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onsenjapan.net claims that タオル is used for "towel", presumably the large one. When I asked a staff member at Odeo onsen "これ は 何 ですか?" while indicating the large towel I was holding, the staff member said "タオル".

I'm not 100% convinced, though. I half suspect that the glossary (and the staff member) may have chosen a gairaigo term over more traditional terms since it'd be easier for foreigners to remember. Also, in English the terms "large towel" and "small towel" feel very clumsy to me, so I would have thought that Japanese would have kept its existing words for the large towel and small towel.

I tried seeing if towel was mentioned in http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/温泉 , but unlike the English-language version it didn't (obviously only foreigners need to google how to use an onsen!). Other pages I tried looking at were this, this, this, and this - the fact that towels don't appear in those glossaries would be consistent with it being plain old boring gairaigo, and that Japanese doesn't have special onsen-related terminology for towels.

Is タオル used for the towels used at onsen, both the large towel and the small one, or are other words used as well?

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Hmm I think we normally call the large towel 'バスタオル.' (But I also remember hearing a staff member at an 温泉旅館 call it '大きいタオル'/'大きいほうのタオル'.) We have a word 手ぬぐい but I think this refers to something different today. –  Choko May 10 '12 at 13:42
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A better way to ask might be これは 日本語で 何と 言うのですか? "kore wa, nihongo de, nan to iu n desu ka?" ("... nan te iu no?" with friends). Asking what do you call this in Japanese is a little better than asking what it is. Though they understand, since you're a foreigner from a land where they have towels; but if you were Japanese, that question would look like you've never seen a towel before! –  Kaz May 10 '12 at 16:12
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I agree with Kaz, if you say これ は 何 ですか it sounds like you don't know what a towel is. –  Jesse Good May 10 '12 at 21:09
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@Kaz +1 informative and funny, to quote slashdot. –  Andrew Grimm May 10 '12 at 21:59

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Towels were introduced in the Meiji era and were almost exclusively imported from England. That's why the word タオル came from English, and there is no other word for them (although Japan of course had their own fabrics before that (I'm specifically talking about terrycloth)).

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Thanks for providing an explanation as well as an answer. Do you happen to know how they dried off from an onsen before then? Using clothing or terry towelling? –  Andrew Grimm May 10 '12 at 22:03
    
@AndrewGrimm: I know that Yukuta were worn after bathing and one of its purposes was to dry oneself off (in the Edo period), also if you look at the first character for 浴衣、, it has to do with bathing (although people also carried around cloth, which generally came from the leftover material when making Kimonos and Yukata). –  Jesse Good May 10 '12 at 22:42

There's a word 手拭{てぬぐい}, which literally means hand-wipe.

From the Wikipedia article, I gather that this was mainly used in place of the current "小さいタオル", i.e. to wash yourself in the bath, or to dry your face or hands. I wasn't able to solve the mystery of how people dried their bodies after bathing pre-Meiji.

Now, I think people would use タオル for anything, at least if it's made of towel cloth, and only 手拭 to stress the fact that something is made of traditional or non-towel cloth.

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oh dang, just saw chocolate's comment... –  dainichi May 11 '12 at 1:03

I think they can be just called タオル. I never heard other ways to refer to that when I was in Japan.

However, to make sure, I check amazon, which I usually do when I'm not sure the name of something in everyday lift. In the link, you can find in "categories"(カテゴリー, on the left side): バスタオル, フェイスタオル, ハンドタオル, or just タオル. So I think they can all just be called タオル. The large towels used in onsen can also be called バスタオル, if it is to be distinguished with other kinds of towels.

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