No Napkins in Japan? Enter the Oshibori

Jan 21st, 2009 | By | Category: History & Culture

It’s cold in Japan right now and anything that offers relief from the cool temperatures is most welcome.  Enter the oshibori, a heated damp hand towel, that many better restaurants present to their customers just after they are seated.

oshibori hand towel japan dining

In the winter a steamy oshibori warms up frozen fingers so that diners can adroitly use hashi, chopsticks, to pick up scrumptious pieces of sushi, tantalizing bits of tonkatsu (fried breaded pork), or slippery, steaming hot ramen, soba or udon noodles from a bowl of tasty broth.

In the summer humidity, when even a short stroll can make even the most avid sun-worshiper break a sweat, an oshibori wipes off the grime of the city off sweaty palms so that diners can can enjoy a refreshing serving of zaru soba (cold noodles with sauce), a chilled cup of matcha (green tea) or delicate tofu cubes topped with grated ginger, green onion and soy sauce.

“In the old days, explains Fujinami Towel Service Co. Director Katsuyuki Fujinami, 34, innkeepers would offer travelers a wet cloth as a show of hospitality (and as a way to get the dust off them before they came indoors).”

Source: CULTURE & MORE: Hand-towel bunnies are one thing, profits another

More delicate diners, will simply wipe their hands with an oshibori, but it’s not uncommon to see overheated or extremely chilly patrons give their face and neck a good rub down with the oshibori before dining.

Napkins are not a staple in Japanese restaurants and the oshibori also serves as a way to dab the corners of your mouth during the meal or sop up any soy sauce or other messes that may present themselves during your meal.

Practical uses aside, you can entertain your friends and family by creating a few fine pieces of oshibori art while you await your dinner.  It’s origami with hand towels and you can create elephants, baby birds, penguins or even a rabbit as in this video:

Visit OshiboriArt to get diagrams and see more videos on how to make these creatures from a damp hand towel.  Your friends and family will love you and you’ll never be bored while waiting for your sushi again!

Image Credit:  Wikimedia, CodazziOshibori1

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  1. Thank you for this site. It is very educational.

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