posted: Sept 29, 2018
There are many little things that by themselves don't add up to much but when viewed in their totality I am just simply enamored with how the Okinawan people go a little out of their way to make life a little nicer.
One such thing is the oshibori. I can't recall the first time I ever saw one but it was definitely in a restaurant and was likely back in the early-to-mid 1970s. Over the years I have encountered them, of course, in restaurants but also on airplanes and even in a most unlikely place one summer in the 1980s - from the back of a bento-vending skoshi van on the side of a rural road while out galavanting on a weekend exploration. More recently, I've received oshibori in Family Mart or Lawson Station when I stop in to buy a bento or two.
You might be wondering by now, "So, what IS this oshibori thing you're talking about?"
One of the many little "souvenirs" that I've found at the bottom of a sack or piece of luggage after a trip to Okinawa.
It's a very thoughtful nicety that comes in very handy especially on a hot day when you're feeling hungry, tired, and overheated. During the summer months they are almost exclusively cold but in the autumn and winter months may be pleasantly warm. Some are fabric while others are made of papery fiber.
Oshibori are small hand towels that are provided for the purpose of washing your hands before handling your food. Rumor has it that it's very gauche to use one to wipe the sweat from your face - though I confess that I have done so and now, in reptrospect, hope that I didn't offend the host who provided it for my use. I'm pretty sure that the clerk at Family Mart couldn't give a rip one way or the other but maybe a waitress or flight attendant clucked their tongue, shook their head and pondered the Neanderthal in their midst!
A wet hand towel that has been in use in Japan since at least the 11th century - mention of such a thing is made in Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji. Oshibori are also referred to during Japan's 1603 to 1868 Edo Period. In more recent centuries they've found their way into the restaurant industry. So, yeah, they've been around a while.
If you happen to be out and about next month be on the look-out for them since October 27th is observed as the "Day of the Oshibori"!
The word oshibori comes from the Japanese word shiboru, meaning "to wring", with the honorific prefix o-, which is added to several types of nouns, including many nouns related to washing or food (examples - onigiri and omusubi). Oshibori are also known as otefuki; tefuki refers to ordinary handkerchiefs, and these derive from the Japanese te (hand) and fuku (to wipe).
A typical oshibori, made of cloth, is dampened with water and wrung. It is then placed on the dining table for customers to wipe their hands before or during the meal. The oshibori is often rolled or folded and given to the customer on some kind of tray. Even if a tray is not used, it is usually rolled up into a long, thin shape, although this is not necessarily the case with oshibori provided with, say, bento lunch boxes.
Many establishments also give out towels made of non-woven cloth or paper, which are generally used once and then disposed of. Paper ones sometimes contain a sterilizing agent such as alcohol or stabilized chlorine dioxide. Paper oshibori, unlike cloth, can be folded and put into a very thin plastic wrapping, for inclusion with packaged products such as bento lunch boxes in convenience stores.
They've become quite popular in places around the world what with railroads and airlines using them more and more (usually for first class passengers though). Maybe we've had them here in the States for many years without even realizing it! In the Old West (and even today) the heated towel used in barber shops to moisturize the skin or beard and make it easier to shave can be thought of as a type of oshibori.
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