For many visitors to Japan, where ancient traditions harmonize with modern lifestyles, there lies a definitive Japanese experience: The onsen (hot springs). These natural hot springs, praised for their stimulating properties and serene ambiance, beckon travelers to immerse themselves in soothing waters. Yet, it can quickly fade into disappointment for many visitors with tattoos.
Despite tattoos not being outright illegal, there is a cultural barrier associated with a criminal history, often barring those with ink from entry into onsen and sento (community bathhouses). Bathhouses in Japan are typically private businesses with the right to refuse customers with tattoos.
The Public Bath House Act doesn’t ban tattooed visitors, focusing instead on health risks like infectious diseases. However, laws allow refusal for illegal activities or public disruption, which could be stretched to include tattoos even if the laws don’t address tattoos directly.
That being said, how can tourists visit onsen with tattoos in Japan?
History of Tattoos in Japan
Tattoos—and their related taboos—have been in Japan for most of recorded history in Japan. In the 7th century, the first correlation between tattooing and punishment was recorded when the Emperor punished the rebel Hamako, Muraji of Azumi, with a tattoo rather than death. The tattoo was meant to punish him with physical and psychological pain alike, as it indelibly marked him as a criminal.
By the 17th century, tattoos had become an acceptable form of punishment and were reserved for the worst criminals. They were usually a combination of patterns and symbols, which often implied the places of the crime committed. Those with tattoos were shunned by their families and the general public and refused a place in society.
By the 17th century, tattoos had become reserved for the very worst criminals.
In the late 1700s, criminals began to cover their tattoos with decorative designs of their own choosing, which resulted in tattoos being used as punishment. Herein lies the origin story of the link between organized crime and tattoos. By the 18th century, decorative tattoos had become a popular art form but were eventually outlawed because of their affiliation with crime. Once they were illegal, tattoos were embraced even more by those belonging to the counterculture, most notably by the yakuza (Japanese mafia).
To the yakuza, tattoos physically manifested a member’s bravery, loyalty and resistance to the law.
Are Times Changing?
Views on tattoos are changing, especially among the younger generation. In 2021, a survey found that 60% of Japanese individuals aged 20 and younger believe that tattoo regulations should be eased. Despite this shift in attitude, surveys show that over half of onsen establishments continued to enforce a ban on tattoos as of 2015. Regrettably, this trend persists despite calls from the government for spa operators to cater to tattooed foreign tourists ahead of international events such as the Rugby World Cup and Olympic Games.
This is unlikely due to the belief that having tribal or butterfly tattoos associates one with a gang affiliation. Although the yakuza presence still exists in Japan, their numbers have significantly declined from 80,000 at their peak to only 11,000 in recent years. The ban is simply ingrained in the culture.
Tips for Visiting Onsen if You Have Tattoos
Onsen owner’s responses to tattoo requests vary greatly and are case-by-case. While some may accept small, less noticeable tattoos, others may refuse entry to guests with larger pieces. As a result, individuals with tattoos often need to find creative solutions to work around these restrictions.
Another option is kashikiri-buro (private baths), usually offered at larger onsen and many ryokans. This option may also appeal to those who prefer not to expose themselves in front of multiple strangers. Various ryokans offer private baths, which can typically be reserved upon check-in, in advance or whenever available, often for an additional fee. Selected-ryokan.com provides a list of ryokans with private baths.
Ask In Japanese
You should try contacting the onsen directly (especially if it’s a large sento or ryokan). Their phone number or email will be available on their website. Ask the owners if tattoos are okay. Sometimes, they allow you to visit but ask that you avoid peak hours. They might also ask if you can cover your tattoo.
Here are some useful Japanese phrases if you’re feeling brave:
|Are tattoos OK?
|Tatuu wa daijobu desu ka?
|I have a very small tattoo. Is it OK?
|Totemo chiisana tatuu ga arimasu. Daijobu desu ka?
|I have a large tattoo. Is it OK?
|Ookii tatuu ga arimasu. Daijobu desu ka?
|I’m a foreigner with a tattoo. Can I use your onsen?
|Tatuu no haitta gaikokujin desuga, onsen ni hairemasu ka?
Cover Your Tattoo
Sometimes, a little convincing is necessary. The onsen staff might allow you to enter if you can cover your tattoo with a washcloth. Covering tattoos in an onsen in Japan can be approached in several ways:
- Bandages or Waterproof Tape: You can cover your tattoo with bandages or waterproof tape. Make sure to use products that won’t come off easily in water.
- Clothing: Some onsen are clothing optional—especially baths that are outdoors.
- Tattoo Covers: Specialized tattoo covers or sleeves are designed to conceal tattoos. These can be purchased online.
It’s worth communicating with the onsen staff beforehand to inquire about their policies regarding tattoos and whether they have any specific recommendations for covering them. Remember to be respectful of the onsen’s rules and culture during your visit.
Don’t Be Shy
Stepping into an onsen with tattoos can feel intimidating. As foreigners, you may anticipate attracting stares, so breaking a cultural taboo could add even more stress. However, that isn’t always the case. At Sakinoyu Onsen in Shirohama, Wakayama Prefecture, a visitor shared a delightful experience with us:
“It’s a stunning open-air onsen overlooking the ocean and is reputedly one of the oldest in Japan. Despite wearing a dress that revealed a good portion of my tattoos, I nervously approached the onsen staff. To my surprise, they simply said, ‘It’s fashion. Please, come in!’ So, I entered.
Being the only foreigner, I attracted stares and felt exposed. However, other women approached me with their babies, striking up conversations and asking about my background. They were incredibly kind, and my initial discomfort quickly faded away.”
There are onsen that welcome people with tattoos. A few Japanese-only sites also list tattoo-friendly onsen, such as tattoo-go, tattoo-spot.jp, onsen-tattoo.com and tattooworks.net (Hokkaido only). You will need to use a translation app such as Google Translate. Beppu City, one of Japan’s best onsen towns, also compiled a list of 100-tattoo-allowed Hot Springs in Beppu ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Our Favorite Tattoo-Friendly Onsen
Here are some of our top picks for tattoo-friendly onsen, but for a complete list, check out our “30 Tattoo Friendly Onsen” guide in Japan:
- Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan: Located in scenic Gunma Prefecture, this ryokan offers a convenient weekend getaway from Tokyo. Guests, especially those with tattoos, can enjoy privacy and peace of mind with in-room baths.
- Kinosaki Onsen: Embracing body art, this charming hot spring town in northern Hyogo boasts seven public baths where you can relax in your yukata without worrying about tattoos.
- The Ryokan Tokyo Yugawara: This ryokan in scenic Yugawara, Kanagawa, combines traditional Japanese relaxation with a contemporary touch.
- Hakone Gora Onsen Hotel Kasansui: Nestled in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, this hotel, once a retreat for the Imperial Family, now welcomes all travelers with open arms.
- Yamato no Yu: Conveniently close to Narita Airport in Chiba, this hot spring facility offers sleek wood finishes, private rooms, and an on-site sushi restaurant for a quick dip and elevated experience.
- Dogo Onsen: Located in Matsuyama City, Ehime, Dogo Onsen has welcomed esteemed guests, including the Imperial Family, for centuries. The architectural design and traditional interior are believed to have influenced Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Original article by Martha Knauf.
Do you have tattoos? Do you have a story you want to share? Any tips or recommendations for tattooed tourists looking to experience hot springs in Japan? Let us know in the comments!