One of the perks of my job in Japan is the option of a free return flight to the UK at the end of every semester. My dilemma in returning to my ancestral home is that I’ve sort of run out of souvenirs to buy. What do you get friends and family when they’ve already got sake cups, geisha dolls and trinkets from various temples?
Popular souvenirs for good luck include the maneki-neko and daruma.
I suppose the word I should be using in this article is Omiyage (お土産) which roughly means ‘a gift brought back from your travels.’ These are super-important in Japan (as is gift giving in general) so you’ll see them in ready supply at all tourist destinations. They often take the form of confectionary in very nicely presented boxes.
These are all well and good but if you’re in the market for something your loved ones will relish more than bean paste cookies or a predictable set of chopsticks, here are five rare items I’ve come across in my travels that really get under the skin of Japanese culture. They all make excellent gifts.
Behold, exotic treasures from the far east…
1) Young girls licking doorknobs book
What? It’s Japan. They really like young girls. And apparently, young girls really like doorknobs.
Perfect for coffee tables.
2) Blackman Underwear
For the negro in your life. Or not.
Check out the description on the back. 'It is a nice taste'. Maybe I should get back into copywriting?
If that’s not your style, you could try these trunks.
Or identify your intentions with this brand. A pair of these would probably go well with the doorknobs book.
All available at Don Quijote, a massive tax-free store throughout Japan.
3) This book
The title translates as ‘English words that will never be in exams’ and it’s a perfect example of how awesome Japanese humour can be, simultaneously dry and surreal. It’s an illustrated collection of obscure or profane language used out of context but in grammatically correct sentences. It’s meant as a joke rather than a study aid, although I suppose you could use it to increase your knowledge of idioms and slang...
Attention Japanese people: I’m available for private lessons. Study from a textbook of your choice.
As an English teacher who understands how students have studied the language for years at school by quietly copying dull grammar points into their workbook whilst also having it rammed down their throat how important it is, the ludicrousness of this book makes perfect sense. I think it’s a clever piss-take of how English is taught and also helps explain things like the PPAP (Pen Pineapple Apple Pen) video.
4) Kancho figures
Throughout Japan there are ‘Gachapon’ vending machines that sell capsule toys. The name is onomatopoeia, ‘gacha’ being the sound of the handle turning and ‘pon’ the sound it makes when the toy drops out.
The toys themselves run the gamut from cute to crazy, including everything from army men to cat sushi.
You wouldn’t find one of these inside a Kinder Egg.
Then one day, I saw these.
Yup, those are small figurines with their fingers pointing out so you can plug them into their butts to make a chain. Kind of like the Human Centipede, but for children. This one definitely needs some explanation…
In Japan (Korea and Taiwan too actually) there’s a kids' game called ‘Kancho’ where you put your index fingers together and try to poke people in the ass. It’s meant to be a prank and it’s often played on foreign English teachers in Japanese schools. This may or may not be why I choose to teach at a university instead.
Best practice dictates that you sneak up on the victim and yell “KAN-CHO!!” as loud as you can before you try to penetrate them. You can't do this in your home country because it’s basically sexual assault, but you can buy the entire set of toys to take home.
It includes an aging salaryman, a schoolgirl (obviously), an office lady, a cool guy who sort of looks like Johnny Bravo, and two people in pink and brown bear costumes. Why bear costumes? Not a clue.
I tried to get the whole collection but started doubling up before I could snag the office lady. If anybody out there wants to trade, please leave a comment below. For real.
Available at Tokyu Hands in Shibuya.
5) Flavoured Kit-Kats
These really are a ‘nice taste’.
Fine, I suppose I should include one that’s not completely bizarre.
There are over 300 flavours of Kit-Kat in Japan, from Apple to Yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit somewhere between an orange and a lemon). They're often given as gifts for students before exams because of the Japanese phrase Kitto Katsu, which translates as “you will surely win!”
After realising that this is why people were buying them, Nestle doubled down on the marketing. Now there are also seasonal varieties, such as cherry blossom flavour available in the spring sakura season, and stranger tastes such as wasabi available for the brave.
If you pick up a pack - and I highly recommend you do - don’t expect your friends at home to respond with as much enthusiasm as the Japanese would when presented with this gift. Recently I gave a bag of my favourite green tea Kit-Kats to a friend who graciously said they were the worst thing he’d ever tasted and that he wouldn't give one to his worst enemy.
Next time he’s getting a kancho toy and a suggestion of where to put it.
Image credit: Me, Nerdist, allabout-japan.com, jpninfo.com, amazon.co.jp, Wikimedia Commons