This summer, my high school Japanese nephew is in San Diego to attend an intensive English language program. On the day he landed jet-lagged but wide-eyed, he asked a question that would perplex most locals and non-Japanese in general: “is there any special foods from San Diego that I can take home as omiyage (the social obligation of bringing back small gifts from trips) for my friends?”
After getting over the initial puzzlement of wondering why someone would ask a question suggesting they were already thinking about going home before they even had a chance to put their luggage down, the question was actually very interesting and difficult to answer. In any case, my nephew was making a query that would be standard for anyone traveling in Japan.
In Japan, food is often associated with different regions and landmarks that people travel to. Of course, many other countries also have regional local specialty foods, but what is astounding is the sheer number and variety of these items in Japan. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has a list of Japan’s tasty secrets on its website that includes interesting (and sometimes dubious) list of local foods.
Many famous Japanese shrines and temples have foods and confections associated with them, and Japanese people often bring them home as omiyage to share with friends and family. This practice is said to have begun during the Edo period (1603-1867) when people could not afford to travel very often and visits to places like the Ise Grand Shrine was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The pilgrims to the Ise shrine brought back the famous Akafuku mochi as gifts to their friends and family, who often pitched in to fund their trips. Besides food, this travel culture also supported the development of local craft to be taken home to commemorate trips -just as Kathryn described in her blog post about Kokeshi.*
Obviously, many of the recent local food concoctions in Japan are pure commercialism, but I still enjoy exploring local specialty foods when I travel in Japan. Kyodo ryori or local specialties is a tradition rooted in the history, climate, and farming of a local region. It is not unusual for people to travel to a region with the sole purpose of eating the kyodo ryori. I have traveled to Shizuoka to eat its famous eel, and driven up to Nagano to savor the soba or buckwheat noodles that they are renowned for.
On top of the regional differences, many foods are linked with seasons and rituals and are eaten at certain times of the year. Some examples include eating pumpkin on the day of the winter solstice and ozoni (soup with mochi rice cakes) on New Year’s Day. It is fascinating to learn the background of how these foods came to be eaten in certain regions, seasons, and rituals. I continue to be surprised to discover local foods that I have never heard about or dishes that are prepared differently in other regions.
So if you stumble upon a little yummy something in Japan that has a story and tradition linked to that particular area, then why not share it with friends and family back home as an omiyage? The challenge lies in the task of discovering true gems hidden among the more plentiful commercial junk. On a recent trip to Japan, I discovered a regional roasted tea made from tea stems that was quite delicious in Kanazawa city. I brought some back as omiyage and my American friends loved it. I refused, though, to buy the cookies shaped like Tokyo Tower or Godzilla.
Returning to my nephew’s concern, I still don’t know what will be a perfect little omiyage from California for his teenage friends. Please send me suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org Your input will be greatly appreciated. But any omiyage needs to get past those cute but precision-nosed beagles that wander the luggage carousels at Narita Airport.
*There is an interesting graduate research essay published by Leah Watkins of the University of Otago on Japanese travel culture for those interested in the links between Japanese pilgrimage and their modern travel behavior.
†Yagenbori shop is located at Asakusa 1-28-3, Taito-ku, Tokyo