and the five senses
Words: Yoshiko Arakawa, Translation: Heather Glass
In this feature we introduce you to the many different ways in which omotenashi style hospitality is extended and the things in which it is given form, to appeal to the senses through the eyes, ears and palate of a guest. We trust we will help you to savour the best of Japan’s omotenashi culture, by alerting you to watch out for, listen out for and hone your sensitivity to these almost imperceptible ministrations.
Oshibori and omotenashi
There is a traditional custom in Japan of serving guests with a refreshing hand towel, known as an oshibori.
The practice dates back to the Heian period, in the 8th to 12th centuries. A reference to oshibori in Japan’s oldest existing chronicle, the Kojiki, describes the custom of court nobles providing a moist cloth to guests invited to their home. By the Muromachi period in the 14th century, that had changed to a cotton towel, and it became the practice to place a wooden tub containing water and a hand towel for travellers at the entrance of taverns.
Guests would drench the hand towel and wipe their hands and feet clean. Travel at the time was on foot, and footwear was in the style seen in the samurai movies; straw sandals, so feet would get very dirty.
Before entering a room, travellers would soak the hand towel provided in water, wring it out and wipe their feet clean. Cleaning the body also relieved the spirit.
The action of wringing out the towel, or shiboru, is the source of the word oshibori.
After the passage of much time, during the postwar rebuilding of Japan, food outlets flourished and renting out oshibori emerged as a business. With subsequent development in the catering industry, systems of mass production came into being. In this way the oshibori, the first thing given to a customer as soon as they enter a restaurant in Japan, may be used with impunity, in the confidence that the oshibori is clean. In a rigorous system of managed reuse, only products that have been thoroughly washed, disinfected and inspected are shipped.
Before being given, in the hot summer the oshibori is completely chilled, while in the cold winter it is heated. Placed gently on the hand, the hot oshibori sends a blush of warmth to the skin and warms the heart, or cold, the thrill of cool quietens the heart.
The custom of oshibori has transformed over time, but exists in the present as an embodiment of the Japanese spirit of omotenashi. If you actually see oshibori in a Japanese restaurant, direct your thoughts to its history, take the oshibori given to you, wipe your hands, take a deep breath and feel yourself purified.
* Not every Japanese restaurant will provide oshibori.