Friday, January 8, 2010

Tiger and Towels

When I’m in Japan, I go to my local Super Sento a few blocks away. Super Sento is a popular entertainment center with hot springs, a restaurant, and massage shops. And I carry with me a blue and light brown tenugui, Japanese towels. Tenugui is about 35 by 90 centimeters. Yes, it’s narrower and longer than most western hand towels. And they are thin and made of cotton with Japanese designs. My blue tenugui has a print of small white birds, and my light brown tenugui, sumo-wrestlers.

Last month while bathing there, I spotted a baby in one of their hot-spring tubs. The color of the hot spring is dark brown. A young woman held the baby in her arms. I watched the baby’s chin and tiny hands. The floor with running water was wide open, so I went to lie down on it. Warm water ran to my head and passed to my toes. I watched the stars and thought about the word, “star.” “Star” in English was my first spoken word, my mother told me. She didn’t speak English, but she knew a few English words. She said she pointed to the stars and said, “arewa ‘star’ yo (That’s star),” to me on her back. She was on her way to a local bath house.

In a Jacuzzi, I saw the baby again. Their Jacuzzi contains clear water. I looked for him while I washed my body along the rows of many faucets, shower heads, and the bottles of shampoo and conditioner.

I was drying my back with the light brown tenugui, moving my arms back and forth over my shoulders when I heard a bubbly sound. A changing table is attached to the end of the lockers. I stepped over and peeked. The same baby boy was sitting there with a dark blue tenugui draped on his back. The tenugui showed the same white birds print as mine. The middle-aged woman continued to dress him. She wore a sweat suit and covered her hair with a towel. The young naked woman who held the baby in the tub was drying herself nearby. She must be about my daughter’s age.

“He is so cute. How old is he?” I said to the young woman.

“He is a year old,” she said.

“That blue tenugui is the same as mine,” I said. “It’s my favorite tenugui.”

“It’s ours,” she said with a smile.

“I bought mine at Kabukiza,” I said, “I used to collect all kinds of tenugui.”

“You probably received it from us. It isn’t for sale,” she said.

“Oh?” I said and stepped over to my locker.

“Mom,” she called.

I picked up my wet wrung blue tenugui and straightened it.

“That’s from our shop,” the woman dressed in a sweat suit said, “We are a hyogu-ya. My husband designed the tenugui.”

Hyogu-ya are traditional shops that create and fix Japanese traditional scrolls and screens. Good hyogu-ya operators are artists.

“Oh, it probably belonged to my mother,” I said, “I mixed mine with my mother’s tenugui.”

I told her how I love the design and how good quality the tenugui is. The color hasn’t faded much, and the edges and corners haven’t deteriorated. Most gift tenugui wear out fast.

“My mother was your customer, I see. This is such a coincidence,” I said.

“My husband had been to your house. He passed away,” she said.

“I’m sorry. It must be hard to operate Hyogu-ya without your husband,” I said.

She talked about the history of her shop. I thought it interesting because she branched out from her parent’s traditional shop which is still owned by her eldest brother. I thought she must be a strong woman because most Japanese women of our age tend to give up their right, and most eldest sons demand it. She started her own shop with her husband near my home while I was studying in the U.S.

“I also have a year old grandson,” I said to the woman.

“Then they are both cows,” she said. “Next year is my year.”

“Ah, I’m tiger, too,” I said.

We looked at each other’s eye and made a broad smile.


keiko amano said...

All the tenugui in the photos are used many times, so the most of them show faded colors as you see them. For good new tenugui, please see the following sites.


Vincent said...

It's a lovely post, Keiko, which brings out the essence of Japan (or what makes Japan different from everywhere else). It seems to be an artistic essence and in your topic I see a continuity between the classical styles and motifs, and those of today.

I ask myself also if it brings out the essence of Keiko (or what makes her different from, say, another Japanese woman of her generation)! And I cannot answer this question. Over the years, you can get to know someone, even through this medium. But you could still be surprised.

keiko amano said...


Which part do you consider those of today comparing classical styles? Their classical designs that lasted until now are so innovative and unique although I cannot show many here. And many clever designs are playing with words.

