15 June 2016

Adventures in Omiyage

Takayama, Souvenir, Gift, Omiyage - レインボーさるぼぼ
By Bryan, [CC BY-SA 2.0], 
via Wikimedia Commons
I have a little over a month before I leave for Japan to participate in the JET Program. Preparation has been crazy - not just in terms of arriving in Japan, but I'm also doing major cleaning and reorganizing of my room at home so it's not an insane mess of paperwork, writing notebooks, and junk while I'm gone. Whee!

In the midst of the massive cleaning and purging project, I wanted to take a moment to write about omiyage - the special little presents that are a part of Japan's gift-giving, community-building culture. 

The web has many articles about omiyage, but I'm loving FluentU's explanation of omiyage the most:
omiyage is a really easy way to show gratitude or good intentions to someone with whom you’ve entered into a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s often used for sending one or more of these four messages:
1. We’ve just met and I’d like to show you I’m psyched about it.
2. In exchange for some inconvenience I’m causing you, here’s something to show my gratitude.
3. You’ve done something for me in the past, and here’s my お返し(おかえし)or, something I’m doing in return. (This is more or less a constant cycle throughout your relationship.)
4. I want you to be able to live vicariously through me and my awesome trip that you didn’t get to experience, as you’ve done for me before.
My idea behind bringing omiyage with you to Japan is that you are providing small pieces of your home with you for others to share, but you are also thanking your coworkers, bosses, associates, and students for allowing you to experience their culture as well. 

During my JET interview I was asked a question along the lines of what I would bring to Japan that would represent my home, and on the spot, I mentioned I considered two places my home - Ohio and New York. My answers (completely off the top of my head)

  • From Ohio - buckeyes (the nut) and buckeyes (the chocolate and peanut butter sweets) and the image (postcard or something) of a buck's eye for comparison
  • From New York - copy of Ellis Island docs showing my family came to New York from Germany (the immigrant experience being very much an aspect of the  American dream)
Nifty answers, right? I think they're pretty emblematic of my home. And as much as I wanted to actually bring these to represent my slice of America, I figured out pretty quickly that this was hard to pull off. 
Photo of one of my adult omiyage gift
setsI put together. Hooray for inexpensive gifts
 from Target and Five & Below!
  • Buckeyes (the nut) are actually pretty hard for me to find
  • Buckeyes (the candy) aren't, but everything I read online advised against bringing chocolate as it will melt in the heat
  • I know I have it in my possession, but I have no idea which box in storage has the Ellis Island paper (including plaque photo that's actually on Ellis Island). Even though I'm tearing up my room and doing some major cleaning, the New York stuff is in storage in the basement--and we're talking about 15 years of storage to wade through. Nope, nope, nope.
I decided on three types of items to use as omiyage instead - stationery items, stickers, and friendship bracelets. 

Although I know I'm going to Kumamoto Prefecture (and that I'm a prefectural ALT), I didn't know this when I started omiyage shopping, so I did my shopping for students in two trips. 

For adults -  I went to the Target dollar bins (when you first enter the store) and loaded up on stationery items.  I have several "sets" of items that are all meant to be bundled together as a single gift. One of the things I love about omiyage is that presentation is a major component, and I love wrapping and assembling presents. I was pretty geeky about this, and made sure to choose items that were color-coordinated, and then I made sure to package them in a way that was visually pleasing (complete with curling matching ribbons)!

Each adult gift set I assembled consists of pencils, note cards, sticky notes, a jar candle, decorative erasers, and stick pins. The larger items that I couldn't stack together went inside the decorative pouch that they also get to keep. 

For students - the first item I went shopping for was stickers. Pretty much everything I've read says stickers are really popular with students. I wasn't sure of what style to get though - when I started omiyage shopping, I didn't know my placement yet, so I bought a little bit of everything.

Then, when I found out that I was a prefectural ALT who'd pretty much be teaching high school students, I was worried that the stickers I picked out might've been too cheesy for older students. 

That's when I decided on friendship bracelets

Omiyage for my students - plenty of stickers, and that mammoth
bundle of yarn are thirty handmade friendship bracelets!  
I don't know how it is in other countries, but friendship bracelets were totally a thing growing up (especially at summer camp)! I used to make them along with my sister. She was really good at it and could do special knots and even add decorative holes to the bracelet, which is something I can't do. But simple bracelets? No problem. 

This became an insane undertaking, as I hadn't made friendship bracelets in about...eighteen years or so, and I was planning on making all the friendship bracelets for the students myself.  I was going to make at least fifteen, but then I read from articles online that I'd likely be teaching at multiple schools, and classes can have as many as thirty students in them. Whew!

I have one bundle of thirty bracelets done. As a precaution, I'll be making sixty more bracelets. It's a good thing I'm off teaching for the summer so I have time to do this!


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