The Comforting Culture of Wet Towels (Oshibori) in Japan

What is an Oshibori Towel?

The O-shibori is simply a wet hand towel supposedly known to provide a means to cleanse one’s self in the absence of running water. Generally, it is known to provide comfort and is a tell-tale sign of great service. It is common to see this being served in Japanese restaurants, bars, airports, and even long-distance trains (like the Shinkansen). There are also Oshibori served in JR Express trains all over Japan.

By Guilhem Vellut from Paris, France (Oshibori @ Toritcho @ Montparnasse @ Paris) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Simply put, an Oshibori is a small, white towel which had been soaked in clean water (either cold or hot). The water is then wrung out keeping the towel damp but not dripping. It will then be folded, or rolled before being placed inside plastic bags or containers to keep it damp for use.

The word Oshibori is believed to have been derived from the word ‘shiboru’ which directly translates to ‘to wring’. In some parts of Japan, instead of the word Oshibori they use O-tefuki which means ordinary handkerchief.

What many people don’t know is the fact that the provision of Oshibori to guests is a custom which dates back to Edo period Japan. It is given to noble guests as a means of showing hospitality. The guest can either use it for cleaning his hands or for providing comfort for the face during summer (cool towels) and winter (hot towels).

In the early 1600s, oshibori were popular in tea houses. These are given to travelers who stop by tea houses to rest after a long journey. Since this was seen as a heartwarming gesture, the custom easily spread out all over Japan and stayed for centuries to come. It is now considered as one of the standard gesture of hospitality in any Japanese establishment

The Oshibori Concept and Japanese Hospitality

The culture of hospitality in Japan is very important, they are a country who excel in customer service. Especially for people working in the service industry, the face of caring with a pure heart is very important. Basically, providing an Oshibori before a meal is a simple gesture of hospitality.

By LombrosoLombroso (投稿者(Lombroso)が撮影Photo taken by Lombroso) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For the Japanese, how they treat their guests is a reflection of their intent to show respect. If they show pure care and provide service from the bottom of their hearts, it is like showing respect towards another person. And for the Japanese culture, respect is a pretty big deal. It is one of the main pillars of their incredibly functioning society.

Also, the Japanese take a good hold of their hospitability because it is one of their key weapons in attracting tourists towards their country every year. When guests feel welcome and well-taken care of, they see the beauty of the Japanese society and gets encouraged to visit more often while also telling others of their experiences.

Different kinds of Oshibori Towel

Hot Towels

These kinds of towels are usually offered during the extremely cold winter season. It is good to warm up the face after getting in from the cold outdoors. According to yoga experts, a hot towel keeps the eye relaxed. It also promotes better circulation when placed in the head or the face. Oftentimes, a hot towel works wonders for the hands as well as the warm temperature can kill off some bacteria.

Although hotels, airlines, and restaurants will not serve piping hot towels, it is still better to check the temperature first before applying it fully on the hands or face. This is to avoid unwanted scalding of the skin.

Cold Towels

Cooler temperature towels are often given during humid and hot summers in Japan. It is absolutely refreshing for those traveling long distances which is why it is often offered by airlines and trains. Hotels also provide this as a welcoming gesture. This is helpful in cooling down the body’s temperature on a really hot day.

Other than the fact that a cool towel is refreshing, it also allows for better circulation in the body. On top of that, a cool towel can relieve heat stress, fevers, and even hot flushes. These are common during the hot summer climate.

Disposable Oshibori

Similar to a wet wipe, disposable towels are not made out of the typical cotton material. Oftentimes, they are made of paper or other products. Many people are now quite conscious about contracting diseases and other sicknesses from using a used wet towel. This is why, for sanitation purposes, some restaurants and hotels offer disposable wet towels for their guests.

Most often than not, items bought in convenience stores or take outs usually have disposable wet towels for their customers. These are often oshibori covered in plastic wrap. Or a large wet tissue wrapped in sealed foil.  

Where to get Oshibori service?

Oshibori Machine

It is without a doubt that managing an Oshibori service in a restaurant, hotel, airline, or bar is quite costly. This is due to the fact that the wet towels must be laundered, sanitized, sterilized, warmed or cooled before serving. It will take a significant amount of manpower and materials to simply serve wet towels to customers. This is why many companies around the country prefer wet towel rolling machines, or oshibori machines.

By Moritowel (Own Photo work by uploader) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This piece of equipment will warm or cool a piece of cotton towel before individually sealing it in a plastic bag, making it easily available for distribution. This machinery can produce roughly 1500 individual oshibori towels every hour. It is also known to have an operational lifespan of about 20 years. It is easy to maintain and does not require that much manpower to produce hot and cold towels.

