What authentic, original souvenirs should you bring back from Japan?
From a Western perspective, Japan is often too quickly associated with nothing more than high-tech products and video games. This cliché of ours doesn’t do justice to the Land of the Rising Sun and its extensive food, handicraft and fashion cultures. Let us take you on a unique shopping trip for some zen souvenirs.
Dorayaki or melonpan?
We know little about Japan’s traditional baked goods and pastries, yet millions of local people have been enjoying sweet treats such as dorayakis and melonpan for generations. The first consists of two pancake-shaped patties wrapped around a red bean paste filling. As for the latter, it’s a delicious baked speciality with a traditional brioche middle and a cookie-like crust. These true delicacies are not to be missed!
Not all clichés are to be avoided – why miss out on the one thing Japan considers most sacred, tea? Just as the French view wine as a part of their heritage, the Japanese feel the same about tea. There are a whole host of varieties, including sencha (the most common), gyokuro (one of the most refined and rarest) and matcha, the famous powdered tea used during ceremonies. Drinking tea is not only a question of taste and refinement – it’s also part of Buddhist attitudes to personal fulfilment. The act of drinking it is an age-old ritual with strict rules not dissimilar to karate and calligraphy. Producing and consuming tea is considered a timeless art.
Whisky’s other home
Of course, you have to try sake. It comes in small bowls known as choko or guinomi, and this fermented alcoholic beverage should be drunk the traditional Japanese way: hot. But, for a few years now, Japan has been distinguishing itself with another type of drink more often associated with English-speaking countries, whisky. Much like Japanese society itself, the whisky industry combines tradition with modernity, but it also provides a very high-quality drink. The bulk of Japanese whisky is produced either by the Suntory Group (creator of the famous Hibiki whisky) or Nikka and both brands now live up even to the great Scottish blends.
Art or craftsmanship
Japan is one of the top nations when it comes to technology, perhaps because it has always worshipped objects – think, for example, of the traditional art of forging katana (swords). The sword makers are masters – and the prices legendary! Travellers with smaller budgets might prefer symbolic figurines such as maneki-neko (cats with a beckoning paw that are said to bring luck); daruma (whose eyes are left for you to paint); or paunchy mythological Tanuki statues and other representations of Yōkai (spirits and ghosts popular in Japanese theatre and among tattoo artists). You can get your host of souvenirs wrapped in furoshiki, which some consider the oldest packaging technique in the country. Here, a piece of fabric is precisely folded to transport clothes, bento boxes or gifts.
Even though dressing according to Japanese custom is a bit more complicated once you get back home, you shouldn’t be without a kimono for moments when you need a little peace and quiet; a lighter yukata kimono, which is much like a dressing gown for use in the home; or a pair of tabi “foot bags” that separate the big toe from the other four.
If it’s authenticity you really want, look out for souvenirs that hark back to Japan’s most ancient times. Just like the sun that will always rise in the east, these pieces have a ring of eternity about them.