When I was back in Japan this spring, one of my friends gave me the pretty tenugui cloth pictured on the left. I had one tenugui in the closet in New York, but never used it because it didn’t look practical. Now I am using it as a bathroom hand towel and love it.
Tenugui is a traditional Japanese style towel, made of plain woven cotton fabric about 14″ x 35.5″. Characters in Ukiyoes, wood block prints, are sometimes using them for various purposes. Japanese wiki explains that the size differs because it was originally made from excess fabric after a kimono was made. The fabric is more like a bandanna than towel, but the ends of a tenugui are not sewn intentionally, so that it dries quickly even in high humidity.
Japanese used to use tenugui cloth to wipe sweat, wash themselves, cover food, steam food, wipe dishes, clean house, wrap around hair, tie around head like the Karate Kid, bandage, etc. They are reusable and durable, but cheap enough to be disposable. They also used to be a popular give away item to advertise local businesses.
I have one example of such an advertising give away tenugui (on the right). It was probably given at Ryokan, a Japanese style bed and breakfast, in Kyoto to one of my family members. Name of the Ryokan, phone number, illustration of famous sightseeing spots are all printed along with the nicely stylized name of the Ryokan, Doi (two rows of thick square design with #s running diagonally on the picture center).
Even though most of the Japanese households tend to have some give away tenuguis somewhere in the closet, they were practically replaced by towels as people’s lives westernized. However, tenuguis regained popularity recently, largely due to their design. Unlike terry cloth, plain woven tenuguis can be died easily to intricate details. Traditional Japanese design appear to be attractive to young people, and many contemporary designs have been added as well.