Doug Breath explains all you need to know about oshibori
Hot and steamy, or cold and minty, the oshibori – a wet hand towel – is one of Japan’s simplest pleasures. But have you ever given much thought to what they are all about? My guess is – no you have not!
So I am here to give you a little history and some manners to obey. Listen up people, this is important stuff we are about to discuss!
But what is an oshibori really…?
Well for those of you who have just arrived, or for the droves of heathen gaijin who read this rag, I will explain.
A typical oshibori, made of cloth, is dampened with water and wrung. It is then placed on the dining table for customers to wipe their hands before or during the meal. The oshibori is often rolled or folded and given to the customer often on some kind of tray. Even if a tray is not used, it is usually rolled up into a long, thin shape.
For those who have lived in Japan for a while, receiving an oshibori is just part of the culture. For some it is a relatively simple convenience to which they give little thought or appreciation. However for others it embodies the Japanese love of cleanliness and hospitality. But where did it come from you ask? What is the correct way to use it you wonder? “Tell me more!!!” you say.
Take it easy people! I’m about to tell you all of that and more. Geez…!
First a little background. An oshibori is offered to customers in places such as restaurants or bars, and used to clean one’s hands before eating. Oshibori have long been part of hospitality culture in Japan. In the Tale of Genji era, it was used for visitors. During the Edo period it was used in hatago – Edo period lodgings for travelers at shukuba (post stations) along the national highways – later, it started to be used in many restaurants. It eventually spread to worldwide use.
Cold oshibori are used in summer, and hot oshibori in winter. Oh and here’s a fun fact – October 29 has been observed as the day of oshibori since 2004! Woot! Partay!
But on to the woozy controversy surrounding the use and abuse of oshibori! Many foreigners, and even a lot of Japanese, are ignorant of oshibori etiquette. This is quite shameful really.
The proper way to use an oshibori is to wipe your hands, and once you’ve finished using it, neatly refold it and place it on the table or the tray it came in beside you – don’t just scrunch it up and throw it anywhere!
Pressing an oshibori against your face to feel the soothing warmth or refreshing coolness of the towel is acceptable. But here is where people get lustful and exhibit sloth, throwing decency to the wind, and naturally feckless gaijin are the worst offenders!
While it is OK to wipe your face and under certain circumstances – your neck with an oshibori, this precept is often abused to the point where I have seen people unbutton their shirt to rub the sweat off of their chest and underarms – this is pretty blatantly against the oshibori code of etiquette (O.C.E.). I can see people telling themselves “I must have this wonderful sensation over my whole body.”
Please people – book a room and do that in private if you must. Enough with the blatant public display of self pleasure! Egh!
Neither are you to use the oshibori to wipe up spills or clean up the table – this is another widely abused rule and I have seen drunken patrons wipe up beer and spilled food with them. I have even seen people ask waiters for MORE oshibori after doing this, casually acting as if their behavior is perfectly acceptable. True! I have seen this with my own eyes! More than once!
Sorry folks this is not acceptable. This is a crime of the highest order and if you do this it makes you a bad person and, well, it makes me sad that you would treat such a kindly thing as an innocent oshibori in such a despicable way.
All of these rules must seem to take all the fun out of oshibori. But fear not! You are allowed to practice origami with them and there’s even a guy who has a blog where he makes one into a miniature Totoro! (look it up if you have to).
Finally a few words about the awesome yet under-appreciated oshibori. Just remember that culture has meaning and revering a culture means respecting the rules. Be kind to your oshibori and never, ever take it for granted!