Keep some souvenirs of your past, or how will you ever prove it wasn’t all a dream?” ~ Ashleigh Brilliant.
Are you wondering about or are overwhelmed by what souvenirs from Japan you should return with for your friends, family (or more importantly yourself)? If you’re anything like me, you enjoy scouting out meaningful souvenirs from your adventures abroad to help spark a wonderful memory of your trip each time you look at it on your return home.
I’m not talking about mass-produced fridge magnets or ornaments made in China – I mean purchasing authentic, thoughtful and hand-crafted pieces that help support local jobs and businesses. After all, that’s what being an Invisible Tourist is all about!
During my 2 week trip to Japan, I came across many wonderful souvenirs that I use almost daily, and others I like to save for special occasions. If you’d like to learn more about my suggested Japan souvenirs and where you can buy them, read on!
What types of souvenirs from Japan can I expect to find?
When it comes to Japanese souvenirs the list is endless, really! There are so many beautiful things you can only buy in Japan. From everything Pokémon and Hello Kitty to electronics and unique beauty products, Japan has something for everyone. As I mention in my Tokyo itinerary, “If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Tokyo, it probably doesn’t exist!”
However, my Japan souvenir guide focuses on hand-crafted pieces that are symbolic to the land of the rising sun and are sure to be admired by those you gift them to.
First published in 2018, I’ve just updated the list to include a few extra traditional souvenirs from Japan!
This Japan souvenir guide will cover:
Need help choosing what to buy in Japan?
Where do we start?! Japan is a country that has maintained its rich cultural heritage throughout history and many of the below souvenirs reflect this. It’s always good to know the significance behind each of the items you plan on purchasing as they become more meaningful gifts. To get you inspired and to know what to keep an eye out for when you’re souvenir shopping in Japan, here are some of my personal favourites:
Wooden Souvenirs from Japan
Tsuko-tegata 通行手形 or “wooden passports” represent an ancient custom in Japan. During the Edo period, travel between the different regions of the country was strictly monitored. To allow passage from one provence to another, travellers needed to present a tsuko-tegata to prove they had authorisation to pass through.
Today, tsuko-tegata can be found at various temples, shrines, hot spring resorts and are a symbol or “proof” that you have visited. They have a bell and braided string attached. Pictured below are mine from Istukushima Shrine (Miyajima, left) and Nara (right). As a typography lover, I couldn’t resist the hand-painted calligraphy… Isn’t it simply gorgeous?
Instead of having these on permanent display at home, I save these as decorations for my Christmas tree each year. For me, Christmas is a time of reflecting and appreciating all the good things from the year(s) that have passed and these pieces represent a journey and fond memories.
These pocket-sized items are known as “omamori” お守り in Japanese and are very popular with both locals and tourists alike. With origins from both Shintoism and Buddhism, their purpose is to drive away evil spirits with the attached bells and guard their owners from misfortune. Spiritual leaders thought the idea of symbolically placing power of the gods into these hanging items would help protect believers and bring good luck.
Today there are omamori for almost everything you can think of, from the more traditional kinds such as prosperity and happiness to more modern variations for safe driving and cyber-security! Omamori can also come in the form of small silk bags with a prayer inside. You can find omamori at various shrines, temples and shopping arcades throughout Japan.
Pictured above from the left is a tsuko-tegata from Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, a Geisha keychain I bought on Takeshita Street Harajuku, Tokyo (although the tag says Asakusa) and a lantern from Senso-ji, Tokyo.
Quite the obvious choice no doubt! I chose this pack of chopsticks in Hakone as each pair features a view of Mt Fuji by one of my favourite artists, Hokusai. You’re sure to recognise his work “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”.
Even though Mt Fuji was hiding behind the clouds during my visit to Hakone, these chopsticks are a nice reminder to me that I did make the journey to her home and they inspire me to return again. Hopefully next time I’ll be able to catch a glimpse when the clouds that surround Mt Fuji are in the mood to be more co-operative!
Homeware Souvenirs from Japan
Did you know Japan is home to some of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world? There is evidence to suggest Japanese pottery and ceramics (tōgei 陶芸) were created as early as 10,000 BC during the Jōmon period. Throughout the centuries the Japanese have successfully mastered this art form, which includes glazed pottery, stoneware and porcelain items. The quality and attention to detail is a level above the rest!
