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