10 Gifts for Foodies from Japan

Nov 10th, 2008 | By Shane Sakata | Category: Featured Articles, Food

As my husband and I begin preparing for a brief winter break from Japan the subject of souvenirs and holiday gifts have been the topic of many a conversation.  Although many of our friends and family are fascinated, and even a little envious, of the opportunity that we have been given to live in Japan we know that their fascination may actually end with the idea of living abroad and doesn’t naturally lead to a desire for gifts from Japan.

I’m not a big fan of giving gifts for the sake of it and have been known to tell friends to spend their hard earned vacation dollars on creating great memories that they can share rather than on a souvenir for me.  My rule is this – if you see something that jumps out at you and says “Shane would love it!” then go ahead and make the purchase but otherwise just bring home stories and photos that we can share over dinner, coffee or a cocktail.  Many souvenirs given with the best of intentions end up collecting dust on a shelf or in a closet but memories last forever.

Alas, I now find myself in the position of not following my own advice. I don’t want to offend anyone by not purchasing a very personal gift just for them but not too many things have jumped off of the shelves with a silent exclamation of “that would be perfect for (fill in the blank)!”.

Japan can be heaven for foodies and those that want to purchase gifts for them.  The food here is fresh, in season and delectably prepared but, sadly, much of it can’t be packed and shipped.  The good news is that there is a virtual cornucopia of prepackaged foods in the form of snacks, crackers and even drinks that are unique to Japan and  gifts for foodies are easy to find, all it takes is a trip to the convenience store, the department store food food floors (depachika) or even a neighborhood supermarket.

Even the most discerning foodie would enjoy receiving a well stocked gift bag of Japanese snacks to nibble on. With that in mind here are some gift ideas and beverage suggestions that may make your souvenir and gift purchasing efforts a little easier.

Japanese Snacks

Edible Gifts for Foodies

  • Sembei -  large, round rice crackers that are crispy and can be plain, flavored with shoyu (soy sauce), nori (dried seaweed), kombu (kelp), sesame seeds (both black and white), or host of other flavors.
  • Arare – Sembei’s smaller bite-sized cousin can be made with either rice or wheat flour and can be savory or sweet.
  • Candy & Other Salty and Sweet Snacks – The bright graphic packaging of Japanese candy make these fun gifts to buy and receive but the packaging is only secondary to the often unusual and distinct flavors that can be hard to find elsewhere.  “A Guide to the Universe of Japanese Candy” is a great article on the subject that will whet your appetite and offer suggestions on where to purchase Japanese candy in the New York area.
  • Bottled & Packaged Condiments – Wander down the condiment aisle of any supermarket will find you will find an array of side dishes and accoutrements to any Japanese meal.  Look for a variety of teriyaki, sukiyaki, somen and other sauces or pick up some picked ginger, plum.  Also  look for furikake, a combination of dried seaweed, fish, sesame seeds, other ingredients that are sprinkled over rice.
  • Japanese Noodles - Udon, thick flour based noodles, and Soba, thin buckwheat noodles, can often be found in sealed gift packs that include the noodles and an accompanying sauce or soup base.

Sake

Drinkable Gifts

Purchasing alcohol or other drinks as gifts can be a bit challenging but can be worth the the effort.  Many of the drinks listed below can be purchased in single serving sizes and are easily taste-tested before making a huge commitment.

  • Shochu – a distilled alchoholic beverage that made from barley (mugi), sweet potato (imu) or rice (kome) that is all the rage in Japan and starting to become quite popular elsewhere – look for Shochu in almost any supermarket, convenience or liquor store in Japan.  It is said that you will not get a hangover from drinking shochu but I haven’t yet tested this theory to any extreme.
  • Sake – When people think of alcohol and Japan they think of sake.  The drink is said to offer health benefits and  can be purchased at almost any supermarket, convenience store or liquor stores in the country.  Better still, you can purchase your sake direct from a brewery like Ishikawa Brewery, located just outside of Tokyo.
  • Umeshu – Japanese plum liquer made by soaking unripe ume plums in shochu and sugar. This liqueur makes a tasty aperitif and can even be made at home.
  • Green Tea (ocha) – the most popular types of tea in descending order are gyokuro, sencha, bancha or you could pick up some matcha which is used in the Japanese tea ceremony.  Green tea options abound on supermarket shelves in Japan.
  • Energy Drinks – The Japanese have a fascination with energy and health drinks.  You can find caffeinated, vitamin enhanced or herbal infused drinks in almost any vending machines or convenience store in the country.

A Foodie Gift Combination from Japan

In my efforts to satisfy some of the foodies on my gift list I opted for a simple but what I hope will be a fun gift to receive.  I placed a simple red and black laquerware bowl and an appetizing package of instant ramen in a fabric bag with a distinctive Japanese pattern and topped the gift off with a set of chopsticks.

Ramen Gift Packs

I have also purchased some traditional square laquerware sake cups that I will fill with single serving size bottles of sake that will be combined with small packages of arare in an effort to recreate a mini izakaya (Japanese pub) experience.  The great thing about these two gifts is that the bowls, cups and chopsticks will remain with your friends and family long after the contents have been ingested.

There is almost no end to the wonderful gifts that can be purchased for the foodie from Japan so make a visit, or two, to the local supermarkets while you are here to create a Japanese snack pack .  It can be an affordable and fun way to share a little of what makes Japan great with your friends and family around the world and if a visit to Japan is not in your near future you can still take advantage of these suggestions by visiting the nearest Japantown or Asian grocer in your area.

Image Credit:  Personal Collection

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5 comments
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  1. Shane,

    What a great post. Your ideas are right on.

    When I visited our daughter in Japan early this spring, a friend of my daughter’s gave me a big ‘foodie’ bag of typical Japanese snacks and treats to take home. When I returned to Toronto, my husband and I had so much fun opening up the little snacks and chatting about my visit to Tokyo.

    Thanks for all your great information.

    All the best,
    Helen

  2. Some great gift ideas!

    You’re definitely right about buying souvenirs; I always feel guilty when I get something and say “thank you” while thinking about a handy place to store the item in case the gift-giving friend comes over to my place for a visit.

  3. Right-on! Sembei and other dried-rice snacks are always a huge hit when I give/send ‘em to friends.

  4. Food gifts are a great idea. Even the most picky eater will want to try something different (or will be forced into it).

  5. Hi, I had a question about those ramen packages you have there. Could you tell me what brand it is or what store you got it from? Please, I’ve been looking for that ramen everywhere!

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