey flavours in packs which can be reheated in a microwave or on the stove. A great bonus is that some stores sell varieties from every prefecture so you can gift a culinary taste-test of the country!  $-$$

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