Japan is, in many ways, one of the most modern and technologically advanced countries in the world. It is home to many of the world’s most innovative companies and is a pioneer in the modern economy. Indeed, visitors traveling to Japan are usually very impressed with the modern buildings, high- speed trains, and great quality electronics.
However, Japan also remains a place in the world which embraces and preserves its traditions. Japan has been a sovereign power for centuries and has spent large periods of that time with little influence from invasion or foreign involvement. Therefore, its traditions are very historical and uniquely Japanese.
One traditional item which goes back thousands of years is the traditional towel, known as the ‘tenugui’ towel. Although the exact place of origin of the tenugui is not known for sure, it is clear this item is very traditional and has been a part of everyday Japanese life for a long time.
The tenugui cloth is usually made of a thin layer of cotton and is shaped in a long and rectangular way. This differs from the Japanese handkerchief, which is smaller. The patterns on tenugui towels tend to be repetitive all-over designs or have a big motive spread over the whole fabric. The size is standardized and is usually 35 by 90 centimeters.
The “tenugui” cloth has a great variety of purposes. Nowadays, although it is often replaced by small towels and handkerchiefs, it still draws attention as a convenient and eco-friendly tool!
It will usually become softer when used often, and due to its light-weight texture, it is extremely convenient. Mainly used as a towel, it can also serve as gift-wrapping material and works also as a nice gift or souvenir itself.
Another usage would be wrapping delicate things when storing them at home or transporting them, such as seasonal decorations or fragile china. It can also save lives and be a great help in emergencies.
Examples of how it can be used in emergencies include being used as a rope, an arm sling, a bandage, a mask, underwear, a wrapping bag, and a back warmer. The tenugui can also transform a regular bag into a backpack, or it can be an apron, sun protecting headgear or even a muffler or scarf in cold weather!
Since the popularity of tenugui cloth is increasing, designers have come up with modern and popular patterns in addition to the traditional motifs which are usually seen on tenugui towels.
You might have seen some Japanese people wearing a towel type bandana as a kind of headband. Those are usually hachimaki cloths （鉢巻, “helmet-scarf”) and differ from tenugui cloths by their size and rather limited purpose. Hachimaki cloth is worn on the head as a symbol of meditating, effort, or courage by the wearer.
Performers of kendo usually use tenugui cloth for hair protection before wearing the mask, which protects the face. Japanese drum players (wadaiko, わだいこ 和太鼓) on the other hand, use Hachimaki.
There are various other types of Japanese headgear. Which is your favorite?
Regardless of what you may want to use your tenugui towel for, you are sure to be able to find many uses for it! If you are just visiting Japan, one of these towels would make a perfect gift or souvenir or yourself or friends and family, and are beautiful whilst at the same time having practical uses!
You can find these towels all over Japan, at general stores, to markets, to souvenir shops around sightseeing spots. You can find all sort of traditional or modern designs, and can get them really cheap, too!