Big (only) in Japan? Oshibori

August 25th, 2010 by Daniel Morales

A typical place setting with the oshibori on the right waiting to be enjoyed.

A typical place setting with the oshibori on the right waiting to be enjoyed.

Japan prides itself not only on cleanliness but also a heightened appreciation of the senses, and nowhere do these two meet more pleasurably than in oshibori – the moist hand towels that are used before meals. People living abroad may be familiar with this practice from sushi restaurants, but in Japan they are everywhere – at restaurants, coffee shops, Internet cafes, hotel lobbies, apartments and homes. There doesn’t always have to be a meal – sometimes oshibori are given to visitors at an office. In general the towels are heated, although during the summer months, cold towels are often used instead.

The initial goal of an oshibori is uncontroversial – the user takes the towel, unrolls it, wipes his or her hands and enjoys the steamy sensation that seems to clean and renew. Anyone who has ever used an oshibori, however, knows that the next thought most people have is, “I must have this wonderful sensation on the entirety of my body.” This is where the controversy begins. Many wipe their face with the towel, some go as far as rubbing down their neck and a few are bold enough to unbutton the top button on their shirt and wipe down their chest.

While this seems like a good idea, especially in the summer when one is often covered in sweat, Oshibori Ohkoku (Oshibori Kingdom) provides very clear limits in their description of oshibori manners: “When wiping the face, press the oshibori to the face only so that the warmth may be felt. Never wipe anywhere other than the hands or face!”

To assess the quality of your oshibori, take a whiff. Does it smell funky? You may have a moldy oshibori. If you smell a minty, floral or citrus scent, then you can rest assured that your oshibori has been treated with an aroma to heighten the sensory pleasure.

Perhaps due to hygienic reasons, perhaps because of convenience, many places use disposable oshibori that come in plastic wrap. These are similar to wet wipes and are also often included with bento lunches and with purchases at convenience stores across the country.

Oshibori folded and decorated into little birds.

Oshibori folded and decorated into little birds.

Oshibori have also created a huge industry associated with it. There are companies that collect, clean and deliver oshibori; trays to hold the towels; machines to keep the towels heated; and an izakaya in Utsunomiya has even trained a monkey to deliver the towels to customers.

While oshibori regulations might seem strict at first, Oshibori Ohkoku does know how to have fun: While you shouldn’t wipe up spills or clean your mouth of food with an oshibori, you can fold them into neat shapes as long as you return them to their original position. “Oshibori art” has generated many blogs, including “Sasa Blog,” where you can learn how to fold your oshibori into a Totoro.

How big are oshibori in your neck of the woods? As big as in Japan?

Photo: Charles Haynes (top), Daiji Hirata (bottom)

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3 Responses

  1. It probably depends on the company you’re keeping, but I think it’s more or less acceptable for oyaji (er, men) to wipe their faces with non-packaged oshibori, and I’ve often been told in the summer to “go ahead, wipe you face, it’s okay” by hosts. Going to the armpits a la sumo wrestlers though might be pushing it a bit.

    With the flat, pre-wrapped suckers — well, no holds barred as far as I’m concerned — neck, forehead, as a napkin for greasy mouths, no problem (though.

  2. It’s been 13 years since I lived in Nippon, but I still feel unclean sitting down to a meal in a restaurant here in Sydney without being able to reach for the trusty oshibori.

    There was a time when even in economy class (Qantas I recall, in the 1970s and early 80s), flight attendants would glide down the aisles before take-off handing out slightly cologned, chilled or heated hand towels, which were such a lovely way to start a flight and took the edge off the knowledge that you weren’t in business or first, but those days have long gone.

    I recall reading somewhere that some oshibori providers are front businesses for yakuza, and that as part of accepting the protection of a particular gang, the restaurant or cafe owner agrees to pay their protection money in the form of a contract with the oshibori provider. Can anyone confirm this, or is it an urban myth?

  3. It always good to have an oshibori cold or hot
    Cold for this blazing summer heat lately and hot to warm up in the winter time.
    Hygenic reasons
    Health reasons
    Removes germs
    And it’s just makes you feel much better overall
    Relieves stress and tension

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