Guest Author - Ching Kin Min
Japanese people are big on お土産 “omiyage”, or souvenirs. Japan has a dazzling array of souvenirs, with souvenir shops present at every tourist attraction. The sheer variety and volume may overwhelm the unsuspecting tourist who visits Japan for the first time.
In Japanese workplaces, whenever someone goes somewhere for a tour, it is customary for him or her to buy “omiyage” for everyone else in the workplace. The most common “omiyage” for work colleagues are foodstuff such as cookies, biscuits and “senbei” (rice crackers). Such products are relatively cheap, easily available, and many come individually packed for easy distribution.
Every single prefecture in Japan is famous for a particular product, and they all have souvenir shops selling distinctive, “limited-in-this-prefecture-only” souvenirs. For example, Aomori prefecture is famous for apples, so you can find all sorts of apple-related souvenirs, such as apple-flavoured cookies. Depending on the location, you might also see “limited-in-this-city-only” or “limited-in-this-store-only” products on sale.
This is not limited to just food – there is an abundance of t-shirts, towels, key chains etc. with designs you can only get at the particular area you are at. At Mt. Aso, an active volcano and a popular tourist destination in Kumamato prefecture, Kyushu, small rocks blackened by volcanic activity are sold, touted as having “lucky properties”… Go figure.
In particular, there are the ご当地“Gotochi Kitty” key chains. Hello Kitty is huge among girls and women in Japan, and its makers have capitalized upon its popularity by selling “limited-in-this-prefecture-only” Hello Kitty key chains and similar products of varying designs. There are so many designs in all that it is unlikely one can collect them all in one lifetime. There are also “limited-in-this-prefecture-only” Rilakkuma (it’s similar to Hello Kitty, only the character is a bear), Chopper (the cute reindeer character of the ultra-popular manga/anime series “One Piece”) and Disney’s Stitch key chains, though they are somewhat fewer in number.
Amidst all these “limited edition” products, probably the best souvenir a non-Japanese (barring anime/manga otaku) can get for him or herself is a 朱印帳 “shuin cho”, which is available at shrines or temples. Although these places are more famous for selling charms and amulets, a “shuin-cho” is excellent value-for-money as it makes for a special memento. A “shuin-cho” is a kind of stamp book. With it, you can go to any shrine or temple and request for a ご朱印 “go-shuin”. A priest/priestess or a monk (depending on whether you’re at a shrine or a temple) would sign on it with a brush and black ink, before stamping a red seal on it. The result is a piece of beautiful Japanese calligraphy art. In typical Japanese marketing strategy style, every temple and shrine sells a “shuin-cho” with a unique design, and the stamp and signature are of course also one-of-a-kind. For some reason, temple “go-shuin” are generally more beautiful than the ones you get at shrines. A “shuin cho” typically costs 1000 yen, and a “go-shuin” is usually 300 yen. Although there are shrines and temples that offer them for a different price, these are quite rare.
There is no lack of souvenirs you can get in Japan, no matter who you’re getting them for. There are so many to choose from, and the “limited edition” strategy subconsciously encourages people to buy as many of them as possible. So now that you’re armed with this knowledge, take your time and choose wisely when buying souvenirs next time you’re in Japan.