A Tenugui (手拭い) is a thin handtowel made of cotton. It is typically about 35 cm x 90 cm in size, plain woven and is almost always dyed with some pattern or phrase. It can be used for anything a towel could be used for – as a washcloth, dishcloth, but it is more often seen used as a headband, souvenir, decoration, or for wrapping items such as bottles. Towels made from terry cloth have largely replaced it in household use. However tenugui are still popular as souvenirs, decorations, and as a head covering in kendo, where it functions as a sweatband, as extra padding beneath the men.

Tenugui are a type of traditional Japanese towel. Since tenugui have a smooth texture that is unlike typical Western terrycloth towels, they can be used in various ways other than just drying hands or bodies. They come in an endless variety of patterns, from lucky charms in humorous designs to colorful artistic designs such as ukiyoe, and they are also fun to collect. They are inexpensive and available throughout Japan, not just in special stores but in souvenir corners or gallery shops.

Getting to know “tenugui”Edit

1310 tenugui main

It is said that tenugui were already in use during the Nara Period (710-794). Tenugui are flat-woven cotton cloths that are about 90 cm x 35 cm in size. Many have elaborate resist-dyed or printed patterns. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), common people started using them as well. They are used for various purposes, including drying hands or bodies, covering heads, or as aprons.

As cultural modernization progressed and towels became more common, the use of tenugui became less and less common. However, in recent years, there has been a re-evaluation of the convenience and appealing design of tenugui, and more and more stores have started selling them in the past 10 years or so. They have again come to be used as daily commodities or souvenirs.

Tenugui are divided into several types according to the fineness of the cloth; from fine to coarse, the major fabric types are “tokuoka”, “oka” and “bun (sori)”. The finer the cloth, the higher the designability. In addition, they are divided into two types according to the technique used to decorate them: “chusen” dyeing and printing.

Features of chusen tenuguiEdit

Front and backChusen is a traditional method of dyeing using stencil paper. Since the dye infiltrates the cloth, the patterns appear on both sides. When the tenugui is used for a long period of time, the dye fades, giving it a well-aged look.

Features of printed tenuguiEdit

Front and back Compared to chusen dyeing, printing can produce patterns or characters that are more detailed, as they are printed using a silkscreen. Since patterns are printed on just one side, the back side is a solid color, unlike chusen tenugui. On the other hand, it is difficult to color the entire surface through printing.

How are Tenugui made?Edit

A stencil is placed on a wooden frame to which resist paste will be applied. A roll of washed and dried fabric is folded to the size of a tenugui and the stencil is placed on the fabric. The resist paste is then applied to each piece.

The resist paste does not stick to areas covered by the stencil, only to areas where a pattern is engraved.

The fabric is placed on a bench and dyes are poured using a watering can. Once the dyes have spread over the entire surface, they are pulled below by a compressor.

The fabric is turned over and the process is repeated.

The fabric is placed into a machine that washes the fabric to remove the paste. Afterward, the fabric is washed again by hand to remove the paste and excess dye.

The fabric roll is dried in the sun.

The dried fabric roll is folded to the length of a tenugui while the pattern is inspected. The fabric is then pressed under a roller to smooth out wrinkles. Afterward, both sides of each tenugui are cut by hand and each piece is folded.

Using Tenugui Edit

Tenugui can be used in various ways; the following are some examples.

  1. For wiping - Use instead of a towel or handkerchief.
  1. For wrapping - Use to wrap plastic bottles or wrap gifts.
  1. For covering heads - Wear around the head instead of a bandanna or headband.
  1. Worn around the neck - Wear around the neck instead of a scarf.
  1. As a mat - Use instead of a place mat.
  1. For display - Frame and display like a painting or textile.

Other than the uses above, tenugui can be used in many more ways, including being used as masks or as strainers. Find your own unique way of using tenugui!

Buying TenuguiEdit

Tenugui are available in souvenir corners in sightseeing spots and airports, museum stores, inns and department stores throughout Japan, as well as in specialty stores including “KAMAWANU” and “EIRAKUYA”. In addition, as tenugui with unique local patterns are often available, you might want to ask if tenugui are available when you visit local tourist information centers or souvenir corners. Moreover, tenugui are relatively inexpensive when compared to other Japanese souvenirs (ranging from about several hundred yen to 1,500 yen), so it would also be fun to build a collection of tenugui in various colors or designs. [1]


  1. “Tenugui” Hand Towels, Perfect as Souvenirs, Japan Monthly Web Magazine
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