Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Ryo: The form and function of tenugui hand towels

Tenugui: Stylish, Edo-born versatility

As yukata (light cotton kimono) became common streetwear among Edoites, cotton tenugui hand towels likewise became a fashionable “must” accessory.

From left: Edo Komon's dense patterning of tiny dots, conceptualized as hail stones. Viewed from the side, the delicate gradiation appears like a landscape against the sky; in yet another play on words, a succession of skulls is read as kotsu-kotsu-to, meaning 'steadily' or 'diligently'; the most common tenugui towel design uses a traditional resist-dye technique. It colors the dots irregularly — wherein lies its appeal.
From left: Edo Komon’s dense patterning of tiny dots, conceptualized as hail stones. Viewed from the side, the delicate gradiation appears like a landscape against the sky; in yet another play on words, a succession of skulls is read as kotsu-kotsu-to, meaning ‘steadily’ or ‘diligently’; the most common tenugui towel design uses a traditional resist-dye technique. It colors the dots irregularly — wherein lies its appeal.

Thrown casually over the shoulder en route to the public bath, they were the mark of a true Edo native. Being a bodycare item, the most basic ones were primarily white in color.

From left: With its juxtaposition of a sickle (kama), ring (wa) and the character nu, this pattern reads kamawanu, or 'carefree'; this labor-intensive pattern was created by first dyeing the cloth gray, then applying indigo to yield the look of a mountain switchback trail. The tiny dot patterning, suggestive of pine needles carpeting the path, reveals where the cloth was left undyed; a symbol of steady growth for children and a ward against evil, this geometric leaf pattern often graces traditional undergarments.
From left: With its juxtaposition of a sickle (kama), ring (wa) and the character nu, this pattern reads kamawanu, or ‘carefree’; this labor-intensive pattern was created by first dyeing the cloth gray, then applying indigo to yield the look of a mountain switchback trail. The tiny dot patterning, suggestive of pine needles carpeting the path, reveals where the cloth was left undyed; a symbol of steady growth for children and a ward against evil, this geometric leaf pattern often graces traditional undergarments.

But, ever playful with their designs, Edoites created all manner of fanciful patterns, such as “carefree” shown on the bottom right. The ends of tenugui were left unseamed for practical purposes. Strips could be torn off and used as first-aid bandages or as replacement straps for sandals.

From left: Hanten, the livery coat of working-class Edoites, were both practical and artistic; stylized shapes of creased and tightly folded papers connote the clandestine exchange of love letters. Naturally, they are understood to be auspicious.
From left: Hanten, the livery coat of working-class Edoites, were both practical and artistic; stylized shapes of creased and tightly folded papers connote the clandestine exchange of love letters. Naturally, they are understood to be auspicious.

Nowadays, a vast selection of patterns, colors and designs can be found; tenugui are even framed as wall art. Yet their true value is proven when used practically, as an everyday item. Pleasing to the touch and colorfully designed, they’ll surely find a happy place in your home.

This is the third of a four-part series on ryo that focuses on traditional ways to mitigate the heat of a Japanese summer.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5