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Q: When I go out to dinner in Japan, I’m often given a hot, damp towel as soon as I sit down and settle in. What is it for, and what’s up with that?

A: Nice touch, isn’t it? The towel is called an oshibori in Japan, and also is a custom in South Korea — particularly in Korean barbecues or other restaurants where meat is served — where they’re called “water towels.”

The main purpose of the towels — cloth or paper, depending on how fancy the restaurant — is to clean your hands before you dive into your food. But it’s also aimed at refreshing you after your journey to the restaurant. In most cases, you’ll be presented with a hot towel in wintertime, and a chilled one in summer.

At some restaurants, your towel is waiting at your table as part of your placesetting — usually inside a thin plastic wrapper. Other restaurants will leave the job to your waiter, who will come by to place the towel directly into your hands. In polite society (if you’re into that), a man will unfold his towel and first put it gently to his face — though nowadays that part is more of an oldster thing, and some people say the detergents used on the towels can irritate facial skin — then use it to wipe his hands. Women usually use it only on their hands.

When you’re done with your towel, fold or roll it up and put it back on the table. It may come in handy later if you need to wipe your fingers.

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at:


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