It was a very simple gift in a department store--a few pieces of charcoal, in fact. Put them in your bath, and they'll improve your skin and warm your soul, the sign said.

The charcoal, with a sticker affixed, was placed in a cup, onto which was tied a cloth bag.

The bag and cup were enveloped in shredded paper.

The shredded paper was nestled in a small wicker basket.

The basket was encased in plastic.

The plastic was tied with string.

The sign explained that the whole bit would be wrapped in gift paper, secured with another sticker and a bow. And, of course, placed in a shopping bag.

Altogether, about 10 layers of wrapping. That's fairly standard here. Americans who find the holiday season filled with the frenzy of wrapping should understand they are pikers compared to the Japanese. Everything is wrapped here. It is done with great care, attention to beauty--and. . . . multiple layers.

"Japan has had a very long tradition of sending gifts that are wrapped very neatly to show respect to the recipient," said Naoko Kubota, a spokeswoman with the city agency where most of those wrappings end up--the Bureau of Waste Management.

"With each layer, we wrap sincerity in the gifts we give," she said. "The custom has permeated to other items. At the supermarket when you buy vegetables, the cashier wraps them again because they are presenting them to the customer with sincerity."

Kubota's bureau estimates that more than half of the 4 million tons of garbage collected last year in Tokyo was wrapping of one sort or another--tissue wrap, paper wrap, plastic wrap, cardboard boxes, plastic bags.

In part, the wrapping reflects Japan's high priority on cleanliness; in Tokyo, taxi drivers wear white gloves, and the homeless remove their shoes before stepping into their cardboard shelters. In addition, it may also be a manifestation of traditional Shinto religious admonitions to separate the clean from the unclean.

Thus, one can buy a plastic package of cookies, open it to find an inner bag, and open that to find every cookie individually wrapped so that each one can be consumed--freshly and cleanly--without having touched another.

Some packaging is ingenious. A consumer takes the cellophane off the popular snack onigiri--a rice triangle covered with seaweed--with a one-two-three zip that magically unwraps the seaweed and the rice without disturbing either.

But other wrapping seems mostly symbolic. Buy a six-foot piece of shelving lumber at Tokyu Hands hardware store, and they will carefully tape one small square of paper around the middle. Or, if you'd like, they will wrap the whole thing with paper bearing the store's emblem.

"It's partly pride that the customer bought it here," explained salesman Asao Komiyama.

At the To Wrap Factory, a specialty wrapping store, one can buy beautiful rice paper, pressed and colored, for $10 a sheet, or bring in a purchase to have the store wrap it.

"The wrapping is a reflection of the thought that's put into the gift," said Yukari Miki, who has worked at the store for 12 years. "It's a means of self-expression."

Indeed, packaging goes far beyond practicality or convenience. In fact, the word used by men for their mothers, ofukuro, literally means "bag."

Perhaps the symbolic importance of wrapping explains why Kubota's waste management bureau, which campaigns for waste reduction and recycling, had a hard time getting stores to use recycled paper for wrapping. "They wanted only virgin pulp" to show respect to their customers, she said.

The wrapping is often more important than what it encloses, said Joy Hendry in her book, "Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation and Power in Japan."

The common custom is "to put a gift on one side until the donor has departed. The immediate opening of a gift is said to display too much interest in the material content of the offering rather than the sentiment it expresses," she said.

Because the wrapping is part of the gift, Ketsuo Shibuya, 55, was standing at a counter this week to have a present for a 6-year-old elaborately wrapped. Unlike American children, who would rip through the paper in seconds, the recipient here--a neighbor's child--will admire the packaging, he said.

When she finally unwraps it on Christmas, her parents will follow a peculiar family custom of carefully unfolding the paper, writing on the back a list of the highlights of their daughter's year, and then putting it away for posterity.

"It's not a very expensive gift," Shibuya said modestly of the two sweaters he had bought. "But it's wrapped very nicely."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Maami Sakaki displays the products of a food shop in their "raw" form--individually wrapped and boxed.