Ditch the plastic for these traditional Japanese alternatives


In spite of being renowned for a meticulous recycling system, there is widespread plastic use in Japan fueled by a culture of single-use packaging. Recently though, an environmentally conscious movement has been growing, thanks in part to social media. As a result, people are taking small steps towards more mindful choices, finding inspiration in Japanese tradition to reduce their plastic footprint.


Japanese hospitality and plastic luxury

Living in a bustling city like Tokyo with ‘konbini’ convenience stores on every corner, grab-and-go packaged foods are everywhere. Of course plastic packaging is convenient for consumers, but Japan’s devotion to plastic packaging can be over-the-top, begging the question of why plastic seems to reign supreme in this country.  It’s believed that the origins of plastic packaging stem from the tradition of ‘omotenashi’ Japan’s impeccable hospitality, the importance of hygiene, cultural etiquette and expectations. For many, having multiple layers of packaging adds a touch of luxury and this is the case at many department stores, or even at bakeries that place each piece of bread in its own plastic bag. So, in spite of the well-managed recycling system, disposable packaging is ever-present and it’s a growing concern in Japan. While there’s still a long ways to go to reduce pre-packaged food waste, reusable bags are becoming increasingly common. In many residential neighborhoods, there are local grocers selling bulk fruits and vegetables without plastic packaging and increasingly, traditional methods like furoshiki and tenugui for packaging are being revitalized thanks to growing environmental awareness and activism. A completely zero waste culture might be in the distant future, but as individuals, small changes like using furoshiki or tenugui are significant ways to make a difference in preserving our planet.

Carry your lunch in style with beautiful furoshiki wrapping.

Tenugui and Furoshiki— Japan’s traditional all-purpose fabrics

Many people in Japan and abroad are restoring the tradition of using the fabrics known as ‘tenugui’ and ‘furoshiki’ as beautiful but practical ways of reducing single-use plastics in their daily lives. Created in the Nara period (710-794), tenugui (手拭い: ‘hand wipe’)  and furoshiki (風呂敷:‘bath spread’) have a long and important part of Japanese history, despite their humble beginnings. Originally used as towels, tenugui could also be printed with the owner’s name and used as business cards — a tradition that some shops have revived rcently. Furoshiki were typically used to carry belongings to the bathhouse and doubled as bath mats. Distinguishable by size and fabric, tenugui are long, rectangular, usually made of cotton and have frayed edges to allow for fast drying, while furoshiki are cotton or silk and come in a variety of square sizes.

Tsujiganhana-dyed furoshiki

Tenugui and furoshiki were typically decorated with colorful representations of Shinto and Buddhist deities. Nowadays, design are less specific to religion, reflecting the seasons, holiday themes or contemporary motifs. Tenugui prints are created using ‘honzome’, a traditional process of stencil printing and dyeing. Furoshiki are dyed in a variety of ways, including the intricate method of ‘tsujigahana’, which involves both painting and shibori (tie-dying). Hand-crafting each design using centuries-old techniques creates characteristic works of art where no two designs or colours come out the same. With each use the fabric becomes softer, over time reflecting the history and character of its purpose.

In Japanese culture, tenugui are typically given as a small ‘thank you’ gifts and they are commonly used as hand-towels, but they are also the perfect size as gift wrapping for bottles, books or anything that fits within the size of the cloth. Furoshiki are useful in a pinch, as they can serve as a purse, scarf and typically double as a bento box carrier and placemat. They can even be framed as beautiful works of art— the number of ways that furoshiki and tenugui can be used is truly limitless!

Honzome-dyed fabric. This long roll will be cut into individual tenugui!


What’s ‘mottainai’?

Stemming from the Buddhist belief of frugality, mottainai (勿体無い: regretful waste) expresses the inherent value in everything and encourages using objects to their full extent. During the scarcity in Japan that resulted after the Second World War, this became an important concept that has been passed on through the generations. In households, this is a particularly popular phrase when food goes unfinished, as in “mottainai!” or “what a waste!”  In recent years, “mottainai” has joined the ranks of “reduce, reuse and recycle” as a motto for eco-friendly movements, and is a central idea behind flea markets, chisan-chisho (local food consumption) at farmer’s markets and of course reducing single-use plastic packaging. Using reusable materials like tenugui or furoshiki and appreciating the wisdom of “mottainai” reminds us of the value of using things to their full potential. “Mottainai” is a word that expresses the regret of waste but inspires the desire to work together and enact change with conscious choices that lead to a more sustainable community.


How to avoid single-use plastic

If you’re looking to reduce your plastic footprint while in Japan, consider learning a few useful phrases. If you’re worried about mispronouncing anything, try using the accompanying gesture of waving your hand in front of your face, with the thumb facing you, which communicates ‘no thank you’ in Japanese culture.

  • I don’t need a bag = fukuro wa kekko desu
    袋はけっこうです (ふくろはけっこうです)

  • I’ll take it as it is = sono mama de kekko desu

  • I don’t need a straw = sutoro wa irimasen

  • I don’t need disposable chopsticks = waribashi wa irimasen
    割り箸はいりません (わりばしはいりません)

  • I don’t need a receipt = reshiito wa irimasen

  • May I use my own cup/mug = mai kappu o tsukatte mo ii desuka?
    マイカップを使ってもいいですか (マイカップをつかってもいいですか?)


Switch up your daily routine with a piece of Japanese tradition that can motivate you to live a little more mindfully everyday by using tenugui or furoshiki at home. For example, you can wrap gifts in cloth, bring your own reusable bags when shopping, or even use furoshiki as a bag. Small gestures might feel insignificant in a culture of disposable convenience, but even a humble piece of fabric can help us to lead more sustainable lives— all it takes is a little inspiration from tradition and some creativity to take an environmentally conscious step in the right direction.

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