Cookie Culture

I sat down at work yesterday and today to desks full of these:

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The pile of snacks I came back to at the middle school. Minus one, I think, because I couldn’t wait and ate it already. Can you spy Mt. Fuji?

Whenever you travel in Japan, it’s customary to bring back gifts for your coworkers (and probably friends, since leaving them out would be unfriendly). Although most of the other teachers who traveled didn’t take off as much time as I did (I went home for the entire month of August), they never fail to bring back a box of individually packaged snacks from whatever region they visited. Because of this custom, you can buy these gifts (called omiyage) at any airport, tourist area, major station, or Shinkansen (bullet train) station in Japan.

Each region is famous for a different food, snack, flavor, or character, some better known than others, and the packaged snacks try to showcase those aspects. The dark blue packaged snack above with white snowflakes on it is called 白い恋人 or “white lover(s),” and is a well-known snack from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.

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A picture of eastern Hokkaido in the winter when I did a homestay there during study abroad. It’s pretty cold. I’ve heard that some people still think Japan is a tropical island…please burn this image into your mind, haha.

Since I’m an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), work at three different schools, and particularly because am not Japanese (technically haha), no one “expects” me to bring back gifts; but I do anyway, because I try to be like the other teachers when I can ^^

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The elementary school did not disappoint, hahaha.

I’ve read from other JETs that bringing gifts back is like “permission” to talk about your trip, and I suppose that could be true, but I like to bring back gifts as well, and the gift-giving culture here makes it really easy to do that affordably. Since it’s expected that people will need to be bringing things back from their trip, there’s always shops selling boxes of different numbers of snacks (6, 10, 14, 30, etc), and you can buy the number you’ll need. It’s so much simpler than trying to think of something “new” to give everyone every time you go on a trip–you just have to find a different kind of snack, and there’s no shortage of variety there.

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Shops like this one on Miyajima carry boxes of packaged snacks to buy and bring back with you.

This time, on my grandma’s suggestion, I brought back a box of small Jelly Belly sample-sized packets. They’re local (CA), they’re from my area even if you can buy them in other areas, they’re uncommon in Japan as far as I can tell (although people seem to know what they are), and they aren’t too heavy. You can get a box of 80 packets for about $30, and if you go to the Vacaville outlets store on a Tuesday with someone over 55, you can get a 1/3 off discount on most things in the store! :O This idea had never occurred to me before, and so if you’re looking for something creative to give to your coworkers or Japanese friends, they have a lot of other fun and very give-able and American-looking items at their store. (There’s even a small American flag printed on the packets, haha.)

A final thought on the snack-giving culture, if you would call it that: Sometimes the snacks are really nice, and sometimes they’re the most “normal” thing ever, although the packaging is always nice. I think about it sometimes when I’m eating them–either, “Wow, this is really unique and interesting!” or “Wow, I could probably get 100 of these thin butter cookies in a plastic bin at Costco for 5 bucks at home”; but the thing is, when I’m just pulling cookies out of a big bin like that, I’m not really appreciating what I’m eating because there’s 100 of them and they’re not really special (the challenge there, actually, is just not to eat too many and get sick). Having the snacks individually packaged, and to have one of each different kind, helps me enjoy each one. It’s kind of like what I said about the sports drink in an earlier post, but the rarity of the cookie makes you enjoy it, no matter what it is. If you’re going to eat a thin wafer cookie, it’s more fun to take it out of a pretty package and enjoy it than eat 10 out of a box without thinking about it; at least, in my opinion.

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