What to Expect when Traveling to Japan with a Tattoo

by Nicola Spendlove
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The fact that Japan is not the most tattoo-accepting society has been well documented, and indeed comes with an interesting social history – read more about that here. But what does this mean for a tattooed person traveling to Japan?

The truth of the matter is tattoos are becoming increasingly socially acceptable in Japanese society. It is unlikely that you will receive anything other than polite interest in your tattoos from the general public when traveling around Japan. However, in certain places – particularly onsens (hot springs), ryokans (traditional guesthouses), temples and public pools, you will still see blanket bans on tattoos.

Perhaps this is your first time traveling to Japan (if so, you’re in for a real treat) and you’re nervous about how your body art will prevent you from enjoying all this incredible country has to offer. In my experience as someone who has traveled with two (albeit small) tattoos, there is always a way around this issue.

Temples & Tattoos

As with most religious sites worldwide, modesty is important in Japanese temples. This tends to include the covering of any visible tattoos.

Any hot-weather trip I go on, I carry a light shawl or scarf with me at all times – this has served me well for covering both my shoulders and my back tattoo if I find myself unexpectedly stumbling upon a temple or religious site that I’m eager to explore.

I tend to throw this over myself before even approaching the entrance of a religious site so that the person working there doesn’t feel awkward about having to ask me to cover up (not a fun conversation in any circumstance but especially bad with a language barrier) – small acts of respect go a long way in Japan.

Depending on where your tattoos are and how you tend to dress, a shawl, sarong, light jacket, or bandages might be your preferred choice. Whatever works for you, pack it in your day bag wherever you wander to be sure you don’t miss out.

Onsen & Tattoos

A quick note on the difference between onsen and sento – an onsen uses water from a natural hot spring, while a sento is a communal bathhouse that uses heated tap water. The customs are much the same in both, so for ease of reading I’m just going to refer to onsen in this section – but you can apply this to sento as well.

Going to an onsen is one Japanese activity that you certainly don’t want to miss out on. There is something so cleansing about immersing yourself in hot water while looking out over breath-taking natural beauty and stepping out afterward to enjoy a cup of green tea. I hate to be bossy, but I simply must insist that you go to at least one onsen before your trip to Japan is finished.

Many onsens, particularly more traditional ones, have a no tattoo policy. No worries, I hear you say, my tattoo is covered by my swimsuit. I’m good to go! Well, my friend, I’m afraid you might need to re-think your plan – because you will be naked as the day you were born. That’s right, absolutely no clothes allowed in the onsen.

There are ways around this – my tattoos are on my ribcage and upper back, and are small enough to cover with flesh-colored bandages when heading to an onsen. I have never been stopped from entering once my body art is obscured by the bandages, which many onsens actually provide on-site for this very reason. I have also seen people with similar-sized tattoos use small washcloths to cover the ink while bathing.

If you opt for a private bath (kashiki-buro), you can let your tattoos hang out in all their glory. For me personally though, part of the experience is the social element – the chance to mix with and observe local people in an experience that is so very unique to Japanese culture (I realize that saying I like to watch Japanese people take a bath makes me sound like a complete creep to those who haven’t experienced an onsen, but I’m hoping those who have can back me up on this).

If your tattoos are too big to cover and you don’t fancy a private bath, there are a growing number of onsen that are tattoo-accepting – I would suggest asking this question in advance of turning up to avoid disappointment or embarrassment on the door.

Ryokan & Tattoos

Ryokans are traditional Japanese guesthouses that typically have some sort of onsen or public bathing facility attached to them. The guidelines for ryokan are therefore more or less the same for onsens.

While your tattoos may not be evident while you are checking into the accommodation (clothed), they may cause an awkward moment when you go to use the bathing facilities later.

To minimize awkwardness, check policies on tattoos beforehand – many ryokans are now tattoo-friendly, or happy to accept covered tattoos.

Waterparks & Tattoos

Public pools and waterparks as a general rule tend to have strict no tattoo policies. This will be openly advertised via signage in-and-around the facility.

This policy is certainly enforced – I have personally seen people being escorted out of water parks for having a visible tattoo. For many tattoos, particularly arms, back or torso ink, this is easy to get around. A long-sleeved rash vest will solve all your problems.

For leg, foot or facial tattoos, this is going to be more of an issue – some clever bandaging or concealer may get you into the park, but whether it withstands the test of water flumes is another issue entirely.

Cover up as much as you can and hope for the best would be my approach – and don’t make a scene if you are asked to leave. Remember, tattoos mean something very different to many Japanese people (particularly older Japanese people) than they do to us Westerners, and we must respect the local culture.

Gyms & Tattoos

I’m gonna put my hands up here and admit that I have never gone to the gym while traveling anywhere, let alone Japan. My only exercise while on trips comes in the form of walking until I’m blistered – but some of you may be a lot more dedicated to gains than I am, hence this section.

It is my understanding that tattoos are generally not accepted in gyms. Luckily, unless you have a facial tattoo, it is possible to choose lightweight workout gear that covers most any ink.

Finding A Place for your Tattoos

Let your common sense guide you on this one. If you are in bustling Tokyo, the only attention you’re likely to get for your tattoos is positive. There is a difference between Yakuza tattoos and ‘fashion’ tattoos – the ones Westerners have tend to fall very obviously into the second category.

My back-piece was custom designed for me by South Korean tattoo artist Hongdam, and it is a delicate oriental-inspired image that has garnered many kind remarks on my travels – including in Japan. I have no qualms having it on display when in modern, urban areas.

If you are traveling in more rural or traditional areas, tattoos might make people uncomfortable. I always keep mine covered in these situations out of respect for the locals.

This approach has worked well for me, but I know it would prove more challenging for those with larger pieces or more visible placements.

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