Oshibori Rental Services

For the same reason (excessive overhead costs due to the production of hot and cold towels), there are some hotels and restaurants that hire Oshibori rental services. This means that an establishment can simply contact the supplier, place an order, and have every piece of oshibori delivered to their location.

This includes collection during the day, laundering, sterilizing, and re-packing of the oshibori. If the company is too small to purchase their own oshibori machine, they can simply contact an oshibori supplier near their office.

Oshibori Trays in Airports and Trains

Usually, oshibori trays are offered by attendants pushing trays through the aisles in public transportation. Some airlines and train lines offer this service for free, while others require a small fee. Usually, oshibori trays in these transportation lines are available upon entry. Sometimes, before taking a seat the wet towel is already served at the seat. It is important to wait for the tray to come back before returning the towel. There are cases as well when the towel is actually a perk or freebie in the ride.

Oshibori Art

Also known as the Japanese art of folding towels, Oshibori art is one of the interesting perks of Japanese hospitality. It is widely known that the Oshibori is a damp towel which is either folded or rolled before being served on a basket or a plate. This, for many restaurants and hotels, feel too conventional and, least to say, boring. This is why many restaurants and hotels have combined their origami classes with their hospitality classes.

By Littleinfo [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

In this Oshibori art, the towel can take the form of shapes, body parts, animals, and cartoon characters. Common folding techniques would be the swan, rabbit, sushi, carrot, and even fish. This, as simple as it is, provides additional entertainment for guests and provides them a unique and personal experience with just the simple service of getting hot towels. This has sensationalized Oshibori and has made it a familiar concept throughout the globe because people like sharing the cute shapes on their social media pages.

It has become quite popular that there are pages on Pinterest and Youtube that show tutorials on how to fold small towels into cute artworks like the Oshibori art. It would feel like its own form of origami, where instead of using the paper they use cotton towels. This is also known widely as towel art.

Tips on how to use an Oshibori Towel

Just like any social custom in Japan, there are do’s and don’ts to remember to avoid offending other people and this is true even for the simple use of Oshibori towels. Although a towel is given out to provide comfort, they are just generally thought of as a means of cleaning the hands before and after eating.

It is alright to put them on the face during long flights or train rides. This is a means of providing additional comfort during the extremely hot or extremely cold climate. However, it is important to remember that it must not be used in the neck or behind the ears. This is considered impolite by many locals as the towel is only intended for the mouth and the fingers. Also, this is due to the fact that these towels are often laundered then re-used which is why seeing another person use it in inappropriate body parts is definitely disappointing.

These are known to be oshibori manners. Many locals actually are quick to point that the towel must only be pressed lightly on the fact so that the warmth or coolness may be felt. It is important not to WIPE it in the neck and chest. It is also important to remember that it must not be used to wipe spills with the towel for the benefit of its next user. One tip to remember is to smell the oshibori before using it. If it has a weird and unwanted odor, better make sure not to use it. If it has an aroma to it, the towel might have undergone some treatment before being served.

Once done with the hot towel, guests can simply leave it on the table or back on the empty tray. The restaurant workers will clean it up after they see that the guest has placed it back down. Usually, a new oshibori would be provided for after the meal.  

DIY Oshibori Towel at home

Making an Oshibori at home does not really require any recipe or rocket science instructions. This is due to the fact that an oshibori is as simple as it sounds, it is nothing else but a damp towel. For hot towels, simply bring a pot of water to a boil. Transfer this hot water to a basin and make sure to soak the towel for a few minutes. Once the water is a little cool, wring the towels one by one until it no longer drips. This could be served in a basket, a tray, or a plate.

For cold towels, place some ice and water into a basin and soak a few towels for a few minutes. Then after a few minutes, wring the towels until they no longer drip. Again, this is best served immediately as the temperature can easily go down during the humid summer season.

This kind of simple ‘recipe’ is for those who wish for an unscented wet towel. However, it is also a good idea to put some essential oils like chamomile, lavender, and other refreshing scents. For those who really wish to use these wet towels as an antiseptic, milliliters of isopropyl alcohol is okay. Just remember that too much-rubbing alcohol can make the skin dry.

For those wishing to carry a travel oshibori, a good idea would be to purchase travel toothbrush cases or soap cases with which the towel would fit in. This is helpful for parents who have young children as it is a good idea to include these travel oshiboris in lunch packs to encourage them to clean up before eating.

For larger towels, a water container with a wide brim is an ideal place to put more than one damp towel. This is an ideal replacement for disposable wet wipes which usually receives a thumbs up from trash-free enthusiasts all over the world. Also, bringing one’s own Oshibori is a way to ensure that no sicknesses or germs are transported from a wet towel to its user. Having a personal towel is best for sanitary purposes and safety.