In most of the countries I have visited, having tattoos isn’t such a big deal. I would go to the beach, the gym, the store, and a bunch of other public places and see people sporting tattoos. I remember even one of my grade school teachers had a small butterfly tattoo on her ankle that sometimes was visible if she wore a skirt. With so many international celebrities and athletes showing off their ink, it’s easy to forget that there are many places in the world where tattoos are not accepted.
With all the holiday meals and cold weather, now is the perfect time for going to a gym or hot sping onsen. However, if you have even a small tattoo, it could cause some serious issues and embarrassment. As a foreign girl with both large and small Western style tattoos, I have been denied entry and even kicked out of gyms. While you have to be careful and aware of potential problems, enjoying these activities is not impossible with tattoos. Yes, it is more difficult, but not impossible.
I love going to the gym. I’m not necessarily a very fit person, but I love to do cardio workouts in a climate controlled, safe environment. In Japan, many roads do not have sidewalks or even a shoulder, which really isn’t the most ideal situation for people who enjoy walking or running. One time, I was actually hit in the shoulder by a bus mirror as it passed me. Luckily, it wasn’t going so fast, but it certainly rekindled my healthy fear of traffic.
My husband and I enrolled in our first gym after moving back to his family home. At the time, I had a small wrist tattoo that I could cover easily with a wrist band, and I had a medium sized tattoo between my shoulder blades, at the base of my neck. The medium tattoo was not visible with a t-shirt, though if the collar was pulled or moved, one could potentially see a small part of the tattoo. I thought that I didn’t need to crazily cover it, and that wearing a t-shirt was fine enough.
After I finished with some weights, a trainer approached me and pulled my husband and I out to the hallway. In a hushed tone, he said that when I was working out, he could see partly down the back of my neck and that it looked like I had a tattoo. Like a teacher reprimanding a student in the hallway, he asked me if I had a tattoo. When I confirmed that I did but planned on keeping it covered, he said that didn’t matter. No tattoos were allowed. We were asked to leave the gym immediately and were lucky to get a partial refund.
Now I know better and found a private gym where people aren’t so strict, though it doesn’t make me any less vigilant. I now wear high collars of strong but breathable material. If I’m feeling particularly careful, I place some athletic tape over the top part of the tattoo, but I rarely do that anymore. Most Japanese running suits have high zippered collars, so a relatively inexpensive suit can be found easily and it doesn’t look out of place at the gym.
I have a much larger back tattoo now, running from the front of my shoulder over my back and down to my tailbone. I hide it by tucking in my undershirt. I look like everyone else at my gym, though the only thing that stands out is my avoidance to change or shower in the locker room, unless the gym has private stalls. I have heard from other tattooed friends that changing in the locker room is what got them “spotted” and kicked out of their gym.
Most public gyms cannot turn away taxpayers, and I know many people with tattoos who go to such facilities. While it is very cheap to pay per workout at public facilities, the down side is the lack of equipment or services.
When it comes to onsens, I prefer going to the ones with private baths in the room. While it’s more expensive, it certainly allows for relaxation beyond prying eyes. Many hotel-style onsen, unlike sento or super-sento bath houses, are more flexible with tattoos. Even before I had tattoos, I saw a woman in an onsen with a dragon tattoo on her lower back. Obviously nobody minded.
If you are in Japan and have tattoos, you may want to call ahead or check for tattoo policies prior to your arrival at any gym or bathing facility. In the summer, you will want to check beach and pool policies, as many prohibit tattoos. Finding a way to cover your tattoos with athletic tape, waterproof bandages, athletic supporters, and strategic clothing decisions can help you still do the things you want to do.
There are a few online sites and blogs, like http://tattoo-spot.jp, that list places where you can go with tattoos, but be careful. Not all of the information is up to date. At Tattoo Spot, I noticed that they list Nagashima Spa Land as a tattoo friendly pool, but living near the park, I know they have large signs at the entrance in multiple languages that declare tattoos prohibited from the entire resort.
However, the park website says in Japanese that tattoos are only prohibited in the pool area, but you can still enjoy the rest of the resort. With such conflicting information, sometimes you have to take the risk of going somewhere and hoping you don’t get asked to leave. I have been to the Jazz Dream outlet mall technically within the boundaries of the resort without problems. Just be careful and you can still enjoy the things you want to do.