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30 must-have souvenirs from Japan

27 Comments
By Muza-Chan

Have you ever happened to be in a foreign country, to wish to bring home some souvenir and to be unable to decide what to buy? In Japan, this may be an interesting topic, since there are so many options.

From my experience, I compiled a list of Japanese souvenirs which will really highlight some typical aspects of Japan. I hope it will be helpful.

1. Maneki neko

Everywhere in Japan, from shops and restaurants to banks and offices, we are welcomed by a statue representing a beckoning cat… this is the maneki neko, one of the most common lucky charms in Japan, thought to attract good luck in business and prosperity.

They are also used as house ornaments, and they are available in all sizes and materials, at nearly every gift shop (probably the best known being the Nakamise street, near Senso-ji Temple), so every tourist may have one.

If you wish the “real thing,” go to Gotoku-ji Temple, the Maneki neko’s place of origin.

2. Tenugui

Tenugui is one of the most popular souvenirs you can buy in Japan, an object with so many usages that it is definitely a must have. Tenugui is a thin rectangular cotton towel, about 90cm long, printed with various motifs (geometrical, floral or ukiyo-e). It can be used as a towel, worn as a headband, used to wrap gifts or to decorate the room as a table cloth or a tapestry

3. Yukata

Yukata is a casual light cotton summer kimono, widely worn at festivals and at ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).

Travel tip: Yukata are widely available in all the tourist areas, but if you wish to buy a good quality one, go to a regular clothing store, where the variety is larger and the materials are of higher quality.

4. Geta or Zōri

Yukata is often worn with geta, a traditional Japanese footwear that resemble both flip-flops and clogs. If the wooden geta are a little too much for your feet, you can choose the zōri sandals, a more formal (and comfortable) footwear, regularly associated with the kimono.

5. Japanese hand fans

During summer, on the street, in trains or in restaurants, you’ll see a lot of people using fans. Whether they are folding (ōgi) or non-bending flat fans (uchiwa), the hand fans are so popular that it is almost impossible to leave Japan without having one.

If you participate at festivals, you may receive some special occasions hand fans, and sometimes plastic fans are also distributed on the street, as a marketing material.

6. Wagasa (Traditional Japanese umbrella)

Japan has an old and strong tradition regarding umbrellas. The wagasa umbrella is used not only for rain protection, but also as an accessory for tea ceremony or in traditional theater (kabuki).

Even if it was replaced for day to day use by the cheap plastic umbrellas, the wagasa, made of bamboo and Japanese paper, is a symbol of traditional Japan and is one of the most popular souvenirs.

7. Furin

The sound of furin is one of the specific sounds of Japan, heard not only in traditional areas but also in modern buildings. Produced since the Edo period, the furin is a glass or metal bell, usually hung in front of the window or door, making sounds in the wind to announce a refreshing breeze.

Travel tip:

You can find furin in many tourist places in Japan, but you can find a wider variety at some fairs (like the Hozuki Ichi, taking place at Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa).

8. Ukiyo-e prints

The ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world”, appeared during the 17th century and are still quite popular. Representing landscapes, historical scenes, famous actors or sumo wrestlers, ukiyo-e is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan and is probably a must have in any Japan traveller’s collection.

9. Daruma dolls

Representing Bodhidharma (the founder of Zen Buddhism), Daruma are spherical dolls, usually red-colored amulets for good luck, prosperity and for power to accomplish goals. A Daruma doll is always sold without drawing the eyes. The owner, when making the wish, paints in the first eye and the second eye is painted in only after the wish is fulfilled.

Travel tip:

You can buy Daruma dolls from almost every gift shop, but if you wish something special, at the beginning of the year, various Daruma fairs are held throughout Japan. The biggest fair is held at Darumadera Temple in Takasaki, about 100 kilometers northwest of Tokyo.

10. Japanese chopsticks

The traditional Japanese chopsticks are made from lacquered wood with a pointed end, and come in several sizes (usually for men, women and children). They are different from the Chinese versions – Japanese chopsticks are shorter and more rounded. They are often sold in sets, as decorative objects, many of them painted with various motifs and they are a very pleasant souvenir especially for those who enjoy Japanese food.

11. Paper Lanterns

The paper lanterns are made of washi (traditional Japanese paper), glued on a bamboo frame and are a traditional form of illumination in Japan. They are used at festivals, in parks, at restaurants or hotels and as home decorations. The most popular version is called chōchin and it has a frame of split bamboo wound up in a spiral. You can find them at tourist areas, often decorated with the name of the place written in kanji.

12. Tanuki Statue

Tanuki is the name used for the Japanese raccoon dog, but it also represents a magical imaginary being from Japanese folklore. It is said that the tanuki are pranksters, tricking sellers with magic leaves that look like money, masters of disguise and even shape-shifters.