Sake sets, bowls, dishes, mugs, cups, teapots, plates and the like are popular homeware souvenirs to buy in Japan.
I especially love these hand-crafted mugs I purchased at a small family-run store in Kyoto. The gold foil touches are exquisite and make me feel a little bit special each time I enjoy my tea.
You’ve probably seen maneki neko if you enter an Asian store or restaurant. Have you ever wondered what these cute little cats mean and why you can find them so widespread? Hand-painted “fortune cats” have an interesting backstory and there’s a reason why they’re so popular!
Legend has it there was a man seeking shelter from rain beneath a tree when a cat appeared nearby. It raised its left paw, beckoning him over. As the man approached the cat lightening struck the tree, causing it to come crashing down where he was sitting. Hence, the cats are also known as “beckoning cats”.
Maneki neko have different meanings depending on their colour. A white cat invites happiness, prosperity and positive things. Black maneki neko are said to ward off evil spirits. In addition, their raised paws symbolise different wishes.
If you’re hoping to attract customers to your store, look for a maneki neko raising its left paw. A right paw raised means your cat is inviting good fortune and money your way. A golden maneki neko is said to be one of the luckiest of Japanese souvenirs!
Truth be told, I actually missed out on purchasing these when I was in Japan – and I was pretty disappointed until I found NekoBox. My pair of maneki neko were easy to order online and came beautifully packaged straight from Japan to my door. If you miss out on finding these or any other homeware items in Japan, don’t fret as NekoBox will help you avoid disappointment! If you’d like to save 10% off your purchase, you can use code ALYSE at the checkout!
Even if you’re more of a dog person like me, it’s hard to resist these adorable lucky charms!
Artwork Souvenirs from Japan
Do you have an art fanatic in your life? If so, you really can’t go wrong with Japanese artwork. As a massive art lover myself, I cannot resist buying artwork from local artists on my travels! I have many pieces that all take pride of place in my home and make me smile each time I look at them. Paintings and traditional woodblock prints are ideal souvenirs from Japan as they’re super easy to take home with you – being nice and flat means they won’t take up much room in your suitcase.
As I was walking along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, a local lady was sitting beneath the shade of a tree painting these cute little postcards by hand. She had quite a few on display in front of her for passers-by to admire. For only JPY 200 each, I chose three but now I wish I had selected more:
Also, the beautiful board-mounted watercolours below are actually from the gift shop at Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto. Let me tell you, this is not your average, tacky gift shop you’d expect in other destinations – almost all the items for sale were locally sourced, unique pieces all of a very high standard.
Although the watercolours I chose were not cheap, I didn’t mind at all because I:
- Fell in love with the paintings the moment I saw them;
- Knew from the back of each painting that I had purchased a piece from a local Kyoto artist, and;
- Was also helping to support the upkeep of the temple and gardens with my purchase.
Win-win for all!
Paper Souvenirs from Japan
As an invisible tourist, I like to ensure the things I need when I’m out exploring foreign lands are small enough to fit in my cross-body bag. Folding fans or “sensu” 扇子 are no exception and come in handy in Japan’s summer heat! Their origins can be traced back to as early as the 6th century and are also used in tea ceremonies and traditional Japanese dances such as Kabuki.
Folding fans are very meaningful in Japan and are usually made of bamboo or Japanese cyprus then connected by washi paper. Silk fans are considered the most precious. Did you know sensu are said to resemble life? The wooden strips begin at one starting point, which you could say is birth, and slowly branch out along many different paths throughout life’s journey. Prosperity is also closely associated with these fans as their unfolding can be likened to that of a blooming flower or growing wealth.
Japanese folding fans make popular birthday gifts! If you’re thinking about buying sensu for a special someone, consider the symbolism you’d like to bestow on them:
My sensu is a screen-printed version of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. I just couldn’t leave Japan without a souvenir adorned with his iconic artwork!
Usually hollow and made of papier-mâché, Daruma dolls are appear to be fearsome bearded men. Their grumpy-looking demeanour actually has a positive message behind it. Believe it or not, they aren’t meant to be scary, but encouraging!
In Japanese culture, their rounded shape has been linked to the phrase “seven times down, eight times up”, which symbolises having a fighting spirit to overcome adversity and misfortune. Daruma dolls are usually coloured red with a white face and decorated with gold details. It’s said these interesting little characters are modelled on Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen and Buddhism.
