Learn about the surprisingly lively world of oshibori, the hand towel felt ’round the world.
Treat yourself to a meal at any mid-to high-range Japanese restaurant, and your experience will inevitably start with the warm, clean welcome of an oshibori, a hand towel whose name comes from the word shiboru (絞る), which means “to wring.” It’s also sometimes called otefuki (お手拭き), which literally means “hand cleaner.” Your server will usually bring the towels elegantly arranged in a basket or on a special plate. The towels, which are mostly made from cotton, are moistened with warm water and neatly rolled up. Customers use oshibori to clean their hands, and the warmth gives you a nice, cosy feeling before you select your food and drinks.
This standard practice of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, has recently become popular in countries around the world, but there’s so much more to the towel than meets the eye. Cotton oshibori are usually served warm, but during the summer you’ll be given a cool one instead, a refreshing treat in Japan’s sweltering humidity. Some restaurants add lemon juice to their hot towels for degreasing and fragrance purposes, but the scent is usually subtle.
And they’re not just available at high-class restaurants. Oshibori are offered at bars, hotels, on airplanes, in salons and even at convenience stores, though the style might vary from place to place. On airplanes, for example, attendants pass out warm oshibori with silver tongs, while more everyday venues, like the convenience store, offer pre-moistened, disposable versions individually wrapped in plastic.
While versions of oshibori have been around since ancient times, their use in the hospitality industry began in the 1600s at post stations along the five major highways, where innkeepers would offer towels to weary travellers stopping for rest and entertainment. These days, oshibori have expanded beyond a business service, and many people make a habit of carrying their own, often colourfully designed oshibori in specially made cases.
Beneath the practical appeal of oshibori, these towels have become something of a cultural phenomenon. For the really wild stuff, you can go to an izakaya in Tochigi Prefecture, where your oshibori is served … by a monkey (hopefully with clean hands). Not willing to travel for towel culture? Luckily, there are many blogs and vlogs devoted to “oshibori art,” where you can learn how to fold your towel into a rabbit, bird or even Totoro! Oshibori are even used to create impromptu after-dinner puppet shows. It may sound silly, but in the hands of a skilled artist, these unassuming white towels really come to life, dancing and singing with astonishing grace. One professional puppeteer, Yasutaka Nakamura, even offers lessons.
Wipe right for love (of good manners)
Are you an oshibori first-timer? No worries! Just follow these three steps to some good, clean fun.
DO NOT go for the pits
It’s OK to wipe your hands, or even your face, but never, ever wipe your armpits. No one wants to see that.
DO fold after using
Don’t just toss your oshibori carelessly aside—roll or fold it and place it on its tray while you eat.
DO NOT go for the double
You may be a dirty bird, but it’s un-heard of to ask for another oshibori after you’ve already used one.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe