What's all the towel business about in Japan?

`Now!' exclaimed Old Thrashbarg at last. `Now you may
work them with the towel!'

Close up towel action from ecb 29's flickr stream

In Japan towels have a significance I’ve not seen anywhere else. This is because the Japanese on the whole, are unusually sweaty. I don’t think it’s a genetic disposition (though who I am to know without being able to run the required tests?) rather it’s all this sun business.

The big bright star in the sky that glares down on my little part of Japan with something that, I think, is akin to hate. From sun-up to sun-down in the summer time, the pavements are ghost-town empty. Silent expect for the crackle of plant life slowly burning. Rarely one will see an elderly Japanese man or woman on a bike moving at a speed that seems impossibly slow. Undoubtedly they will have a towel draped around their shoulders.

A tea towel which really has nothing to do with what I'm talking about. From StarMama's flickr streamThe towel’s chief function is mop sweaty brows but in the event of rain, with no umbrella to hand, it may also be fashioned into a charming hat. Generally, for men, it’s worn across the shoulders – a towel across the shoulders means one has recently worked hard or been in moderate discomfort. It is important to advertise this hard work and or moderate discomfort – it means you are less likely to be subjected to more. Women usually keep an inactive towel in their handbag but will bring it out more often, than a man, as a woman must shield themselves from both rain and sun. The sun causes tanning which of course suggests you been spending you’re day tolling in the sun soaked rice fields like a lowly serf. And we all know how serfs do in life – not very well at all!

In Britain we had the handkerchief which served the same purpose if slightly less fluffy and less likely to be emblazoned with Disney characters. It too was fashioned into a hat but only if it was summer and this was most often seen paired with a string vest. It’s chief purpose was for clearing one’s nose and I haven’t seen a Japanese person ever use their towel in this way. Overall there seems to be more sweat in Japan – so much that is requires a towel.

At the age of nineteen in the summer I worked in probably one of least safety conscious amusement parks in America. They imported na├»ve holiday workers like myself to act as a buffer between themselves and the crazy redneck customers they served. Amusingly there were also several local people who worked here. Each gave gems of wisdom that I’ve tried to live by. I remember a squinty looking thirty-something year old advising a teenage French worker that the fresh orange juice he was drinking would give him cancer, he’d read about it! I, for one, feel safer that there’s a few caring people in the community who’ll spend their nights scouring the medical journals and conference transcriptions to ensure that his fellow man won’t suffer from afflictions that could be prevented.

Nothing says job satisfaction like mopping up another screaming child’s vomit spread liberally over the grounds of a ride. Well, nothing maybe apart from the self righteous mother screaming at you that “Yes!”, her way-way underheight snot-weasel, “Can go on the “Swirling Roller Coaster of Jagged Points and Loose Fitting Restraints” ride!”, and that you “Damn well better make it happen!”. At the very least, the job gave me the opportunity to be nasty to little children as often as I wanted - every cloud has its silver lining.

There where two owners and one was from somewhere in California. This is the sweatiest man I’ve ever seen in my life. He was a circus act sweater. Water bottle in one hand he would march around the ride handlers to ensure they weren’t stealing and recording how many customers had been decapitated on rides that day. He was over 6 feet tall, slightly overweight and a waterfall of sweat. In our brief and reluctantly given lunch break we would discuss with wonder how a man could sweat so much and not die. His clothes would be soaked black; he looked incredibly uncomfortable all the time - but even with this amount of sweat he didn’t carry a towel. Cultural difference I guess.

The reason for so many hand-towels seen outside the bath room in Toyama may be down to the local climate. It gets hot, very hot but it also gets humid – a sticky nasty humidity that’s lasts all summer. Toyama is surrounded by mountains; it’s like a geographical bucket with a few centimetres of water and mud at the bottom. The sun heats this water up and *poof* we may as well be the in Amazon.

I’ve been encourage to keep a towel as well – I’ve been given enough. In fact I can see one right now, someone gave it me just yesterday. I obviously have the look of some in desperate need of a hand towel. I’m too forgetful though, a phone and my wallet are all I can manage. Two items, that’s the reason my key’s are secured to my wallet, if I had keys, wallet and phone then that’s three items and therefore one of the three would currently be lost. Maybe one day I’ll be given so many towels that no matter where I go there’ll be one to hand. Until that day though – I’ll just have to sweat.
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