Souvenirs

“These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” Joshua 4:7b

omiyageOne of the first words I learned to spell as a child was not “cat,” “hat,” “run” or something similarly simple, but rather, the longer word “souvenirs.” During our long family summer road trips, traveling in an unairconditioned car across the vast expanses of America, the junior members of our family were always hot, desperately bored and hungry. In my childlike mind, the all-encompassing solution to this chronic problem was found in the word “souvenirs.” This mindset was developed after I had been duly instructed by my all-knowing older brother and sister to be on the lookout for souvenirs signs. Once one was spotted, the usual strategy was to launch into an immediate chorus begging our parents to stop and curtail our suffering. From experience, we knew that places that sold souvenirs were always air conditioned, had public restrooms (a selling point to our mother), sold candy and ice cream and, more importantly, stocked lots of toys and trinkets called “souvenirs” to take our minds off of our unending misery. Looking back, I seriously doubt if I could spell the word “souvenirs,” but I knew it began and ended with an “s” and was a long word that represented something I had to have!

Although the Japanese word omiyage (お土産*; more frequently written asおみやげ) is translated as “souvenir,” it serves a very different purpose from what I learned as a child. In the West we generally buy souvenirs for ourselves as memories of special vacations or getaways, but the Japanese are expected to buy them as gifts for their family, friends and colleagues. Stores and shops throughout Japan cater to this tourist tradition by offering a wide variety of local produce, cookies, sweets and other regionally unique culinary creations. Each omiyage comes especially gift wrapped in paper indicating the area, town or special attraction where it was purchased and thus provides evidence of one’s trip. The omiyage is a subtle reminder that you were thinking of the recipient while you were gone and additionally serves as a partial compensation for any inconveniences you may have caused by your absence.

In the Book of Joshua, an interesting event (Joshua 4) is recorded marking the end of a forty-year road trip through the wilderness following the nation’s rebellion against God (Numbers 13-14). According to the instructions by Joshua, a representative was chosen from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to carry a stone from the middle of the dry Jordan river bed after the entire nation had miraculously crossed over to the other side. With these stones, they proceeded to build a memorial in the promised land that served as a type of omiyage of their journey. Its purpose was to provide a standing reminder to both present and future generations of the faithfulness of God. Perhaps this is a good example to keep in mind ourselves when we are called to trust God in new and deeper ways as we cross “rivers” standing between us and the promises of God. These are faith stories worth remembering, worth thanking God for and certainly worth passing on to the next generation as they collect their own omiyage.

*Although the word is usually translated as “souvenir,” it means literally “product of the land.”