Oshibori (Hot Towel) and Hospitality Culture in Japan
If you ever visit a middle to high-class Japanese restaurant, you most likely would be handed a pack of hot towels, usually in white, 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 a newcomer to Japan.
The hot towels are called oshibori (おしぼり), literally translated as “wet wipe.”
Today, oshibori is not only used in high-class restaurants 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 is also known as otefuki where tefuki (手拭き) refers to a handkerchief.
It has a long history, but in the Edo period around the 1600s, the use of oshibori became popular in accommodations called hatago (旅籠).
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 to restaurants, hotels, and even convenience stores.
How to Use Oshibori in an Appropriate Way
Generally, oshibori is used for cleaning your hands.
Once you get your oshibori, you can wipe your hands with the clean wet towel.
On summer days, the towels are usually cold, but during other seasons they are 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 others use it that way.
After using the wet towel for your hands before eating, fold the oshibori nicely because you might need to use it again once more after you finish your meal.
Bring Your Own Oshibori
Due to the importance of using oshibori to keep the hands clean, Japanese people started to carry their own oshibori around.
Fortunately, Japan, which is famous for their cute designs, offers many kinds of portable oshibori cases.
The designs vary from the minimalist ones for older people and of course, to the cute ones for children to bring to school.
So look out for oshibori when you next come to Japan!