Statues representing tanuki are everywhere in Japan, in front of the bars and restaurants (especially noodle shops), with the role of inviting the customers in, beckoning in a way similar to Maneki Neko. A tanuki statue is a good luck charm, and even if you don’t believe in its powers, it remains a fun souvenir, especially because they are often represented with disproportionately large testicles.

13. Japanese Traditional Dolls

A huge variety of traditional Japanese dolls is available, from those used at the Hina Matsuri festival to the musha ningyo (warrior dolls), used for Tango no sekku festival and the Ichimatsu dolls.

14. Japanese Food Replica Samples (Sampuru)

Sampuru, Japanese food plastic replicas, are displayed at many Japanese restaurants. They are handmade, carefully sculpted, amazingly painted and customized to look exactly like the real dish.

Travel tip:

You can buy sampuru on Tokyo’s Kappabashi Street, where besides the life-size replicas (my favorites are the beer glasses), you can also find sampuru souvenirs made as fridge magnets or key-chains.

15. Noh Mask Replicas

A Noh mask is smaller than the actor's face, measures approx. 21x13cm in size and is sculpted from wood, Japanese cypress and paulownia. At souvenir shops you can find full scale or smaller replicas, made of wood or ceramics, some of them even framed for display.

All the Noh masks have names and currently there are about over 200 masks, categorized by classification.

16. Hagoita

Hagoita was initially a rectangular wooden paddle, used to play the traditional Japanese game Hanetsuki, a game resembling badminton without the net. But since the game is almost forgotten, a different kind of hagoita became very popular, richly decorated with washi (Japanese paper) and textile materials, featuring representations of singers, sport stars, movie stars or anime characters.

Travel tip:

You can find a huge variety of hagoita at the Hagoita-ichi, a fair taking place between 17th and 19th December at the Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo.

17. Kumade

Kumade is a wide rake made of bamboo, traditionally used to sweep the fallen leaves or grains. During the Edo period, people started decorating kumade with good luck charms and selling them at shrines, to help “rake in” success, wealth, safety and happiness.

Travel tip:

Kumade are sold at gift shops, but a wide variety of models and sizes can be found at the Tori-no-Ichi festival, held all over Japan usually at the end of the year. The biggest Tori-no-Ichi takes place in November, at the Otori Shrine and at the Juzaisan Chokoku-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.

18. Kokeshi Dolls

Kokeshi are traditional Japanese dolls, originally created in northern Japan, made from various woods, with simple body and large head, without arms or legs. However, they are not just toys, they are a Japanese traditional art and also make for great gifts and souvenirs.

19. Fun Masks

At traditional festivals and in parks you can often find stalls selling fun masks, representing a wide variety of characters from Japanese pop culture, anime or Sentai series. They can represent an interesting souvenir, especially for manga-anime fans.

20. Kendama

Kendama is a traditional Japanese toy: a wooden, hammer-like object, connected by a string to a wooden ball. This toy is very popular in Japan; national competitions are held and people with a high rank at kendama are respected as persistent, patient and determined.

21. Koma

Another traditional Japanese toy, koma is a spinning top, a toy that can be spun on an axis, balancing on a point. Koma are carved from wood, carefully painted with various motifs. Japanese manufacturers have reached a very high degree of craftsmanship and sophistication, with new and inventive designs coming out every year.

22. Medal coins

The medal coins are cheap but effective souvenirs, highly collectible, with hundreds of thousands of people collecting them. Me too, I already own a quite nice collection.

Travel tip:

Since they are not using penny coins as raw material, the medal coin machines from Japan produce higher quality medals. You can find them in tourist areas, museums or trains stations. Just look for a machine looking like that.

23. Noren

Noren are traditional Japanese split curtains, often used at the entrance in restaurants or shops, to protect against sun, wind and dust, also used as shop signs, advertising or to signify if the place is open for business. They are made in many different materials, sizes, colors and patterns. Noren are used inside homes as space dividers or decorations, so they are also sold as souvenirs.

Travel tip:

If you wish to buy a noren, since it is not a frequently sold souvenir, it may not be displayed as an object for sale, so you may need to ask the seller at the shops selling fabric souvenirs.

24. Matcha Tea Sets

Matcha is the well known finely-milled Japanese green tea used at the Japanese tea ceremony. A set of matcha accessories must include the matcha bowls, the natsume tea caddies, the furui matcha sifter, the chashaku scoops, the chasen bamboo tea whisk and thekusenaoshi whisk keepers. If this seems too much, buy at least a chasen bamboo tea whisk; you simply cannot make matcha without it.

25. Bento Box

Bento is a meal, often consisting of rice, fish or meat and cooked vegetables, usually served in a specially divided box.

