I need 20 itty-bitty American gifts to hand out in Japan
April 28, 2023 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm going on a 2 week budget ceramics tour of Japan this summer and our tour organizer told us to pack 15-20 (!) small gifts to hand out in Japan to various hosts and guides, etc. I'm only taking one backpacking backpack as luggage, as I'll also be responsible for carrying my elderly mother's rollerboard. What can I bring 20 Japanese strangers that is A: non-perishable in the heat B: won't take up much room in my bag C: will actually be something cool they'd enjoy?

I'm from the Southwest so ideally it would be a SW-themed item, but honestly if y'all told me stickers would be welcome in Japan, that's the thing I'd give. I don't know how adults in Japan feel about American stickers or if that's too insignificant to count as a "gift." I want to stay away from liquids (heavy, TSA-problem, could leak) and chocolate (will melt in heat) and anything fragile or bulky as I need 20 little things. Actually I'll need two sets of ideas as my mother doesn't know what to bring, either. Eek! Please help!
posted by egeanin to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am a sticker artist and I gave my stickers to the people I met when I was in Japan earlier this year and people seemed appreciative….
posted by heurtebise at 11:06 AM on April 28 [6 favorites]

My Texan sister recently gave me a tiny lapel pin of an armadillo wearing a cowboy hat. It is amazing. I could see something that cute and clever going over well in Japan.
posted by hessie at 11:18 AM on April 28 [24 favorites]

Best answer: Stickers are big in Japan, so that's a really good idea. Some sort of pop-culture cool stationery item would be fab.
posted by Grunyon at 11:19 AM on April 28

The first thing that pops into my mind are dream catcher earrings or necklaces. It really depends on the earrings because you don't know who has pierced or non-pierced ears.
posted by magnoliasouth at 11:20 AM on April 28

Reusable grocery bags. Specifically the ones that fold up to be really tiny
posted by MadMadam at 11:23 AM on April 28 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Lapel pins, stickers, postcards, lanyards and, coin pouches (coins are still very much used in Japan).
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 11:25 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]

Tequila lollipops with the worm might be fun.
posted by little striped mule at 11:36 AM on April 28

I love the idea of an armadillo wearing a cowboy hat but if that's too specifically Texan, here's a retro javelina. There are also tons of cute cactus pins on Etsy.
posted by kingdead at 11:43 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are super helpful ideas! I'm leaning towards a mix of SW-themed stickers, enamel pins, and cactus-shaped ballpoint pens.
posted by egeanin at 12:01 PM on April 28 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe a few fridge magnets in the mix? I love picking up magnets when I travel, or getting them as souvenirs of friends' travels.
posted by dorey_oh at 12:56 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's customary in Japan to give gifts of (1) a food item (because it's consumable, and hence imposes no storage obligation on recipients who live in very small spaces) that is (2) characteristic or a specialty of a particular location (in your case, your home town or region).
posted by heatherlogan at 12:57 PM on April 28 [10 favorites]

Hot peppers are recognizably Southwestern and light, if not tidy to pack.

I gave little pots of local honey on a similar visit, managed to put something recognizable as an attempt at pretty packaging on them, it went over well.
posted by clew at 1:17 PM on April 28

Enameled pins. US, regional, state themed magnets. US candy, like Smarties, SweetTarts, etc. Hot pepper and cactus are great items. Fun socks. State maps; your state's dept. of tourism might have swag.
posted by theora55 at 1:31 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]

Turquoise, maybe beads, tiny carved somethings, strands of seed beads, or even jewelry or DIY jewelry. Has natural beauty, can be turned into jewelry or kept in a keepsake box, will last, is very connected to your local culture.

If you get it from some native American source, you'll have an instant conversation starter, and you can show something of your real self by communicating how you think about or feel about your relationship to this art.
posted by amtho at 1:36 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Key-rings with some regional thing on them, like a cactus. I found lots on Etsy and Amazon.
posted by mareli at 2:08 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]

Wm Spear Design is a small pin design business in Juneau, Alaska, that makes very cool enamel pins, pendants, and zipper pulls.

I'm not from Juneau but his wares are also for sale at a local gallery in my town and when I am traveling I often pack a few of them because they are small, extremely portable, nicely packaged, and a bit unusual. I've had great success with them when I needed or wanted to give a token gift.

They might stretch your budget a bit if you're planning to give 20 of them, but perhaps as part of a mix of selections?
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:52 PM on April 28

Missed the edit window but: while a lot of the stuff sold by the vendor I named is Alaska-themed, not all of it is. If you're looking for a southwest connection, maybe consider the hummingbird designs in the bird collection.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:58 PM on April 28

As far as I know, the souvenirs (omiyage) can be *really* small and consumable. You could conceivably pick up a box of nice chocolates and present each person you meet with one (1) item from it. Double check with your tour organiser before following a random internet stranger's advice, though.
posted by wandering zinnia at 3:12 PM on April 28

Best answer: I wonder if a packet of chili seasoning (you know, the little one ounce flat packets made by McCormick and other spice companies) would be a good SW themed gift that might also be hard to come by in Japan? If you have access to a local purveyor of spices/food items, even better. These would be inexpensive, relatively non perishable, flat and lightweight for packing.
posted by little mouth at 3:23 PM on April 28 [7 favorites]

How about national park tokens? https://shop.grandcanyon.org/products/token-gc-4-pc-webstore
posted by bruinfan at 3:26 PM on April 28

Best answer: I would go with stickers!

