There’s something new to learn everyday! This morning my very first Japanese student gifted me two tenuguis, one printed with various symbols associated with the Japanese culture – and the other vividly printed with plum blossoms, known as ‘Ume’ in Japanese. Tenugui is a union of two words – ‘te’, meaning ‘hands’, and ‘nugui’ which signifies the act of wiping
A tenugui is ostensibly a towel in Japan, about 35x 90 cm in size, not so much in use now, but still popular as a traditional Japanese gift. It actually has many uses, I was told, as well as a lengthy history. It can be used as a wash cloth, dish cloth, tea towel, scarf, headband, as a souvenior, an advertising tool or for gift-wrapping.
A clay figurine from the Kofun Era (250 -538 AD), discovered with a tenugui wrapped around its head, testifies to its antiquity. It was apparently used in religious ceremonies in the past, and was woven out of silk or hemp, and subsequently became a mainstay for Samurai who wore it under their helmets to catch flows of perspiration.
It was several centuries later, during the Edo period, that it became the ‘towel’ for the masses, its use accelerated by the new concept of Public Baths that mushroomed in Japan around that time. The fabric turned to cotton, it began to be coloured and printed in myriad hues with scenes corresponding to the various seasons of Japan. Companies and establishments often gifted it to their clients, their logos and mercantile markings forming the print on the cloth.
My student wrapped it around her neck with a jaunty knot at the side to illustrate how it might be worn. Then, she delicately lifted the two loose ends and proceeded to mime the act of gently mopping her brow and drying her ears! It infused the rather mundane ritual with a dose of panache! Tomorrow I am going to knot a tenugui around my husband’s neck before he leaves for his morning constitutional. I am sure he will become a convert to its discreet mopping properties!