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Buying souvenirs while traveling may not seem that complicated at first glance — just pick up some tchotchkes at the airport or whatever, right? Sure. But if you want to minimize wasted money and maximize enjoyment of your keepsakes when you get home, the buying process needs a little more thought.
After I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, I applied the KonMari Method™ of keeping only items that spark joy to basically everything in life. This was especially helpful when I asked myself if an item sparked joy before I purchased anything.
When my husband and I planned our first trip to Japan last spring, I was worried that my lifelong obsession with the country would result in me buying all the things.
But I wanted to avoid my previous habit of wasting a bunch of money on items I don’t actually want. With many past purchases, I would buy something just because I liked it. I didn’t need any other or deeper reason than that; if I liked it, I bought it. But I eventually came to realize that liking something isn’t the same as feeling joy — and isn’t enough reason to buy. While many souvenir shops in Japan were full of items that were cute or fun, I found that mass-produced trinkets didn’t truly spark joy.
With this in mind, I set an intention at the beginning of the trip to only bring home items that truly brought joy. The methods below were quite successful for me in only bringing home meaningful souvenirs from Japan.
While everyone has different preferences and budgets, I’m offering these tips to illustrate what worked for me; maybe you could use the same ideas or adjust them to your needs and budget.
Here are the 3 basic guidelines that I followed to only bring home souvenirs that truly sparked joy then and continue to do so now, almost a year later.
3 things I kept in mind
1. Items connected to an experience are the best souvenirs.
When we took a kintsugi class with Deeper Japan in Kyōto and a papermaking class in Kochi, we were able to bring home our patched-up pottery and handmade paper; these are now items that are proudly displayed in our home.
One of my favorite items I brought home is an ekiben, or a lunch box to eat on the shinkansen (bullet train). It could be considered mundane to some, but this jar reminds me of riding the shinkansen to Tōkyō, which was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Bonus tip: If you know you’ll be buying a lot of things to take home, pack light or bring an empty hard-sided suitcase and utilize dirty laundry for protecting those fragile items.
2. Items don’t have to cost a lot — or anything — to be meaningful.
I don’t know about you, but I’m basically still a child inside and adore stickers. This worked out in my favor because stickers were everywhere in Japan, and I was able to obtain some for free when restaurants and other businesses gave them away. Stickers were easy to find since most stores and gift shops sold them, and they were also inexpensive and easy to pack.
We also stayed at an amazing onsen ryokan (traditional hot spring hotel) in the countryside, and they provided a small towel for the hot spring, which I now use at home.
3. Items that can be used in everyday life have more opportunity to spark joy when you return home.
I generally prefer to buy items that strike a good balance of form and function. For example, one of my favorite items from Japan is a small pink towel from Kochi Castle. Every time I use this towel to wash my face, I am reminded of how we lucked out finding the castle and stumbling upon their amazing cherry blossom festival.
3 things I tried not to do (or shouldn’t’ve done)
1. If you can afford it, don’t eliminate an item based on price alone.
I really wanted to visit the Ukiyoe Small Museum in Kyōto that was only open when the owner felt like it and closed when the owner “had enough,” as his sign read. But I didn’t get my hopes up since I’d read about travelers who tried multiple times with no luck. The day that we went, the weather was cold, it was later in the evening, and maybe half of the places we wanted to visit that day were closed even though they were scheduled to be open. But when we arrived at the museum, we were shocked to find the door open and the 70-something-year-old man huddled near his space heater bundled up in a beanie and jacket.
We bought a beautiful print from him that was about $150 USD, which was the most money I spent on any one thing on this trip. Supporting a local artist and the beautiful reminder of this serendipitous experience is absolutely worth it.
Bonus tip: At least in Japan, always carry cash. Many merchants didn’t accept credit cards, and especially in this case, I would have been super bummed to miss out on this art just because we didn’t have cash on hand.
2. Don’t restrict by size or category of thing.
Buying keepsakes while traveling has a natural limitation because you can only bring home what you can fit in your suitcase unless it’s worth paying to ship home. On this trip, I definitely kept in mind what I could fit into my suitcase and what I’d be willing to carry in my backpack, but I also didn’t eliminate an item based on size alone.
On the flip side, I didn’t purchase a few items because, although they brought me joy, they were not actually functional. I came to regret this after returning home and, even now, I think about a vendor that sold small red octopus plushies wearing various hats and headbands. I don’t know why I liked them so much, but I passed them up and wish I hadn’t when I got home. I even tried to find them online but couldn’t. Which leads us to the next point…
3. Don’t assume you’ll be able to buy it online later.
The idea that you can buy anything online is sometimes true, but buying online is not guaranteed and definitely not the same as buying while you’re there.
Especially if something is rare or very specific to the place you’re visiting, don’t assume you’ll be able to find a vendor that would be willing to export to your home country. For next time: if I’m there, if I can afford it, and if I love it, I’ll buy it. If it’s too big to take on the plane but I love it enough, I’d even consider shipping it home if I can afford the expense at the time. I’m mostly glad I didn’t find anything big enough that I would have had to ship home because I would have had to give it serious consideration.
Using the KonMari Method at home before the trip was beneficial because I was already able to tune into that spark of joy when choosing souvenirs abroad. We somehow still managed to fill a small suitcase, but we came home with much less stuff than I expected — and zero junk. Everything we took home brings joy when I use them to this day. Since these points served me well during our incredible trip to Japan, I’ll keep them in mind for our next foray, wherever that may be.