Oshibori (wet hand towels) (おしぼり)
Oshibori refer to wet hand towels that are served at restaurants and other places for customers to wipe their hands.
They are also called 'otefuki' or 'tefuki.'
The word 'oshibori' is usually written all in hiragana (as おしぼり) and seldom written using kanji in combination with hiragana such as 'お絞り' and '御絞り.'
In places like mahjong shops, warm oshibori are sometimes called "atsu shibo" and cold oshibori "tsume shibo." The custom of serving hand towels is rarely practiced in countries other than Japan.
The most commonly known oshibori is a piece of terry cloth soaked in water and wrung to remove excess water, which is served to wipe hands with before or during a meal.
The piece of cloth used for oshibori is twisted or folded into the shape of a long bar and served either sealed in a plastic bag or placed on an 'oshibori tray.'
It is made into the shape of a long bar even when it is not served on a tray, except when it is served attached to a lunch box.
Paper or unwoven fabric may be used instead of cloth as the material for oshibori. Oshibori made of material other than cloth are used mostly as disposable towels. Alcohol or liquids containing stabilized chlorine dioxide are sometimes used instead of water for paper oshibori. Paper oshibori, which can be folded into thin packages, are often attached to food sold in stores, such as lunch boxes, and used to wipe hands with before eating. Products known as wet tissue paper, which is unwoven fabric soaked in ethanol and other liquids, are available in stores and used in homes and offices as substitutes for oshibori.
At bars and nightclubs that provide individual customer service, oshibori are unfolded and handed directly to customers by 'hostesses' and 'hosts.'
Customers wipe their hands and faces with oshibori and put them on 'oshibori trays' on their tables to use them again when their hands or tables get dirty. Used oshiboris are replaced as needed. A customer coming out of a restroom is served an unused oshibori. An oshibori served after using the restroom is collected and not left on the customer's table.
Warm oshibori and cold oshibori
Oshibori can be served warm by soaking them with hot water or steam, or served cold by soaking them with water and cooling them in a refrigerator, as is done in summer. In restaurants, electrical storage equipment designed to maintain a set temperature is used to keep oshibori warm or cool. Although oshibori are usually served to customers for them to wipe their hands, they are sometimes used to wipe body parts other than hands.
Steamed towels that are used in barbershops to provide moisture to facial hair and skin when shaving are also oshibori in the broad sense of the term. These steamed oshibori used in barbershops are often provided by rental oshibori companies, which are described below.
Restaurants and other facilities that use oshibori in large quantities sometimes use rental oshibori services instead of making oshibori by themselves.
Rental oshibori are served in thin, transparent plastic bags (made of polyethylene film) and are collected by rental companies after they have been used. Collected oshibori are washed and cleaned many times before being leased to users again. End-of-life oshibori are normally disposed of, but they are also often recycled by recycling companies to be used as dusters. The average number of times that an oshibori is leased (that is to say, their durability) is approximately 25.
Some oshibori rental companies have connections with gangster organizations and these companies charge restaurants exorbitant fees as 'bodyguard service fees' for oshibori services, creating social problems by providing sources of finance for criminal organizations.
Oshibori services overseas
Japan Airlines began to provide international passengers with an oshibori service before landing in 1959. As the oshibori service gained popularity among passengers, some airlines of countries other than Japan also started to serve oshibori. Nowadays, many airlines serve oshibori to passengers before landing.
There are oshibori companies in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom.