In Japan they have a lovely word for the tradition of bringing a small hostess gift (or, more specifically, a small "remembrance"): omiyage. There are many explanations of omiyage to be found, but this one is the most fun. It's from the Yamasa Institute, one of the foremost Japanese language centers in Japan:
Like anywhere else, there are a number of social obligations in Japanese society, and one of the most common ones you'll run into is omiyage. Most easily translated as "souvenir," omiyage is somehow both more and less than that.
Any time you go on a trip or go to an unusual event, it is expected that you will return bearing gifts. However, most of these gifts are not things to be kept and cherished, but rather food to be quickly consumed and forgotten - space is at a premium in Japan, and so the best gift is something that takes up little space, preferably none. Sure, there is the odd ear cleaner for your grandfather or mobile phone strap for your girlfriend, but since you need to have something for everybody in the class or office, the most common item is a box of small confectionaries. Ideally these sweets are a local specialty of whatever place you travelled to, or otherwise represent that place in some way, but often they are just cakes or chocolates that some company has put in a shiny box.
In fact, the actual contents of the gift don't really matter. In a perfect example of "it's the thought that counts," everyone will happily accept your gift and exclaim that it is indeed very delicious. It doesn't matter that even though you went to Hokkaido, you actually bought your omiyage at Narita Airport. The point is, you went away and returned bearing a box of over-priced mochi.
And yes, some of the fancier omiyage can carry quite a high price tag. A standard choice box of ten or fifteen sweets can go for anywhere from 500 yen to 5000 yen, depending on the place you went, the actual quality of the omiyage, and if there's a really nice picture of Mt. Fuji on the box.
To pick an exceptional example, when I go to watch live Sumo matches, it's not uncommon to look around and see people carrying large shopping bags full of omiyage. These people already payed upwards of 10,000 yen per ticket just to get in, and they can easily spend twice that on omiyage.
So what's the point? Well, in the end it's probably the same reason that people in the West bring back T-shirts for their kids when they travel abroad, just taken in a bit different direction. But thankfully, you don't usually need to spend more than 1000 or 2000 yen to take care of your office or classmates. And when you're on the receiving end, you don't get stuck with a T-shirt that says "I Love Sumo!"
Which brings us now to my current situation: OMG (OMiyaGe)! What to bring to Japan. It matters not that I have only one friend there (Akiko) from high school. The Texan in me knows that I am sure I will want to give something to someone at some point. And shouldn't that something come from the good old U.S.A.? Unfortunately, "a box of small confectionaries" immediately conjures up childhood images of the small Whitman's sampler boxes in Mama Rubye's parlor (yes, she did have a parlor, it was Texas, honey). My grandmother, Mama Rubye, was also keen on small packages of peanut M&Ms and Chicklets gum. Somehow none of these seems right for omiyage.
Honestly, I never liked the Whitman's sampler, so I am a bit wary of taking a little box of candy, no matter the brand. The mini Whitman's sampler only has 2 chocolates inside. Two. And one of them is usually filled with orange cream. The yellow box with fake quilting was always so much more promising than the contents, and though I adore peanut M&Ms and Chicklets, they don't seem quite sophisticated enough. Lucky for me, it's a magical time of year here in the U.S.A.: Girl Scout Cookie Time! What could say "I'm thinking of you" better than a box of Thin Mints? Actually, what it says is "I am so obsessed with making a good impression that I am giving you what amounts to a box of gold, so please open it now and give me one of the two columns of cookies. Now. Please. And have a nice day."
However, I only have a few boxes of Thin Mints (and their lesser cousins, Samoas and Trefoils), so I knew I would have to come up with a few other ideas. After consulting with my dear friend, Sawami, who is Japanese but now lives in...New Jersey (!?)...I learned that a few very popular U.S. items in Japan include maple syrup (seems obvious now that I've said, it right?), pancake mix, and lemonade mix. (My oldest child's comment on the lemonade mix: "MOM! Don't they know you make it from real lemons?!" God bless his little American heart.) So, here's what we've got so far:
The best part of that picture is the Girl Scout herself. Can't you just hear the girl exclaiming "THIN MINTS! YEA!" Looking at her I realize: there will be kids. What do I do for the kids? Specifically, I am thinking of the kids on the boys' baseball teams. As wonderful as Thin Mints are, there must be something better. And you know what? There is
If I had to choose which to receive, it's a toss up. I guess I'd have to go with Thin Mints or the Lego Mini Figure. I think in this case that I would go for the Thin Mints. More fattening, yes. But the Mini Figure is Series 7. Series 6 Mini Figures were much cooler. But really, it's the thought that counts.