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The highs and lows of Omiyage

Japanese love giving omiyage when they go somewhere for a visit. In some situations you are socially obligated to bring something back with you, especially if you are “inconveniencing” someone else without your presence. One such situation is taking “nenkyuu”, or paid-leave, to go travel or vacation someplace. Often the members of the staff room will expect to also partake in your adventure by indulging in something tasty that you have graciously brought back with you. Omiyage often includes anything from chocolates or normal snacks you would get but the packaging happens to have the local characters face on it. But this isn’t the only time omiyage is appropriate. Other reasons you could receive omiyage is for celebration(less likely), or regret (most likely).  Because omiyage is so ingrained in Japanese culture, you can buy it almost anywhere, even at rural (yet large enough to have a store that sells something) out-in-nowhere train stations where you wouldn’t expect to see a box of nicely individually wrapped confectionery. I always knew where my co-workers had gone during their obon or New Year’s vacations because the packaging would conveniently have the name of the place written on it. It was especially nice when the teachers I worked with went outside of japan, because it was guaranteed the snacks would be different from the usual chocolate or “senbei” rice crackers.  I think the strangest thing brought back was some reindeer jerky from Finland. I honestly can't say what the best thing brought back was, because well, I generally like most things sweet or salty or savory or food, I like food. That being said, a few of my favorite things that I can easily recall are some wafer crackers with a sort of thin creamy filling. I've seen them different places, often reflecting the region. For example, Tochigi which is famous for strawberries has a strawberry filling. Another I remember well is from Ashikaga (ironically also in Tochigi. I’m guessing you gotta go to Tochigi for the snacks). The look of it is unimpressive. But oh the taste. It’s sweet but not too sweet with a crispy outside and soft inside. Having just one will certainly make you want another...until you realize just one little rectangular prism of goodness will set you back 120en. They aren’t even the size of a mouthful really. But they are great to get as a gift. So, you know, if you happen to come to Ashikaga for the wine festival in November, or the fireworks in August, or the flower park during spring or Christmas, check around the stations. You are bound to spot them.
But nicely packaged food isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Sure you get to try lots of different things, but that also means you have to smile and thank someone politely...even if you don't like the item. Every year, the PTA would provide omiyage for the staff after the sports day or other such activity where the teacher must have been “inconvenienced” and needed to celebrate for a job well done. This is what I was told anyway the first year I got a pile of sweets on my desk. They were all the same basic omiyage, “anko” or sweet bean paste. In small amounts, or when I am really craving something super sweet, anko can be good. But four large dumplings are just too much. They are also encased in an overly sweet wafer of cakey casing that sticks to your teeth. It’s kind of like eating a heavy chalky sugar paste that sometimes also has a random chestnut stuck in it just to add to the chalky grit. Really not the best gift to get. And their expiration dates always seem too soon. I don't like wasting food, but I can say a few of these went in the trash.
These must be a regional specialty because on another occasion I received a whole box of these same sweets.  This time as a “sorry I inconvenienced you by hitting you with my car” gift. Super sweet right? I think I might have eaten the whole box for dinner out of sore and because my body hurt too much to cook. But that's a story for a different blog.  You can check the first part out here.  
But these weren't the worst omiyage I've ever eaten. No that title belongs to a box of delicious looking mochi balls (smooshed up gluttonous rice cakes) that I bought myself for my colleagues. To be honest I just wanted to try them myself.  Bad decision. But they looked so good. Powder covered chocolate flavored sticky rice balls on concurrent to eat sticks! How could I go wrong? Well let me give you a back story as to where I got these first. On a whim, a friend of mine invited me to climb Mount Fuji with her and her family.  Because it was on just a whim, and I didn't really do much research or think too much about the trip, I was highly unprepared to say the least. Dangerously so. And. It made for a very hungry lady when she finally made it to the bottom (5th station, so not actually the bottom) of the mountain.   But you remember that friend and her family? Well, me not being a nice friend had left her behind thinking we could just meet up the next day before our bus ride. There aren't that many places near the bus stop, so it wouldn't be hard. That was my thought anyway. So hungry tired me went in look for omiyage while I waited around for the friend to show. Let's just say I had ample time to make my decision and I finally settled on this.  
Looks good right? That's why I got it. I wanted to try it before bringing it back to my office of teachers ready to share my harrowing story of climbing Fuji.  Turns out I didn't want to share this with them. It was bad. Really really bad. And I had just done enough physical exertion that should have made anything seem edible.  Not these. That white powder coating is not sugar like I had thought, but in fact cornstarch, straight unflavored cornstarch. The texture of the mochi was also off, not sticky and soft but had a gelatinous putty like feel to it.  And that chocolate taste it promised, I'm still looking for it years later. Whoever made these either never tried them, or was too cheap to care and change the recipe. They are the worst and please never submit your co-workers to these monstrosity of omiyage. unless you don't get along with them, then by all means make a trip out to Mount Fuji and stock up.


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SalarymanJim
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I hate it when they fake you out with what obviously should be powdered sugar but winds up as anything else. Raw flour? Cornstarch? Why?!
Those cute little mochi sound hella-gross now. I've also had a number of baked goods sprinkled with raw flour, like the baker just thought, "Hey, add white stuff, like the picture." and forgot which white stuff to use.

Also, thank you for this. I never thought of omiyage as a make-up of sorts, only a duty to purchase regardless of desire, but I received some today weirdly from the mother of a student who never went anywhere-- omiyage of weird Japanese things I can't decipher and from Sendai, where I go every weekend-- but only after reading your post did I realize this was the "Sorry I never pay for the lessons you teach my daughter" present. The mom then had a long talk with the manager/owner of the eikaiwa (not me) so hopefully that weird situation will improve.
Thanks for helping me figure that out.

JTsuzuki

@JTsuzuki I get wanting to make something picture perfect, but if it doesn't taste good...I'd rather eat the picture.
Omiyage seems weird to me. It's kinda passive aggressive in a way. Not that I'm complaining about receiving good though

edthethe

The omiyage at the end would have fooled me, too. They look rather nice. Although I've been in Japan long enough to know that the looks of food are potentially deceiving!

I've often wondered how far you have to travel in order that 'omiyage' becomes a requirement. Sometime colleagues bring back omiyage from their day out at Disneyland or somewhere like that, and I kind of think, 'For a day trip?!'. 'Is that necessary?!'. I guess it depends on the person, but for me a day trip doesn't feel like 'omiyage' territory.

SalarymanJim

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