The Japanese have a well-deserved reputation for beautiful packaging. Entire coffee table books have been written on the subject with photos of object after object wrapped in exquisitely artisanal, wabi-sabi ways.

Less well known in this country, perhaps, are furoshiki, large squares of strong cloth that are traditionally used to wrap and carry gifts or bento boxes for a picnic. They’re handy, quite beautiful and are the ultimate reusable wrapping paper – I’ve had my furoshiki ever since I returned to the States from living in Japan almost 25 years ago. If French women are born knowing how to wear scarves, then Japanese women are born knowing how to tie furoshiki stylishly (a skill, I confess, I never managed to master). The many different ways of wrapping with furoshiki even have names.

In recent years, the tradition of furoshiki has apparently been succumbing to the onslaught of the plastic bag. In response, in 2006, then-Minister of Environment Yuriko Koike created a special Mottainai Furoshiki from recycled PET bottles. Here’s what she said about it at the time:

“The Japanese word ‘mottainai’ means it’s a shame for something to go to waste without having made use of its potential in full.… The furoshiki is so handy that you can wrap almost anything in it regardless of size or shape with a little ingenuity by simply folding it in a right way. It’s much better than plastic bags you receive at supermarkets or wrapping paper, since it’s highly resistant, reusable and multipurpose. It … puts an accent on taking care of things and avoiding wastes.”

This holiday season, we hope you put down the wrapping paper (which if your Christmas is like the one I attend will go straight into the trash come Dec. 25) and put a Japanese accent on taking care of things and avoiding waste.

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