The bento boxes, made from lacquered wood, appeared around the year 1600 and remained popular until today, even if today plastic bento boxes are often used. Since bento became popular outside Japan, a hand crafted wooden lacquered bento box is not only a great souvenir but also an item of great use at home.

26. Japanese Kitchen Knife

Another item that can be of great use in the home kitchen is the traditional Japanese knife. Actually, there are two types of traditional Japanese knives, the honyaki forged knives, made entirely of one material (high-carbon steel) and kasumi, made from two materials, like the famous samurai swords.

Regardless of the method of fabrication, the Japanese knives are considered the best in the world, so every cook wishes to have his or her own set.

27. Koinobori

Koinobori, literally koi = carp and nobori = banner, are carp-shaped wind socks traditionally flown in Japan to celebrate the Tango no Sekku festival. Even if they are traditionally used only once a year, they are sold throughout the year as souvenirs.

28. Kites

The first kites were brought to Japan by Buddhist monks and they were used for religious purposes. In modern times, the kites became a popular means of entertainment and they are usually offered to Japanese children as New Year’s gifts or given to the first born sons. Japanese kites sold as souvenirs are often painted with representations of popular heroes or gods.

29. Samurai sword replicas

The samurai sword replicas cannot be missing from a list of Japanese souvenirs. They are available in all sizes, from small miniatures to full-scale replicas, and with various degrees of details.

30. Japanese porcelain

There are about 18 major styles of Japanese pottery, many of them with multiple sub-styles, so a huge variety of Japanese pottery and porcelain is available, some produced by master potters after century old techniques, some more modern or reconstructing Chinese styles. You have a lot of options, so you can select to suit your own preferences

© Japan Today

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27 Comments
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Furin

You really need to elongate that U like you did with Zōri and ōgi or you get a really fun souvenir...

8 ( +8 / -1 )

When you've been through the list a few times, people have had enough of the stuff that either sits in a drawer forgotten and taking up space, or sits on a shelf gathering dust. You can only find room for so many dolls, decorative kites and Japanese swords. And how many days in the year do you need a folding fan in an English summer?

I (and the family & friends on the receiving end) prefer stuff that is both decoratively Japanese and useful - pottery, practical items made of washi (bookmarks, coasters, mats), cloth items (tenugui, placemats), chopsticks, and food (yatsuhashi, sembei, yokan, karinto etc). Also sake, umeshu and Japanese whisky from the duty-free. Furin are usually well received, but one I gave to a cousin apparently ended up stuffed into a drawer because she couldn't stand the incessant tinkling that went on all night long and kept her and the neighbours awake. Lacquerware is quintessentially Japanese and makes a lovely gift (also nice and light, for those with tight weight restrictions), but should only be given to people who understand what it is and know how to treat it.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

What no Hello Kitty, strange electronic gadgets, figures, robot models etcetera!

6 ( +8 / -2 )

if you are buying for someone who knows nothing about japan then you can probably get by with pottery, plates, japanese teapots, and laquered bowls from a good Y100 shop.

Just make sure you get label remover to take off the sticker that says "Made in China"

Also sake, umeshu and Japanese whisky from the duty-free. Duty free Alcohol at Narita is typically 20-30% more expensive than Kakuyasu or Don Quixote (or even supermarkets). I was surprised, since in most countries it is cheaper. Only benefit being that you can take it as carry-on, not affecting your check-in weight.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I'm buying them all.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

this is actually a really good list. I am always trying to think of what to send or bring back with me when I go back home. people want something that "feels" Japanese.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Great list. I've used most of them on family and friends back home.

Here are a few that I've gotten lots of use out of that are cheap, small and easly fit into your suitcase. These are ones that get used also and don't end up as stuff.

1) Shichimi. Simple spice great on eggs or mixed with mayo to make a sauce, comes in some great tins if you get the good stuff from Nagano. Just don't send them home with the House or S&B stuff you can get that abroad.

2) Yuzukosho. Lovely on steak or chicken. The cheap Daiei stuff would work just fine. I send this back to my mom all the time.

3) Tenugi are great but onsen/sento towels are my favorite. The towels given out at ryokan or the ones sold at most supersento and some sento with the name of the place and sometimes a character drawn on them are great gifts. 100 to 200 yen at the most. Sometimes they even come in a reusuable plastic bag--no wrapping! Most are white but some sento have yellow, orange and purple ones. You'll have to look around--adventure time. I bought 30 of them when I went back on my honeymoon. Everyone loved them. Since they are towel materal they are more useful than a normal tenugi in the kitchen or bathroom.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Raku pottery, Okinawa lions, a 3 oz beer can, and plum gum.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

if you are buying for someone who knows nothing about japan then you can probably get by with pottery, plates, japanese teapots, and laquered bowls from a good Y100 shop.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I'm a fan of shippo yaki, what we call cloisonné here in the West. You can find Ando Shippo right in Ginza, just about a block away from the Wako building. If I remember right, it's across the street from Ginza Station exit #6. They have plenty of reasonably priced small pieces that make great souvenirs (as well as some large art pieces with breathtakingly high prices). (www.ando-shippo.co.jp)

Another thing that wasn't on the list is the Puzzle Box from Hakone. Fun for kids, great for people who appreciate the woodwork.

