Furoshiki: From Sento to Bento and Beyond 風呂敷
A furoshiki is a square of fabric. What is so very Japanese about that?
Well, let us begin. There is evidence that as far back as the eighth century CE the Japanese were using large pieces of cloth to wrap presents or personal items.
These were called hirazutsumi literally meaning a "flat" (hira) "package" (tsutsumi). This term survives, but now refers to the most simple and formal style of gift wrapping in Japan, which uses no knots. Although they were a useful everyday item, hirazutsumi were no more remarkable than the same type of cloth wrappings used in other cultures. What brought about the change in name and began furoshiki's journey into the heart of Japanese culture, was the custom of bathing.
In both Shinto and Buddhism (as with other religious traditions) cleanliness is next to godliness. It was not until the end of the sixteenth century, though, that bathing became a widespread, social custom in Japan.
It was at that time that large bathhouses began to be built. At first these were meant only for the aristocracy, although later they would evolve into the public baths called sento.
The samurai who visited the baths would wrap their personal items and a change of clothes in a square of cloth emblazoned with their family crest in order to identify the package.
This is where furoshiki got its name: bathers would spread the cloth they had used to carry their belongings on the floor and stand on it while getting dressed or undressed. Furo means "bath", and shiki means "to spread".
Changes in Furoshiki
Furoshiki have gone through considerable evolution since originating as a personal bathmat. They have become integrated with some of the most sacred and the most devious practices in Japan.
One of furoshiki's often cited virtues is that it can be used to wrap anything, as long as the cloth is the proper size. It is not surprising that they are used as a gift wrap instead of paper.
In this capacity the shape of the gift has natural influence on how the furoshiki is tied around it. There are methods for tying up a bottle or two bottles together, others for round objects like a melon.
They can wrap a pair of books, or be made into a book cover. There are several different methods for tying a square or oblong package that suit various moods and occasions. You can download instructions for a variety of tying methods, published by the Ministry of the Environment by clicking the link, "How to use furoshiki" at this website.
Furoshiki, patterned with good luck symbols such as cranes, pine trees, or fans are traditionally used to wrap the gifts given at weddings, and some of the more expensive gifts that can be purchased in Japanese department stores come wrapped in furoshiki.
Furoshiki have been made from various materials that suit different kinds of celebrations and can be dyed with an infinity of motifs, but they are not reserved for special occasions alone.
Until the middle of the twentieth century they were very much a part of everyday life. There are methods of tying furoshiki that make them into shopping bags, purses, or hand bags, and wrapping a bento lunch in a furoshiki remains a nearly ubiquitous practice. Some are so esthetically pleasing they can be appreciated simply as wall hangings. Thus the design of furoshiki ranges from the utilitarian to the sublime.
One popular pattern, a Chinese arabesque that suggests a looping vine, is called kurakusa. For most Japanese it brings to mind not only a sense of the old fashioned and traditional, but also of comedy. This kind of furoshiki is used by the characters of thieves to carry their loot in comic drama, animation, or graphic novels.
The disappearance of furoshiki from everyday life in modern times was brought about by the invention of the plastic bag. However, furoshiki may be set for a comeback in our current era.
In 2005 Ms Yuriko Koike, Japan's Minister of the Environment created the mottainai furoshiki. (Mottainai literally means, "wasteful," but in context it suggests a spirit of non wasteful living.) It is made from recycled plastic bottles and printed with designs created by a Japanese painter of the eighteenth century.
The master textile artist Shumei Kobayashi chose furoshiki as his medium for an exhibition in Australia in 2007. Members of the Kyoto based Furoshiki Study Group travel internationally to give lectures and workshops that introduce furoshiki to the modern world.
Another Japanese organization that helped to encourage the contemporary use of furoshiki and was especially useful to visitors to Japan was Welcome Furoshiki. Modeled after the Welcome Wagon organization in the United States, it was a free service for new-comers to Japan. Through their website, you could arrange a visit from a representative who would bring a gift of useful information for foreign visitors wrapped in their signature, blue and white furoshiki.
The versatility and the artistic nature of furoshiki, along with their cultural significance make them excellent souvenirs. You can find them in most department stores where kimono are sold. There are stores in major cities that deal exclusively in furoshiki. Some of these offer beautiful, hand made pieces that cost around ,000 to ,000. Others are more economically priced, averaging around ,000 to ,000. You can also purchase furoshiki at several sites on the internet.
From its modest beginnings, furoshiki has come to embrace four centuries worth of art and culture as well as the modern the modern ideals of eco-friendliness and international awareness, while still retaining its simple, utilitarian nature and the character of a thoughtful, personal gesture. No matter what your lifestyle, chances are there is a place in it somewhere for furoshiki, or if not you can always give one to a friend!
The author wishes to thank Tama Chan for lending some of her family's furoshiki to be photographed for this article.
Places to buy furoshiki
Kyoto-shi, Nakagyo-ku, Muromachi Rokkaku-sagaru Funayama-cho 510
Kyoto-shi, Nakagyo-ku, Iwagami-dori, Shijo-agaru, Satake-cho 386
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, Jingumae, 2-31-8
Text + images Alan Wiren