Traveler Trivia: What are Oshibori?

Photo courtesy of Flickr User 秋葉原ランチ

When you go to restaurants in Japan, you may be surprised at either the lack of napkins or the ineffectiveness of the ones they offer.  Those thin pieces of paper that feel like they're coated in plastic are completely worthless in trying to absorb anything unless you use about fifty of them.  The bottom line is that Japan simply does not have a napkin culture.  Instead, they employ what is known as oshibori, or moistened towel.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user こまい
At every eatery you visit, you will be offered an oshibori, either in the form of a moistened towel (hot or cold, depending on the venue and the season) or a moist towlette inside a plastic wrapper.  You may be thinking, "Yeah, we have those same things in our country.  What's the big difference?"  Well, the big difference is that in Japan, the oshibori stay with you the entire meal, while in other countries, they are typically taken away before the food arrives.  As such, the Oshibori in Japan serve more functions than simply to wipe off your hands before a meal.  
Here are some other notes on oshibori:
History of use in Japan:
The use of oshibori has been documented since as early as the Heian Period (794-1185).  However, it was something typically reserved for courtesans and did not start becoming more prevalent throughout Japan until the rise of the merchant class in the Edo period.  Oshibori became a mandatory element in eateries starting in the postwar period, and is something you will invariably encounter along your journeys in Japan.
Freshening up:
When you receive the oshibori, feel free to wipe your hands and your face and neck.  This is especially helpful on a hot summer day when you are trying to cool off before enjoying a delicious meal.  Let's face it, nobody wants to have sweat dripping onto the table--talk about unappetizing!
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hikari Mimura

Cleaning up:
If you spill your beverage or make a mess of one of the food dishes, don't reach for the napkins--use the oshibori.  You can always ask the wait staff for a replacement, and the towel works much better to clean things up than those silly pieces of napkin paper.

Replacing an oshibori:
Generally speaking, you should only ask for a replacement oshibori if you have used it on anything other than yourself (e.g. wiping the table or mopping up a spill).  That said, you should not be bashful about asking for a replacement to ensure that you have something at the ready to clean your face and hands.
Where to place your Oshibori:
When not in use, the Oshibori should rest on the small tray on which it was initially presented or in an open spot next to your place setting.  When finished with an oshibori after a meal, never place it on top of a dish containing food or food scraps.

So there you have it...

...a few notes on those moistened towels that are part of Japanese food culture.  I hope this article gives you some helpful pointers to help you navigate mealtime in Japan!

Mike B