Wordcatcher Tales: Akasuri

At the end of a long day’s excursion last summer that included being caught in a downpour in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, my friend and host suggested we visit her favorite local bathhouse back in Osaka. I hadn’t been to a Japanese public bathhouse in many years, and this was the fanciest one I have ever been to.

It had a noisy game room below but a large expanse of many different indoor and outdoor pools on the top floor. I sampled most of them during the hour I had until my appointment for a massage: the hot tub, the cold tub, the large outdoor pool under the dark sky, and the line of individual tubs, quickly retreating from the first one I tried, which greeted my entering leg with a mild but unexpected electrical charge. There weren’t many of us in the men’s side; I often had the tubs to myself. Finally, worried about missing my appointment, I sat marinating in the rosemary herbal pool, which had a clock on the wall big enough for me to read without my glasses.

垢擦り akasuri ‘cloth/pumice/loofah for rubbing body’ (lit. ‘scurf-chafing’) – My friend, who went in the women’s side, had chosen the basic akasuri exfoliating rubdown, rather than the Swedish or shiatsu or other massage. I had never tried that one, so I chose the same. She had told me that the masseuses on the women’s side were middle-aged ethnic Koreans. In fact, I would guess the bathhouse complex itself was owned by members of Osaka’s huge ethnic Korean population.

The masseuses on the men’s side were also sturdy middle-aged ladies. I didn’t ask their age or ethnicity. In fact, I was far too relaxed to be as inquisitive as I often am in Japanese restaurants. There was only one other man on a massage table when I showed up, and a different one on another table by the time I finished. In the meantime, the masseuse abraded every inch of my skin—apart from face and genitals (always carefully covered by a washcloth)—first with an astringent, then with a light oil.

By the end my skin felt as smooth as it ever has in my adult life. Although I was a little bit too raw in a few places, I felt ‘grime-free’, that is, 垢抜け akanuke ‘elegant, urbane’. A proper chafing leaves one more refined, as in 人擦れ hitozure ‘(person-abrasion =) sophistication’, even too refined, as in 悪擦れ waruzure ‘(bad-abrasion =) oversophistication’. But improper chafing can leave a 擦り傷 surikizu ‘(scrape-wound =) abrasion, scratch’ or a 床擦れ tokozure ‘bedsore’.

The more generic term for traditional ‘massage’ or ‘masseuse, masseur’ in Japanese is 按摩 anma lit. ‘press-rub’. The two kanji for ‘rub’ and ‘scrape’ combine in the Sino-Japanese compound 摩擦 masatsu ‘friction’, as in 摩擦音 masatsuon ‘fricative sound’.

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