Do you have tattoos and want to enjoy onsen in Japan?
This seemingly fairly simple wish may cause some issues if you do not do some prior research.
Many public bath, together with some gyms, swimming pools, tanning salons, Yoga studios, and bathing beaches in Japan have very strict rules about tattoos.
They often display notices 入れ墨禁止 (irezumi kinshi, or tattoos forbidden) to announce that nobody with a tattoo is allowed in.
Why are tattoos prohibited in onsen?
The main reason for this ban is to keep out 'yakuza' ヤクザ, Japanese gangsters as they traditionally have tattoos. Most 'ordinary' Japanese people do not have tattoos and seeing tattooed bodies make them uncomfortable and fearful.
Of course this obviously does not apply to most tattooed foreigners together with young Japanese who want to have tattoos as fashion.
This issue is being discussed when more and more tattooed foreign visitors want to enjoy onsen.
The number of onsen which allow tattooed people is increasing in recent years, but unfortunately any change is slow to come by especially in conservative areas in Japan.
Japan Tourism Agency Survey on Tattoo in Onsen
The Japan Tourism Agency carried out a survey in 2015 asking hotels and ryokans whether they allow tattoos in baths. This survey was conducted due to 'issues being encountered with foreign tourists with tattoos'.
Of all hotels and ryokan responded (about 600 out of 3800 institutions), 55.9% of respondents said they prohibit tattoos, 30.6% allow, 12.9% allow with certain conditions (such as tattoos should be covered with stickers etc).
The Tourism Agency concludes the survey saying that they will continue further survey on this issue, and keep providing appropriate information on tattoos to avoid potential conflictions between onsen institutions and customers.
What can you do if you have tattoos?
It is not that onsen employees perform full body checks before letting people in, so you can enter onsen even if you have a tattoo.
Onsen employees and fellow bathers may not notice, do not mind, or turn blind eyes to your tattoos.
But there is still a chance that you would be asked to leave if another customer complained about your tattoo, not a pleasant experience if that happens.
So what can you do if you have tattoos and want to go to onsen in Japan?
There are several ways you might try.
Family or Private bath
You may want to choose 'family' or private bath (kazoku yu 家族湯) where you rent an entire bathroom (on a smaller scale) as a family/group. This option is also suitable for people that are not comfortable to go naked in public and/or couples who want to enjoy onsen together. Many larger hotels/ryokans have these, but you may find it difficult to find a day spa 日帰り温泉 offering family bath.
Find Tattoo Friendly Onsens
As shown in the survey previous mentioned, there are onsens that allow tattooed people in their public baths, but it is often difficult to find out exactly which particular places allow tattoos before you actually go there.
There is a helpful site (in Japanese only) listing tatoo friendly facilities such as onsen, public baths, gyms, beaches etc.
Please note that the list may not be up-to-date as situations change all the time. Also not every institution on the site allows tattoos. Rather users rank each spot based on their level of tattoo friendliness.
1 star: no tattoos
2 stars: officially no tattoos, but there are people with tattoos using the facility
3 stars: tattoos allowed as long as you cover tattoos
4 stars: tattoos allowed on a case by case basis
5 stars: tattoos allowed without problem
This site is only in Japanese, so either use a translation tool or ask someone to help you.
Tatoo Cover Adhesives
Lastly if you want to go to a public onsen that does not allow tattoos, you may wish to hide your tattoos with plasters or something before you enter.
If your tattoos are fairly small, you may be able to use ordinary plasters you get from pharmacies.
There are also water proof stickers specially designed to cover tattoos such as these.