I recently published an article entitled: A Luxury Spa Day At Arima Onsen (that won’t break the bank). Immediately after I was asked if I could provide some onsen tips for those with tattoos.
One such response was via an email from Linda who lives in New Zealand. Linda is off to Japan for what sounds like a great trip next month and wanted some advice about using onsen for those with tattoos.
Here’s what Linda says:
"Hi we are travelling to Japan in a month with Intrepid on a food based tour, with extra time in Tokyo at the start and four extra days in Osaka at the end of the tour. As part of the tour we will be staying in a monastery for a night. And two nights in a ryokan in Sakyama. My concern query is I have heard that tattoos are not that accepted in Japan. I have several, two on my forearms, both are very tastefully done birds done in watercolour with quotes... but should I avoid the onsens, and keep my arms covered? Thanks so much Linda from NZ...(where tattoos are very much accepted and part of our culture)"
Linda is not the first to ask, so here’s what I think:
Tatoos and The Yakuza
Whilst tattoos in Japan are synonymous with the Yakuza (gangsters/mafia), the Japanese are unlikely to think that non-Japanese who have tattoos are members of the Yakuza!
That said, because of the association, if you have tattoos in Japan it can affect where you are welcome and what you can do. This most often crops up at onsen where, since you have to get naked to partake, any tattoos are likely to be seen by other bathers – and here lies a risk that you might offend other Japanese bathers – which won’t go well with the owners of the establishment.
But as foreigners, you will be given more leeway that if you are Japanese. Firstly, I would say, if you want to try an onsen during your trip and you have tattoos – absolutely try. Don’t presume it is a non-starter that you can use onsen (and I recommend you do!).
I Recommend Contacting Onsen In Advance
I recommend contacting the onsen in advance and explain that you have tattoos and, like Linda did above, how extensive they are, and ask if it is still possible to use the onsen facilities. Some may simply decline. That’s their choice.
Others, however, will take a different view and will accept you – with no more comment or question.
Some may suggest bathing at certain times or days to avoid busy periods and lots of other guests. Some may suggest booking a private bathing room (if they have them) so that you can have privacy whilst others can bathe without ‘fear’ of seeing someone with tattoos!
Some onsen will welcome you but simply issue you with skin-coloured patches to stick on, covering up any potentially offending ink.
If you are using an onsen which is part of a ryokan (traditional inn) then there is probably less chance that others would see your tattoos – unless the ryokan is a very large modern one.
Some ryokan allow you to reserve the onsen for private bathing (often used by couples or families) – which can get around the issue as you won’t ever be sharing the pools with people you do not know.
Is The Japanese Tourism Industry About To Change Its Policy on Tattoos?
As more and more foreigners visit Japan, and as the fashion for tattoos in some Western countries becomes ever more commonplace, and with the massive tourism drive the Japanese government is encouraging ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this specific issue is cropping up repeatedly.
Recently, the Japan Tourism Agency has suggested to the tourism industry that it relaxes its policy on banning those with tattoos from their facilities. I think this encouragement will slowly change the policy at individual onsen, or hotel chains who will take a more welcoming view.
I also think the economic potential of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will help focus the minds of many smaller business, to be more accommodating of foreigners with tattoos.
Most Popular Onsen Tours
Do you have tattoos and what to share your experience of travelling in Japan and how you and your tattoos were received? Then please leave a comment below:
Do you have tattoos? Do you have any experiences or recommendations to share about using onsen in Japan? If so, why not share them by leaving a comment below.
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