A noren is a Japanese curtain most commonly hung outside the entrance to a shop. Often used to distinguish when the shop is open or closed. Businesses with their noren outside are said to be open. There are many more uses for noren throughout Japanese culture.
Originally, back in the Heian Period (794-1185), noren were used by the commoner to protect their home from the sunlight, cold weather, wind, dust, or even to hide the interior from prying outside eyes.
These were very simple sheets of cloth, but around the Kamakura Period (1185–1333) the noren started taking on patterns, designs, and the characters of the family name/crest. This is when the noren shifted more from common-use to nobility-use.
Today they are used as sunshades, dividers, signs, and in some shops — to signify if they are open for business. And these noren will display the business name, colors, crests… essentially a form of branding (and a very cool one at that).
In Japanese homes, noren are used to divide spaces and compartmentalize rooms — for both privacy and to improve heating/cooling.
Interestingly, back in the Edo Period (1603-1868), customers would wipe their hands on noren as they were leaving — which meant the dirtier the noren the more customers they saw — and were perceived as a better restaurant. Imagine that, the dirtier the noren the better…
Japanese pubs (izakaya), sushi counters, ramen joints, and similar shops are the most common to use noren. Better yet, the mom and pop places are usually the ones dedicated to the old tradition of bringing out the noren when open, and retiring it in the evening as they close up.
How long is a noren curtain?
The standard noren is 113cm long. There are also “han noren” which means half noren, at 56.7cm. “Naga noren” means long noren, and they’ll run about 160cm.
Then there is the tiny “mizuhiki” at 40cm — which can be used on its own but is often intricately designed with a family crest, or “mizuhiki knot,” and centered on a standard noren curtain.
Types of Noren: What they mean?
Sometimes noren are named after how they are used and what they represent. For instance, the “yu noren” is the curtain you will find in an onsen (Japanese hot springs, bathhouses). They are used to distinguish male and female areas of the onsen.
Then there are “gakuya noren” which is noren used in kabuki theatre dressing rooms for dividers.
And in a nod to old traditions, in the Hokuriku region of Japan, when a daughter is to be wed, the family gives a “hanayome noren” with the family’s crest to the groom’s family as a gesture of trust.
Where to Buy Noren: Online and in Japan
Noren are not hard to find online. A simple Google search will show shops such as NipponCraft selling quite a nice selection of very cool noren that will make excellent decoration in your home.
When in Japan, department stores, some large train station gift shops, and large “shotengai” (shopping streets) such as Omotesando have shops where you can find noren.
It can be quite an experience browsing the selection of designs to choose from. Customers can even choose to have the noren delivered rather than carried from the stores.
Custom, Tailor-Made Noren
If you have a certain design and require a fully custom-made noren for your home or business, NipponCraft does have an option for you to get one made. Here are their online form and instructions to get started.