In Praise of Japanese Tenugui


Japanese culture has many little treasures in it, but having married into the culture for years, I thought wouldn’t be surprised anymore.  Then, I discovered the tenugui (手拭い).  Tenugui are ubiquitous Japanese cloths of a certain shape and material used for all kinds of tasks: as simple washrags, as wraps for gifts, scarves on a sunny day to keep the sweat off your brow, etc.  They are very light, easy to clean and dry, and come in a wide variety of colors, patterns, etc.  I had seen them before, but never really understood why Japanese people use them so much.

Tofugu has a great article on the history of tenugui, and why they’re easily to overlook yet very useful.  You may want to read that first before continuing.  😉

While I was in Japan with my family this summer, we stopped at the Kanawanu store in Tokyo (Daikanyama ward) and they had a huge selection of fine tenugui each for about ¥900-1200 ($8 to $11 in the US).  I picked up a nice wheat pattern one for autumn and a white-blue summer sky pattern.  However, the one I photographed featuring a plum-blossom (umé 梅) pattern above is my favorite.  I have fascination with plum-blossoms and their patron Sugawara no Michizane.  Kanawanu also included instructions (also available online) on how to wash them and different ways you can use them.  Kanno Japan’s site also features some good suggestions on how to use them.

For me, the primary usage for tenugui was to beat the heat.  Japan’s summers are hot and muggy, and you can’t avoid sweating all the time, even after you take a shower.

It turns out, if you wrap a tenugui around your neck like a simple scarf, it really helps keep your shirt dry.¹  That may not seem like much, but it helped make the summers and lot more bearable.  Plus, it kept my neck from getting sunburned.

Back in the US, I have put my tenugui to good use as table cloths, washcloths, etc.

One thing to note, by the way: tenugui fray at the edges often.  *This is normal*.  To help them dry faster, tenugui traditionally aren’t seamed at the edges, so the fraying will occur with new tenugui, but then will eventually stop.  Also, another interesting note is that they get softer with use, which along with the lightly frayed ends, gives them a nice “worn” look and feel.  In other words, the more you use them, the better.

Washing is super easy: just wash in cold water in the sink and hang to dry.

Although my trip to Japan this year is over, I am already thinking ahead to my next tenugui purchase next year.  🙂

¹ Uniqlo’s Airism clothing also helped a bunch, and yes they do have stores overseas with sizes suitable to foreigners.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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