If you look very closely, you’ll see some Daruma’s eyebrows are actually cranes facing one another and its beard is made up of tortoise shapes, both symbols of longevity in Japan.
Daruma dolls make great Japan souvenirs as they represent perseverance and good fortune. You may notice Daruma dolls have blank eyes at first, but this is to help encourage the recipient to achieve their goals. On receiving a Daruma doll, its owner can set a goal by drawing a pupil on one of the doll’s eyes.
Once they have achieved the goal, they can then fill in the remaining blank eye. In the meantime, the single blank eye serves to remind its owner to persevere to achieve their goal and overcome any obstacles along the way. As with maneki neko, Daruma dolls can also be purchased on NekoBox if you want another buddy after you’ve achieved your first goal!
Other paper items
Japan is literally a stationery-junkie’s paradise! From assorted washi papers, washi tapes, stickers, notebooks and the like you’re sure to find specially crafted paper items for you or family and friends to treasure. Japanese stationery frequently tops “best of” lists, and it’s easy to see why – the quality is of a very high standard!
Have you heard the story of Sadako Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes? She was two years old when the American atomic bomb was dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima in 1945. After about nine years Sadako and thousands of survivors developed leukaemia and other illnesses directly related to radiation from the bomb.
Japanese legend says that one shall be granted a wish if they fold 1,000 paper cranes, so she began folding. Her one wish was to live, which unfortunately did not come true despite exceeding the thousand cranes. Sadako’s story actually inspired the Children’s Peace Memorial in Hiroshima (I highly recommend visiting!) I was able to bring back a small paper crane from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which serves as a reminder of my visit to this significant city.
Tickets & Maps
This may seem pretty obvious but all those tickets and maps you collect during your visit to Japan are great little souvenirs! But, what to do with them when you return home? From DIY projects to scrapbooking to permanently displaying them in a meaningful way in your home, the possibilities are almost endless. Head over to my Pinterest page for some ideas and inspiration!
Textile Souvenirs from Japan
Furoshiki are usually a square textile cloth adorned with beautiful patterns. Literally translated, Furoshiki means “bath spread” – I’ll get to why in a moment!
As a very versatile item, these cloths have had many uses since they were first popular during the Nara period, around 700BC – so their uses date back a lonnnng time! From transporting treasures discovered in Japanese temples, to carrying bento boxes and even wrapping clothes in bath houses to avoid confusion… The uses for these cloths are almost endless. By also using the cloth as a bath mat, these cloths got their name as Furo means “bathing” and Shiki means “standing on a rug”.
With the invention of luggage and suitcases in the 20th century, furoshiki became less popular and almost forgotten in Japan. However, these days they’re making a comeback as people are looking for more sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to gift wrapping. And what a great history they have! Why not wrap your Japanese souvenir gifts in furoshiki cloth?
BONUS things you can only buy in Japan
As an exception to other items I’ve mentioned so far as these are obviously mass-produced, Japanese Kit-Kats are especially unique souvenirs because the flavour combinations are insane! From matcha (green tea) to cherry blossom, soy bean to sake, wasabi to miso, you’re bound to find a flavour that makes you curious enough to want to give it a try.
Tokyo Banana, Tokyo Honey Sugar Butter Cookies, Edo Musubisen and hundreds of other snacks are especially unique to Japan and make meaningful gifts for the sweet-tooth folk in your life (or for yourself to gorge on and reminisce about your trip when you get home)!
Did you know? Kit-Kats make popular gifts to wish students luck before exams in Japan. Every January (exam time) Nestlé noticed a surge in the sales of Kit-Kats. Turns out this was because Kit-Kat in Japanese sounds like the phrase “kitto-katsu”. When translated this means “to surely win” so customers wanted to pass this luck onto their loved ones!
If you know you’ll miss these tasty treats after you leave Japan, did you know you can have them delivered to your door directly from Tokyo? Find out how I did it using this Tokyo Treat discount code to save some money, too!
I know this seems like a pretty random souvenir but I have to admit like many things made in Japan, the quality of these umbrellas are almost unmatched. The “Waterfront” brand of umbrellas are especially awesome – their larger umbrellas have 24-prongs that make the umbrella super sturdy and also give them that traditional Japanese look.
