If you’ve spent any length of time in Japan, you’ll notice many doors with large rectangular pieces of fabric hanging in front of them. Some are colourful and some aren’t. Some have Japanese characters or words written on them, while others simply have patterns. Depending on the time of day, they might be folded over the top of the bamboo pole from which they hang. These fabric curtains are known as ‘noren.’

Entrance to an oyakodon restaurant, Kyoto

Introducing noren

Noren are, essentially, fabric dividers. They can be hung over doors, between rooms, in windows, and even on walls. Most people will be familiar with them as curtains to push aside when you enter certain restaurants or shops.

Originally, noren would protect a house from wind, dust, and rain. In the summer months before air-conditioning existed, for instance, you would keep the door open to maintain the airflow. But to prevent too much dust flying into the house, you needed an extra barrier. Noren were a perfect lightweight solution.

Patterned noren curtains, Nagasaki

It’s good business

These fabric dividers also serve other eminently practical purposes. They’ll often have the name of the restaurant or establishment written on the noren in lieu of a signboard. To the uninitiated, it means that looking for traditional signs won’t always work—sometimes a restaurant is literally marked only by the noren curtain with a name on it. Business owners also usually hang noren at the front of their shop to indicate that it’s open for business. If you see your usual restaurant after opening hours, the noren usually won’t be there anymore.

But it’s not all about mysterious signing. Noren are also a great canvas for communicating brand identity—kind of like a billboard. Many modern shops have bright and colourful illustrations on them to suit their brand image. Imagine cheery drawings of fruit and vegetable for a greengrocer’s, or beautifully tie-dyed indigo for a crafts store.

Another place you’ll usually see noren is at the bathhouse or in an onsen. Red and blue curtains separate the mens and women bath—no prizes for guessing which one leads to which!

Entrance to a soba shop, showing noren curtain

Where to find noren

Noren are, in a word, everywhere! Walk around a town or city and you’re bound to spot them immediately. You’ll mainly see them in front of restaurants, bathhouses, or traditional shops. (We’ve yet to find a supermarket with noren hanging in front, though.) Keep your eyes peeled and look out for these charming fabric dividers; you might even get some home design inspo!

Post by Japan Journeys