A towel is the most important item a foreigner in Japan can carry
"Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is."
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Towels can be oddly personal/specific things here.
Very few public bathrooms give you a way to dry your hands. It's kinda expected that you'll be carrying your own hand towel - a 'tenugui' (手ぬぐい). 100-yen shops are full of the things, printed in every pattern under the sun.
You should also have an extra towel in summer, one solely for wiping your sweat off. Heaven forbid you ever mix your hand/sweat towels up. Yeah, for whatever reason the humble towel is as sacred as an Indian cow.
On the floor of the building I work in, there's a communal washing up/drying up area just off the main corridor. Shockingly, this area does have a towel available. It hangs from a cupboard handle just below the sink.
The other day, I went in there to wash some bento boxes after lunch. This is a new lunch experiment for me, so I hadn't really used the space much before.
I was cleaning and drying away, and a woman from a different company was sorting stuff out too. Then, one more woman came in. She'd just emerged from the toilets - which don't have dryers or paper towels - and she apparently intended to wash her hands.
They looked at each other. They looked at me. They looked at the towel I was using to dry up with. The woman who'd watched me dry everything up spoke.
"Uh, that's a hand towel."
I looked at them. I looked at the towel, which I was still - still - using to wipe a plastic spoon. (A freshly washed, perfectly clean plastic spoon, I might add.) I looked back at them.
"It's... only for hands?"
Wow, I'm so lame. I think only "...ah, is that so?" would've been a worse response.
I didn't catch what they said after that. There were more things I wanted to reply with, but I was too stunned in the moment. I mumbled an apology, shoved all the (clean!) bento kit into my bag, and got the hell outta there.
On my way home, I stopped back in to rinse out a coffee mug over the sink. The towel was lying on the drying rack... in a tray full of thick bleach. And it was still stewing when I arrived back at work this morning. Nobody's drying anything with that for the forseeable future.