The History of Wet Towels (Oshibori) in Japan

The O-shibori is simply a wet hand towel supposedly known to provide a means to cleanse one’s self in the absence of running water. Generally, it is known to provide comfort and is a tell-tale sign of great service. It is common to see this being served in Japanese restaurants, bars, airports, and even long-distance trains (like the Shinkansen).

Simply put, an Oshibori is a small, white towel which had been soaked in clean water (either cold or hot). The water is then wrung out keeping the towel damp but not dripping. It will then be folded, or rolled before being placed inside plastic bags or containers to keep it damp for use.

The word Oshibori is believed to have been derived from the word ‘shiboru’ which directly translates to ‘to wring’. In some parts of Japan, instead of the word Oshibori they use O-tefuki which means ordinary handkerchief.

What many people don’t know is the fact that the provision of Oshibori to guests is a custom which dates back to Edo period Japan. It is given to noble guests as a means of showing hospitality. The guest can either use it for cleaning his hands or for providing comfort for the face during summer (cool towels) and winter (hot towels).

In the early 1600s, oshibori were popular in tea houses. These are given to travelers who stop by tea houses to rest after a long journey. Since this was seen as a heartwarming gesture, the custom easily spread out all over Japan and stayed for centuries to come. It is now considered as one of the standard gesture of hospitality in any Japanese establishment.

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