Tattoos in Japanese Baths

Sign at an onsen entrance
"Is it true that I can't go to the hot springs with a tattoo?" 

I hear this question quite a bit from friends making their first visit to Japan. The short answer: yes, it's official policy many places to bar tattooed people from entering public bathing facilities. But there are lots of ways around this. (Baths are called "onsen" or "sento" in Japanese).

 

Background

The official reason given for the ban is that Japanese mafia (Yakuza) have tattoos and bath owners don't want that crowd scaring off their normal clientele. I'm sure that is/was true some places, but more often than not it's a convenient cover story for xenophobia. Many baths have signage that's only in Japanese, yet oddly the "No Tattoos" sign is always in English, y'know, because so many Yakuza can't speak Japanese 🤔. I've even had an attendant try to kick me out because "no tattoo! no tattoo!" so I dropped my towel, did a little pirouette, and said to him in Japanese "which tattoo?" (I have none) 😉

It seems to me the main driver of this xenophobia is that foreigners often don't know to follow Japanese hygiene and modesty conventions, so here's a few tips so you don't go reinforcing bad stereotypes:
  1. Shoes Off! There's almost always a ledge when you first enter the baths to denote the "inside floor" from the "outside floor". There's no worse faux pas anywhere in Japan than tracking street dirt indoors (given the delicate nature of traditional Japanese tatami mat flooring, this is somewhat understandable). So remove your shoes here, keeping in mind that once your shoe is off, you shouldn't put your sock-covered foot back down on the "dirty" outside floor.
  2. Shoe Locker. There's usually a set of shoe lockers or shoe shelves right near where you leave your street shoes. Also, in some bath houses the shoe locker number also denotes the locker number you should use after you enter the main locker room. 
  3. Get Naked. Since most baths are gender-specific, nudity is mandatory, even for children. (TIP: 男 is man, 女 is woman) If you're too modest for this, don't go. Note, some places have only one bath with specific hours for each gender.
  4. No Cellphones! I shouldn't have to say this, but do not bring your phone with you into the bathing area. 
  5. Use Your Towel Like a Fig Leaf. Carry a small towel (not a large one) with you and make a loose and relaxed attempt to hold it in front of your genitals when you walk around.
  6. 10 Minute Shower. Hit the showers first. Most people use the seated types, but there are standing ones for old/disabled people. Spend at least 10 full minutes vigorously scrubbing every part of your body. The spigot usually has controls for the sprayer versus the spout so you can use a bucket to do a nice splashy rinse. There are usually free razors and toothbrushes, so feel free to shave and brush your teeth while you're here. 
  7. Bathe. Head to the communal pool (there's usually at least 2) and put the small towel onto your head while you're in there. Never wring your towel out into the pool.
  8. Talk Quietly. You can talk to people if you want, but don't be boisterous.
  9. No Swimming. Some of the pools are quite large but don't swim in them. 
  10. Use the Bathroom Slippers. If you have to use the toilet, put on the communal bathroom slippers when you enter. The bathroom floor is considered "dirty" and you don't want to touch it with your feet or in any way track the "dirt" from the bathroom back into the bathing room.
So you can probably surmise from this list that the fear is that this giant hairy person (who doesn't use the Washlet because it's too "weird") will arrive and jump right into the communal water without scrubbing their entire body from head to toe to butt crack beforehand. Then they'll talk loudly, tromp bathroom dirt back into the bathing area, and leave their wet towels lying everywhere.

Tattoos

So now that you have the long story about why tattoos aren't really the reason for the tattoo ban, the fact remains there's still no "well behaved foreigner" card you can flash to prove you're one of the good ones. You're stuck paying for misbehaving people and Japanese prejudice out of your own proverbial wallet. Here's a few things you can do.
  1. Visit tattoo-spot.jp with Google Chrome (so it can auto-translate the Japanese for you) and find a place that accepts tattoos. This is a visitor submission-powered site, so it's possible not everything there is accurate. A targeted search of the Reddit Japan travel forums (use this link) should let you peruse a lot of visitors' experiences at various places.
  2. Visit a Don Quixote store and buy some tattoo cover up patches (or use flesh-colored duct tape like my friends do). On my most recent visit, though, I saw two separate places forbidding these patches. Sigh.
    Cover it up!

  3. Go at off hours. Many Japanese-brand hotels (e.g., APA, Dormy) have an on-site onsen. Most are open through the night and the busiest hours are in the post-dinner, before-bedtime hours of 9pm to 1am. Most are closed during the 11am – 4pm hours when rooms are being cleaned. I've gone at 5pm at several places and had the whole place to myself. 
  4. Book a private/family spa room ("kashikiri-buro"). Some onsen offer a private tub that you can book, this is usually much cheaper than the next option:
  5. Book a hotel room with its own onsen tub. We booked a room at Funaya in Matsuyama that had its own cedar soaking tub, and if you look at the picture (click to enlarge), you'll see that there's a separate tap for you to fill the tub with hot water directly from the underground spring.
    In-room onsen
  6. If you're booking an expensive hotel or ryokan visit, email them in advance and ask. It'd be a huge letdown to have a big splurge during your trip only to be barred from the baths after you arrive.

 

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