Don't throw in the towel on tenugui yet

by Yuko Naito

Tenugui, rectangular cotton hand towels, are sometimes distributed by shops or firms as gifts for their openings or other occasions, mainly because they are inexpensive, lightweight and easy to carry. Those who receive them, however, are not usually thrilled to get towels printed with simple patterns and distributor telephone numbers on them.

Once you set eyes on the multicolored tenugui designed and dyed by Keiji Kawakami, however, you will never look at tenugui the same way again. His tenugui, sold at his shop Fujiya in Asakusa, feature mostly Japanese traditional motifs, such as Mount Fuji, kabuki actors and seasonal flowers. They are so artistic that some people even frame and display them as artwork.

Kawakami, who turns 81 this year, started out as an apprentice to an obi designer and dyer at the age of 15, and only later got involved in te- nugui-making. He started creating his kazari (decorative) tenugui sometime around 1955 and since then has produced hundreds of original designs.

“Some of my customers have told me that my tenugui are too pretty to wipe their hands with,” Kawakami says. “Of course you can use it as a towel, but that is not all; you can hang a tenugui on the wall like a tapestry, cover your head with it or wear it like a headband to absorb perspiration, wrap your lunch box in it or make such items as noren curtains, bags, cushions and coasters from tenugui. I think it should really be called somegire [dyed fabric], not ‘hand towels’ “

The history of tenugui dates back to the Heian Period. Tenugui was originally undyed linen used as a head covering for rituals, not for drying hands. At that time tenugui were so precious that only privileged people like aristocrats were able to use them.

At the beginning of the Edo Period, bleached cotton tenugui gradually began taking the place of linen ones. They were often used as headbands or head coverings, and more than 30 ways of draping and tying them were invented in those days. Some people made obi or a juban (kimono underwear) from tenugui.

As bathing became popular in the middle of the period, people began using tenugui for washing and drying themselves. At the same time, indigo dyeing, tie-dyeing and other techniques began to be used to adorn them. Designs became sophisticated, and kabuki actors or schools of dance commissioned their own tenugui and distributed them to their fans.

“Designs created in Edo were totally different from those of Kamigata [Kansai], the birthplace of tenugui,” says Kawakami. “They were designed to be looked at as well as used.”

Decades ago Kawakami obtained an original copy of “Tanakui Awase,” a collection of 79 tenugui designs compiled in 1784 by Santo Kyoden, an Edo ukiyo-e artist and playwright. He has revived 16 designs from the book and sold them at his shop.

“Interestingly, many young customers show a strong interest in those designs created more than 200 years ago,” he says.

Nowadays, tenugui have been replaced by towels or handkerchiefs and are no longer necessities in our daily life, though they are often used as stage props in traditional forms of entertainment such as kabuki, rakugo (comical storytelling) and Japanese dancing.

Fujiya’s tenugui, however, attract many people even today, especially tourists looking for souvenirs.

Says Kawakami, “They probably want something handmade — something with more warmth, since everything is machine-made today.”