The other day I was at Museum of Contemporary Arts. I saw many good modern arts, but only one really spoke to me. But tenugui designs, I fall in love with many designs, and I can afford to own them. Then I get to use them daily, and as they get older, they become soft. They absorb moisture right away. They also dry fast. And people can wash and massage their back with it because of its length. They are multi functional, of course.

Maybe I can promote the usage of tenugui. I love textiles. I love furoshiki, too. Maybe I’ll show you my best furoshiki. Then I can be a marketing person for the tenugui and furoshiki industry. They are good for environment.

I appreciate all your comments.

Rebb said...

Keiko, I agree with Vincent that this is a lovely post. What he says is perfect in describing how you show Japan being different from everywhere else. Your tenugui are beautiful and sound to be multifunctional.

This post also makes me think of the seeming playfulness of your culture. When I was a little girl, I loved "Hello Kitty" and when I come across the products now, I still enjoy looking. I would look forward to the days that my mother would take me to the "Hello Kitty" store and we'd pick out a "grab bag" filled with secret goodies. The bags were filled with misc. items and were set at the same price. It was a fun surprise opening the bag to find note pads, pens, pencils, and once there may have been a hat.

keiko amano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
keiko amano said...


After posting this, I’ve been thinking of my unfair comparison: modern arts at MOCA and tenugui arts. I realized that I was comparing Golden Delicious apples with Meiwa kumquats. Meiwa kumquats are very sweet and flavorful unlike other kinds of kumquat.

About Hello Kitty, I used to go to a Hello Kitty store with my baby daughter. A while ago I learned that the store on First Street in Little Tokyo was the first of its kind in Los Angeles. It’s gone long time ago though.

A few months ago, I watched a program about the creator. She’s been making ties with many high-priced brand goods, and her fans dressed in Hello Kitty designs and carry her goods. One wife, a fan, filled her house with nothing but Hello Kitty goods from the ceiling to the floor. An interviewer asked her husband, “Are you okay with this?” The husband replied, “What can I do? Either this or maybe divorce.”

Also, the creator said they offer certificates of Hello Kitty knowledge. Yes, they conduct their official examination regularly. The test includes such questions as how tall she is, what her most favorite food is, and about her family members and so on. Did you know she was born in England? How that happened, I have no idea.

Oh, you call fuku-bukuro as "grab bag." It means “lucky bag.” We have a saying, “luck comes with left-over’s (nokorimono niwa fuku ga kuru).” So we say this perhaps after asking other people’s permission when we must pick with our chopsticks the last piece of delicious food still left on a plate at the center of table. It’s similar to humorous “God bless you,” when you sneeze except we say it ourselves.

Dorraine said...

I knew nothing of tenugui's until reading your post. Always enjoy discovering something new about your culture every time I stop in.

The material is lovely. I can picture that baby, too, with his chubby hands and draped with the identical tenugui.

Thank you, Keiko, for such a lovely post!

keiko amano said...


I'm glad you didn't know. I hope to surprise you more and more. Can you imagine if you're surprised to see my used towels, then you'll be surprised endlessly!

Rebb said...

Keiko, Funny story about the creator and her husband. That’s often a husband’s story isn’t it? Live with it or have an unhappy wife or worse, in this case, maybe a divorce! Wow, certificates of Hello Kitty knowledge. I had no idea the craze was so huge. I didn’t know she was born in England. Very interesting.

Thank you for the info. on “grab bag” and “lucky bag.” I like the idea of a lucky bag! It makes the bag more special.

keiko amano said...


It was about a fan of Hello Kitty and her husband, not the creator and her husband. Also the current creator is third person.

You can see real Hello Kitty train, tour buses, and even a real jet. Some train stations and other places provide Hello Kitty lunch. You can imagine people do anything to have fun and make money!

Rebb said...

Keiko, Woops, I read wrong. Thanks for correcting. Yes, anything for fun and money. Even a HK muffler. Goodness, the possibilities...

keiko amano said...


One more thing. It said about one hundred and fifty thousand dolloars. It's a 10.5 cm tall Hello Kitty made of a real diamond in her ribon and pink sapphires, white topaz, and platinum 900. She became 35 years old last year.