Don't bother trying to haul any of this stuff home in your luggage. It's a pain in the neck. Just do the easy thing and ship your treasures home. It's not that expensive. It's always worth asking if the seller will ship the item for you. Ando will, all the ukiyo-e dealers in Jimbo-cho will, many other companies will. For those that won't, just take your purchase to the nearest post office. They'll box it up for you and ship via EMS.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Many of these things listed here can be bought inexpensively as a souvenir (but still decent quality) or you can buy at a higher quality (and more money), really an art form, made by a popular artist or highly experienced craftsman. It's your choice.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Pretty good article, but a lot of these things are seanonal things and are pretty hard to get. Hagoita, Kumade, Koinobori, Kites and Hina-dolls are some of the items that if you don't select the right season, you are in for a treasure hunt. You may be able to find these at Narita in a Japanese souvenir shop, but they are not very cheap.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Furin, fun masks and kites are worth buying.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If you are visiting and want all of them you will need a big big suit case.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Duty free Alcohol at Narita is typically 20-30% more expensive than Kakuyasu or Don Quixote (or even supermarkets).

Everywhere else is more expensive than the cheapest cheap discount shops..... but the carry-on vs check-in thing is pretty big. I so do not want a bottle of booze, cheap or expensive, getting smashed and scenting the contents of my suitcase. And price depends on what you're buying: 12-year Yamazaki that my local supermarket wants ¥6,800 for is ¥4,500 at Narita. No way I'm putting that through check-in.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Some great suggestions, though I prefer to get my maneki-neko in Hawaii, where they wear sunglasses and carry a surfboard in place of the coin. I also wave people off the kokeshi dolls--they're popular, but a lot of people don't realize that in the north, they originally were displayed as the repository of the souls of aborted children (and still are, in some places). A bit creepy for gift-giving.

Nice authentic noren can be found at some of the artisanal tenugui shops in Asakusa. The heavy indigo aprons, inscribed with shop logos and traditionally worn by certain workmen (liquor shop employees often still wear them) have also proven popular, and some young people have even taken back the nikka-pokka, those two-piece construction worker's outfits with the baggy pants that come in such vibrant shades.

I live in a neighborhood that is the traditional center for retailers of Buddhist altars and other religious implements, and someone mentioned that on more than one occasion, a foreign visitor has bought an altar (the kind with doors and compartments, for use at home) to take back for use as wine storage, of all things...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Jinbei go down well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I would like to take a j-bird home with me, but have heard that they do not travel very well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My Mum has been gradually stocking up the neighbours with fans, yukata and tenugui over the years. The street is slowly but surely turning Japanese!

Dried soba noodles, a packet of nori and a bottle of soba sauce went down a treat with my friend who loves cooking, and - not very pretty - but I took home one of those "thousands of pegs on a hanger" things for a neighbour with 4 kids one year and everyone wanted one. Now apparently you can get them in ASDA!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hee hee, this is a funny list!

7, #19 & #28 are worth buying.
0 ( +0 / -0 )

My most treasured souvenir always is Umeboshi! From Wakayama to be exact. Love Umeboshi! The powder green tea is great sold at Don Quixote!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I like what people here added to the already long list. Especially the tenugui. You can get these at your local super sento too. Sometimes they are without printing so you would need to check in advance.

If you have run out of traditional things, you can always go for the crazy sweets in Japan. My friend loves those weird flavor kitkats. You can get everything from matcha, blueberries cheesecakes to wasabi. Another one will be printed origamis. It is not the typical origami which is just a square piece of paper, but they have lines and printing on them so you only need to follow the instructions. They come in various designs, sushi, cakes, aminals, vehicles etc.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japanese Saran Wrap should be on this list!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I like the Japanese solar cell toys. Good for teching kids the future of energy.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I live in Japan and I've been travelling to almost everywhere in Japan. Every single time I go traveling I buy a few souvenirs! The "standard" souvenirs that are mentioned here are nice, but I prefer the special souvenirs that are unique to a region. That can be the fans of Marugame, the lanterns of Aomori, the wooden cedar products of Yakushima etc. I try to introduce all sorts of souvenirs in my blog from time to time. Some of them can be found here. http://zoomingjapan.com/tag/souvenirs/

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I got a Maneki Nero with the face of PM Naoto Kan on it that has a solar cell, so is solar powered to run off the sun. It never needs atomic energy. I love it.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

NIce... when i go to Japan... it will be for 3 things... The food, the sights and the women.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

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