Skinship (Onsen Story)

The term "skinship" (スキンシップ sukinshippu) is a Japanese-English term (wasei-eigo, aka “Japanese-made English”) used to describe the intimacy, or closeness, between a mother and a child. Today, the word is generally used for bonding through physical contact, such as holding hands, hugging, or parents washing their child at a bath.

Today I went to onsen (hot spring/bath house) with a friend, the lady who had given us the bunnies and apples at the elementary school recital that Tori, Kyle and I had attended. I have since been over to her house three other times, so this was my forth time to go there. She and her husband are both a little older than my parents (more my mom’s mother’s age), but they said they like having me over because they raised two boys and there weren’t any girls around. That made me smile.

Whenever I go over to their house, we either have tea and chat or she cooks a fantastic meal that we all eat together at their kotatsu (heated low table).

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Last time we did arts and crafts—she taught me how to make rabbits:

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This

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To this!

But back to the onsen story.

I had messaged her earlier to see if she was free and luckily she was! (I don’t want to use her name, but I’ll just call her by her first initial, S.) I just wanted to hang out and spend time with her. I kind of wanted to go to onsen, but did not mention it.

But she suggested it instead! S told me that she would take me to any onsen of my choice! I hadn’t been to the one in Owani yet, so that was what I chose! She lives in Owani, so it was super-convenient too. P.S. Wani means crocodile, so O-wani means Big Crocodile. :)

I took the 16:22 train to Owani and met S there. She was there to pick me up with her car and the weather was terrible.

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We arrived at the onsen and S surprised me by paying my entry fee. She guided me to the women’s side of the baths and we stripped.

I remember my first time going to onsen when I was 17 years old. I had gone with a Japanese family friend and she had taken her clothes off like it was no big deal. I had thrown off my American sensibilities, taken my clothes off, and followed her into the baths. Kind of thrilling and a little awkward when you think everyone is looking at you. Especially when you are a teenager with body image insecurities! 24 year-old Me is patting 17 year-old Me on the back. Good job, trooper.

I was hooked after that first onsen experience and they have since become one of my favorite things about Japan. I have bathed naked with that one family friend, my mom, my sister, and my friends Zandra, Sam, Sarah, Maiko, Yuki, and Chihiro. You just have to repeat this mantra in your head: “No one cares, no one cares… They are only there to get clean and relax like you are…

Okay, maybe some people will look at you because you are foreign (especially the kids), but I just tell myself to pay them no attention. As I get older, I care less about being in a room full of naked women.

S and I went first to the shower stations where you are supposed to clean your body before entering the actual baths.

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Looks like this.

Clean, we skipped the inner baths and went straight outside to the open-air baths. Kind of like this, but dark with lanters because the sun had set. I can’t take pictures inside the baths, so use your imagination:

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The wind was howling like the wind in My Neighbor Totoro and blowing the snow off the trees. It was also raining a bit. When I first stepped out there I thought I was going to die. Naked as the day I was born, being barraged by fierce wind and rain/snow. But I was soon in bath heaven, in a pool of extremely hot water. The chilling wind felt perfect on my face, which was rosy red from the heat. I even folded my arms over on the ledge and laid my head down with my eyes closed. It was so relaxing and peaceful. A couple young boys with their mothers even came into the outside bath, which was a first for me.

After relaxing in the bath for a while, S and I went back to the shower stations to wash off our bodies. I suppose it is normal to wash your body after the bath too, since you are sharing the water with many many other people. Then she turned to me and said,

Shall I scrub your back?

How could I say no? S pulled up her stool behind mine at my shower station. I sat there as she scrubbed my neck, shoulders, and back with her loofa sponge. It was like a massage mixed in with a back scrub. I wanted to fall asleep because I was so relaxed. (And honored, actually, that she would offer to do this for me.) I thought to myself, “Everyone should wash everyone’s backs! This is amazing!” I looked around and saw other moms washing their children’s’ backs and thought of the word, “Skinship.” I also thought back to when my mom and dad used to give me and my siblings baths.

After she finished cleaning my back, I offered to wash hers, but she said that it was okay. She has a husband to do that for her. Lucky!

After the baths, we went home and I hung out with S and her husband. We all ate dinner together and let the time slip away. It was 9pm before we knew it!

They were kind enough to drive me all the way back to Hirosaki (which isn’t that far, but takes longer with precipitation/snow). Oh, and S wrapped up leftovers from dinner to give to me… which looked suspiciously like a lunch box that a mom would make for her child.

I have to tell you that I was really falling prey to homesickness in November. I had gotten a little depressed and had let my apartment become a wreck that you could barely walk around in. I am not proud of that. But I have since turned things around. My relationships with my friends, American and Japanese, are what make my days. Yesterday I had a fantastic day out with Tori and Kimberly and today I had a nice, quiet day at the baths/S’s house. I find that, for me, it is all about balance. I feel happy and my spirits are lifted.

I’m warm, inside and out. Spending a couple hours at the baths always gives my body temperature a little boost. Take that, winter.

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6 Comments to “Skinship (Onsen Story)”

  1. I knew you would find your “home” there! I wish I could be there to scrub your back but knowing that you have this special relationship makes me feel better about you being so far away. You are truly blessed!

  2. I remember those exact same feelings when you said we would all be naked.The thought of it was mortifying. But remember that one lady that spoke to me? She said, “You are young and beautiful,” and to this day the only people I would hesitate to undress in front of would be people who find nakedness shameful. I miss onsens ;~; the towel scrubbie things are so nice, and the heated rocks and mineral baths…ALSKFHAKL. I want someone to wash my back. Waeeeeeeee. Anyway! Glad your thoughts are a little cleared up, dear sister of mine! ♥

    • @Tori: I had actually forgotten that, but I am so happy that it stuck out in your mind. A good lesson to remember… That youth IS beauty in itself.
      Next time we’re together, ask me to scrub your back!
      And thank you, it means a lot from you.

  3. This was a really heart happy post!! Let’s go to Sakurano onsen on your next free night!

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