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Still searching for that perfect gift from the Far East this holiday season?

Japan, South Korea and Okinawa offer a variety of unique items that showcase local culture and tradition, and most can be found on or near U.S. military installations.

Here are a few suggestions:


Chopstick rests: These come in several styles and shapes. The small, ceramic items typically depict animals, but they’re also frequently tied in knots. They make good decoration figurines.

Bonsai kits: Bonsai starter kits are packaged in a Japanese-style ceramic cup with soil and seeds. There are several kinds of plants. (Note: The U.S. Postal Service has some restrictions on sending plants, seeds and herbs from overseas, so check with your post office before mailing to the States.)

Ukiyo-e: Ukiyo-e prints are works of art that emerged in the 1600s during the early days of the Edo Period. They’re mostly woodblock prints focusing on entertainment centers and Kabuki theaters.

Kokeshi: Kokeshi dolls are wooden figures that feature a spherical head on a cylindrical body. They usually illustrate a girl’s face, with floral designs painted on the body.

South Korea

Pottery: Korean pottery, a traditional favorite, is judged by three characteristics: color, “sound” and texture. “Sound” signifies the tone a piece produces when flicked with a finger, while texture indicates smoothness. If it’s for display, the artist, year and creation method is important. For everyday use, see if the glaze is good, the structure is strong and the price reasonable. Pottery can be purchased at pottery villages, Insadong, the Hwanghakdong Flea Market or at festivals. The Incheon Pottery Village and Yeoju Pottery Village are the most famous.

Ginseng: Known as the “miraculous medicine,” ginseng is Korea’s traditional medicinal herb. Korean ginseng is called “Goryeo Ginseng” and is widely believed to strengthen the body and calm the mind. It can be purchased at the Gyeongdong Yaknyeong Market, Naemdaemun Market, duty-free shops and regional ginseng festivals. (Note: The U.S. Postal Service has some restrictions on sending plants, seeds and herbs from overseas, so check with your post office before mailing to the States.)

Kim: Kim is very thin, paperlike layers of dried seaweed that can be eaten with rice or by itself. Dried seaweed contains calcium, vitamins and carotenes and may be purchased at department stores, major discount marts and supermarkets. Namdaemun Market is also recommended for kim, which can be sampled at many stores. (See note above under "ginseng")

Antiques: Furniture, paintings, ceramics and books (especially those about archaeology and history) are among the most purchased antiques. Vanity stands, ceramic tea sets and eastern paintings also make great gifts. When purchasing antiques, be sure to consider the year of creation, artist or craftsman, condition and resale value. Antiques usually are found in Insadong, Janganpyeong Antique Art Market, Hwanghakdong Flea Market and Itaewon Antique Street.

Clothing: Clothing is a reliable holiday favorite. Consider the material, stitching quality, design and price before buying. Department stores, brand shops, outlets, Dongdaemun Market, Namdaemun Market, Myeongdong, Itaewon and stands in front of Ehwa Women’s University offer excellent selections.

Leather: Leather goods come in a wide variety, the most popular being clothing, shoes and bags. Department stores, Namdaemun Market, Dongdaemun Market and Itaewon are good places to find them. Many shops have their own factories, so custom goods can be ordered. When ordering, check several material samples before making a selection. Bring pictures from magazines if you want specific designs.

Jewelry: Diamonds, pearls, gold, silver and platinum will dazzle your gift recipient’s eyes. When buying, make sure to ask for certificates of guarantee and appraisal. Places to shop for jewelry include department stores, Jongno’s Jewelry Street, Gangnam’s Jewelry Wholesalers and Namdaemun’s Gift Market. Department stores carry luxury brands such as Tiffany, Bulgari, Cartier, Chaumet and Golden Dew, while less expensive counterparts can be found on Jongno’s Jewelry Street.

Electronics: Electronics, such as notebook computers, digital cameras, camcorders and MP3 players, can be picked up at department stores, the Yongsan Electronics Market, discount marts, Technomart and other locations. The Yongsan Electronics Market is famous for its wide selection and great prices. Computers, household appliances and game software are available, and there’s even a market for used goods. Most stores offer discounts for cash purchases.

Cell-phone chains: A modern Asian gift, cell-phone chains range from cute and cheap plastic to more expensive handcrafted offerings. Traditional Korean chains are popular gifts. They cost about two or three times more than regular chains, but many are beautifully designed with great workmanship.


Pottery: Dating to the 14th century, Okinawan pottery is known for its warm, earthy touch with lavish use of red enamel. Potters’ techniques were remarkably advanced when glazing was introduced by Korean potters in the 17th century, when the island prospered under the Kingdom of the Ryukyus. Tea cups, dishes, plates and flower vases are favorite items for tourists as well as locals.

Shi-shi: The shi-shi dog is a comical ceramic figurine often seen on the rooftops of Okinawan homes. Believed to ward off evil, it may be the most popular souvenir from Okinawa.

Lacquerware: The art of lacquer on Okinawa was established in the late 14th century. Ryukyu lacquerware is unique among Japanese lacquerware with its highly developed techniques that include raised appliqué, gilt-line engraving, mother-of-pearl inlay and gold-leaf appliqué. Its color is either black or red. Lacquerware produced during Okinawa’s political independence was mainly red, many say, but the color changed to black when the island was under foreign control.

Glassware: Ryukyu glassware is unique because of its air bubbles and crackle. Okinawa’s glassware history dates back about 100 years, but the modern technique of glass art was developed soon after World War II. Back when resources were scarce, craftsmen used discarded beer, Coke or other soft drink bottles from the U.S. military community. The bright colors — usually blue, green, orange and purple — represent the nature of Okinawa.

Bingata: Colorful dyed textiles illustrate Okinawa’s subtropical nature. The methods were introduced from Indonesia in the 14th century, when the Kingdom of the Ryukyus enjoyed a prosperous golden age through trade with Asian nations. Bingata was traditionally used as material for kimonos by court women and court dancers, who entertained envoys from China. It’s still used primarily to make expensive kimonos. Popular souvenir items made out of the textile are tablecloths, purses and hanging scrolls. Other fabrics and textiles include Kume-jima pongee, Yuntanza Hanaui, Ryukyus ikat and Bashofu. They were developed as material for kimonos, but their use has been expanded to fit modern life in items such as Western-style clothing, handbags, purses, shawls, neckties and wall ornaments.

Hana Kusumoto, Hwang Hae-rym and Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.


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