Oshibori (Hot Towel) and Hospitality Culture in Japan

  • If you ever visited a middle to high class Japanese restaurant, you most likely would be handed a pack of white hot towels in a basket before they serve you any drink or appetizer. In most cases, people do not have any idea what to do with it and would look to others for some guidance. This is common especially if you are a tourist or newcomer to Japan. The white hot towels are called oshibori (おしぼり), literally translated from “wet wipe”. Today, oshibori is not only used in the high-class restaurant, but also in other sectors of the service industry such as airlines, hotels, salons and spas.

    The origin of oshibori

    The term oshibori comes from the Japanese verb shiboru (絞る), meaning “to wring”. Oshibori are also known as otefuki, where tefuki (手拭き) refers to a handkerchief. It was started in the Edo period around the 1600s, as the use of oshibori (hot towels) became popular in tea houses. A piece of cloth was soaked in water and given to travelers who stopped by to rest. The warmth and cleanliness of the cloth was a heartwarming gesture to them. Not long after that, the popularity of oshibori rapidly spread in the modern era of Japan and is now the basic standard hospitality around the world- from airlines, restaurants, hotels, and even convenience stores. Oshibori are usually made from cotton material and then moistened with water.

    How to use oshibori in an appropriate way

    Generally, oshibori are used for cleaning your hands. Once you get your oshibori in your hands, you can wipe your hands with the clean wet towel. On summer days, usually it is cold, but on other seasons it is warm. Oshibori is made for hand wiping only, and it will be inappropriate to use it on your face to wipe off your sweat, though you may see other use it that way. After you use the wet towel for your hands before eating your dishes, fold the oshibori nicely because you might need to use it again once more after you finish, using the other side of the towel.

    Bring your own oshibori

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    Due to the importance of using oshibori to keep your hands clean, Japanese people started to carry their own oshibori around. Fortunately, for Japan, which is famous for their standard of cute designs, offer many kinds of portable oshibori cases. The designs are varied, from the minimalist one for older people and of course the cute one for your kids to bring to school. So look out for oshibori when you next come to Japan!

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