Waterfront even make a pocket/handbag sized umbrella that folds down to only 22cm x 6cm x 2.5cm for about JPY 900. Perfect for us invisible tourists who like to fit things in our small crossbody bags! The clear plastic umbrellas you can buy from convenience stores for about JPY 500 are also very good quality.
Where to go souvenir shopping in Japan
Aside from the temples I’ve mentioned above, you’ll be able to find loads of locally-made souvenirs from Japan in the following locations. These souvenirs are rarely seen outside of the country so be sure to save some room for them in your suitcase!
Pssst, if you need help with your itinerary planning, be sure to check out my detailed guide to spending 2 weeks in Japan!
- Asakusa: Nakamise-dori, the long street lined with shops and stalls leading up to the grand Senso-ji temple. Here you’ll find lots of local food specialties, paper lanterns, umbrellas, lucky charms and even Samurai swords! Make your entrance onto this iconic street via the Thunder Gate.
- Tokyo Station: Famous for Tokyo Banana and loads of other unique Japanese treats!
- Harajuku: Takeshita-dori for quirky souvenirs and lucky charms. On Omote-sando, Oriental Bazaar is your one-stop shop for authentic Japanese goods such as kimonos, antiques, homewares and fans to name a few.
These places are mentioned in my 6 Days in Tokyo Itinerary if you’re interested in finding out more!
- Downtown: Sanjo Meitengai Shopping Arcade. This is where I found my gorgeous mugs I mentioned above. There are 7kms of shopping arcades that run parallel to Kawaramachi-dori and criss-cross between Sanjo-dori and Shijo-dori – you’re sure to find what you’re after!
- Gion: The gorgeous Sannenzaka & Ninnenzaka streets, leading up the hill to Matsubara-dori and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. There are many traditional wooden specialty stores along these streets that sell folding fans, snacks, green tea and other goodies. On the way back down from Kiyomizu-dera, head down Chawan-zaka or “Teapot Lane” if you’re after beautiful Japanese tea sets.
These places are mentioned in my 4 Days in Kyoto Itinerary if you’re interested in finding out more!
- Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Street is one of Osaka’s oldest shopping destinations. You’ll find a mix of independent boutiques along with chain stores here. Be sure to keep an eye out for matcha (green tea) items as these are popular souvenirs from Osaka.
- This is mentioned in my complete 3 Days in Osaka Itinerary if you’d like to find out more!
- Hon-dori Shopping Arcade for okinomiyaki-flavoured crackers (a type of Japanese omelette originating in Hiroshima), momiji manju (maple leaf cakes with various flavours of custard fillings) or rice scoop paddles, which are traditional handicrafts from this region and can be used as good luck charms or displaying in your home. All these items and more can be found here!
- Pick up a few souvenirs from Omotesando street. I bought a lovely a furoshiki cloth, tsuko-tegata and delicious sweets unique to the Hiroshima region such as Momiji-manju here.
- This is mentioned in my guide from Hiroshima to Miyajima by ferry!
Need more inspiration for Japan?
I can also help get your itinerary planning off to a good start by sharing my tips for visiting Japan as well as helpful insider info so you can make the most of your experience! Tailored especially for first-time visitors, these are my tried-and-tested personal itineraries I used during my trip.
They each cover things to do, costs, getting around, what to eat and recommendations for where to stay. View my full Japan archive here that includes my day-by-day travel guides for visiting Japan!
Concluding what to buy in Japan
Of course, these are just a snapshot of meaningful Japanese souvenirs to help you remember your trip. From wooden items to artworks and ceramics to paper goods, Japan’s rich and unique history is evident in each piece. It feels good knowing that your spending goes back into local jobs and businesses.
Obviously there are thousands of additional types of souvenirs you can find which can be a bit overwhelming (like different types of sake and mochi). But, I really wanted this souvenir guide to focus on the more traditional, hand-crafted items that are special and share the significance behind them.
What are your thoughts on these souvenir suggestions? Which pieces are your favourite or has this helped you decide what to buy in Japan? I hope you found this gift guide inspiring! If you did, I’d love if you could share it with your fellow Japan lovers. You’re also welcome to join me on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Bloglovin’ for more travel tips and inspiration!
Until next time,
Read my Tokyo Treat Review and use code ALYSE to receive a discount at the checkout!
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