When it comes to Japanese towels, most people think that they’re rather small, and that’s where their knowledge of them usually ends. Maybe you also think that they’re a bit high-end, and maybe you can even name the famous Imabari towels, known for their amazing softness and absorbency. In this article, we will wring out all the amazing facts out of Japanese towels and make you an expert on the subject.
1. The Many Types of Japanese Towels
Japanese towels like the one seen in the top-left picture above are known for their superior absorbency and softness. But in reality, there are many types of Japanese towels, including:
・Top right: a cooling towel. A popular item that helps prevent heatstroke by cooling you down through evaporation after you wet and wring it out.
・Bottom left: an anti-allergenic, antiviral, antibacterial, odor-resistant towel that can be safely used on anyone, even babies.
・Bottom right: a quick hair-drying towel. Three times more absorbent than other towels, this item is used to quickly dry your hair.
There are also light towels for washing your body during a bath and many other types with all sorts of uses, more of which are being developed every day.
2. Why Are Typical Japanese Towels Kids-Size?
The typical Japanese towel is the so-called “face towel” that usually measures 35 x 75 – 90 cm. It’s mainly used to wipe your face and hands, but it’s also the right size to clean yourself at a public bathhouse or onsen (hot spring), or lightly dry yourself off. Compared to Western towels, Japanese face towels may seem kids-size, but that’s because they are actually modeled after their predecessors, the tenugui (discussed in more detail in entry #4), which have been used in Japan for centuries.
But Japan does have larger towels, too, like the so-called “sports towels,” which measure about 20 – 40 x 100 – 130 cm, and the “bath towels,” measuring 50 – 75 x 100 – 140 cm. So if you’re in the market for a Western-size Japanese towel, make sure it’s a “bath towel.”
Related article: ▶ 5 Japanese Towels and Tenugui for Any Situation
3. Japanese Towels Were Created in the Second Half of the 19th Century
Towels were first imported to Japan in 1872. They were British cotton towels, and they were so soft and warm that some people actually used them as scarves. Japan finally started manufacturing their own towels in the late 1880s, which, historically speaking, isn’t that long ago.
The story of Japanese towel manufacturing begins with one Koma Inoue from Osaka, who came up with the idea of weaving piles (the countless string loops covering the surface of a towel) using a handloom. This was later followed by Enjiro Satoi, another Osaka native, who in 1887 invented a method called "terrymotion,” where the machine uses warp, weft, and pile threads to weave towels. These innovations kickstarted Japan’s towel revolution, which has continued to this day, fueled by places and companies all over Japan continuously researching and developing new towel manufacturing processes.
4. Before the Spread of Towels, Japan Relied on Tenugui
The picture above shows a mid-Edo period (18th-century) ukiyo-e portrait by Utamaro Kitagawa titled “Woman wiping sweat.” The subject is using a tenugui to perform the action.
Tenugui (seen in the picture above) are cotton, plain-weaved, long pieces of cloth usually measuring 90 x 35 cm. It’s said that they are based on a similar item dating back to the Nara period (8th century).
Until the introduction of its Western counterpart in the 19th century, tenugui were used exactly like towels in Japan. They were especially popular during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) in what is today Tokyo. During that time, not every house had a bath, so in order to wash up, people would visit a yuya (public bathhouse) and use a tenugui to wash themselves, then wring out the tenugui and dry themselves off. Although tenugui are not very absorbent, they dry very easily, so it’s suspected people would keep wringing them out and drying themselves.
However, with the arrival of the much more absorbent towel, the demand for tenugui started to drop.
5. Today, Imabari Towels Have a 60% Domestic Japanese Market Share
Imabari towels are one of Japan’s most famous towel brands, named for the city of Imabari in Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku, in the vicinity of which they are produced. They are also quite popular abroad.
Imabari towels are most famous for their absorbency. A towel made in Imabari can only be called an “Imabari towel” if it passes a series of rigorous tests, like measuring its speed of absorbency, which has to be 5 seconds or less. Imabari is also rich in soft water, and soaking the threads in it is apparently what gives Imabari towels their delicate softness.
Another characteristic of this brand is the pre-bleaching and dyeing. Most towels are weaved from white threads and then dyed, but in the process used by Imabari towels, the dyeing comes before the weaving, resulting in a more delicate, more chic towel.
The blue stripes and the white circle on red seen in the above picture on the right is a tag certifying a genuine Imabari towel.
6. Other Major Japanese Towel Brands
Besides Imabari, a major brand of Japanese towels is Senshu towels (seen above), which boast a history spanning more than 130 years. Hailing from south Osaka, they use a process called “after-bleaching” which removes any traces of impurities from the material to produce the cleanest towels possible. Then there are also the very popular Oboro towels from around the city of Tsu in Mie Prefecture, which use a technique called “oboro dyeing” where only the weft threads of a plain towel are dyed.
7. Types of Towel Materials
Most Japanese towels are made from cotton, hemp, and microfibers. Each one has their own advantages, so it pays to know the differences between them before making a purchase.
Cotton towels are known for being easy to use and for striking the best balance between softness, absorbency, and durability. To get the best quality possible, also look at the type of cotton. The most high-quality kinds include sea-island cotton, Egyptian extra-long staple cotton from Giza, and Indian extra-long staple cotton.
Known for being very absorbent and drying quickly. However, hemp towels also feel a little rough on the skin.
Made from artificial, extremely fine fibers (like polyester or nylon), microfiber towels are soft to the touch, very absorbent, and quick-drying. However, although small, the fibers in these towels are quite sharp, so they may not be right for people with sensitive skin or babies.
Did you learn something new about Japanese towels?
Japanese towels definitely excel when it comes to absorbency. They’re also soft and can vary in many different ways such as by material, use, and size, so please use this guide while buying a Japanese towel to find one that’s right for you.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.