I think that something like sheets of cactus stickers would be popular. It'd communicate 'SouthWest USA' without being too obscure, I think. If anything, you could explain that cacti are grown in the part of the USA where you are from. For example, this seller sells sticker packs by the number of stickers in the packs; here are their cactus stickers: https://www.etsy.com/listing/1274467043/5-200-cactus-plant-stickers

I would shy away from food items/spice mixes due to Customs issues.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:31 PM on April 28 [3 favorites]

Dreamcatchers are kinda problematic (cultural appropriation) so I wouldn’t get those. Stickers or magnets would be fun!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:35 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]

Best answer: They might find interesting some tea made from southwestern US plants, you can get prickly pear cactus tea in pretty silk tea bags and give one or two at a time wrapped in a bit of colorful tissue paper.
posted by little striped mule at 4:40 PM on April 28 [5 favorites]

Agave paper, 12 (3.1" x 4.1" sheets) for $6.40, other sizes there and here. Print designs or royalty-free illustrations, using templates; cut for keepsakes.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:11 PM on April 28

Best answer: I wonder if a packet of chili seasoning (you know, the little one ounce flat packets made by McCormick and other spice companies) would be a good SW themed gift that might also be hard to come by in Japan?

That spice mix has cumin in it, which the Japanese may not go for. I think some attempted Mexican restaurant chain's Japanese expansion failed because of it.

> You could conceivably pick up a box of nice chocolates and present each person you meet with one (1) item from it.

This would be counter-productive, even if they'll cut you much slack for not knowing their customs. Packaging is extraordinarily important in Japanese gift-giving, which I think goes back to Shinto. This primer on Japanese gift-giving looks useful:


An edible gift might be ideal - maybe the local souvenir prickly pear candies, or just find a local old-school candy shop have them package up a bunch of small boxes of their candied pecans or in colder conditions chocolates or some such. Especially if they have nice paper they wrap things with.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:17 PM on April 28 [3 favorites]

I think spice mixes would be a great idea!
I am not sure if cumin would be that much of a problem. It's sold in supermarkets here as an individual spice and in spice mixes
posted by karasu at 6:18 PM on April 28

Best answer: In my opinion, for East Asian cultural purposes, the classic non-food small presents are pens (cactus pens or other southwest themes would be excellent). If you want to bring a few spice mixes that would be a bonus, but lots of people wouldn't actually cook with them given the potential difficulty of sourcing the other ingredients. Nice bookmarks are also totally lovely gifts and very flat and light!
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:34 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]

Tea towels, themed for wherever you live. Some funky/retro ones, some with pretty local flora and fauna, and some more general USA-based ones. Light, pack up small, reasonably priced.
posted by Cuke at 7:58 PM on April 28

Best answer: I suggest mini bottles of Tajín, a chile-lime-salt seasoning (dry, not liquid). Enjoyable sprinkled on cut fruit or into a cold beer, really quite versatile.

The mini bottles are really teeny. Jeffy sells them in a 40-pack:

momazon link
posted by vortex genie 2 at 11:04 PM on April 28 [6 favorites]

I came to mention the exact same tiny Tajin bottles- they're not gendered, cute, exotic, consumable, southwestern, and pack like a dream.
posted by aint broke at 11:42 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here are the rules for what you can and can't bring into Japan - in the main, if it's packaged it's OK, but there are some surprising exceptions (walnuts!), so do check.

I found someone selling cactus-shaped prickly-pear-flavoured lollipops, and I was going to suggest those, but it turns out that greta simone already did.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:59 AM on April 29

Best answer: Some of the most requested/appreciated gifts I've given to Japanese friends and family:

- reusable grocery bags (aka "eco-bag")-- maybe Trader Joe's has a Southwestern-themed one?
- nuts (usually more expensive there than in the USA)
- spice mixes (one relative specifically requested the Trader Joe's taco spice blend...)

Obviously, do check the customs rules to see what would be allowed.

If this is a ceramics tour, perhaps something like those miniature Southwestern pottery magnets? Or other little souvenir things that involve Southwest crafts or turquoise, etc...(Packing-wise, it should work if you keep these small and secure them in enough bubblewrap so they don't clack around.)

Bandannas? Bonus idea: Get bandannas as one set of gifts, something else as the other set of gifts, and wrap the item in the bandannas like a furoshiki! Solves the "presentable packaging" issue when the wrapping is the gift!

Another tip: Add a small card or greeting note to each gift (doesn't have to be fancy, even just a slip of paper with your name and a brief "Hello! I hope you enjoy this [gift] from [place, USA]" would be great). Japan's big on greetings so having a simple note would add a great personal touch.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 5:53 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]

Stickers, magnets, bookmarks, pens, coin purses, soap. Local/SW-themed is best. I like the suggestion above about giving a handwritten note or card.
posted by emd3737 at 7:32 AM on April 29

Yeah, I was going to say Trader Joe's bags. But they're not that compact.
posted by bluesky78987 at 8:38 AM on April 29

Magnets might be good. There are so many really nice looking ones
posted by gt2 at 9:18 AM on April 29

Best answer: Prickily pear cactus chapstick?
posted by raccoon409 at 10:20 AM on April 29

If you go for stickers, i always recommend the very cool window stickers that create rainbows in your room when the sun shines. Here's an example. The recipient will think of you each time the rainbows appear :-)
posted by PardonMyFrench at 6:32 AM on April 30

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