We get asked often by people who have tattoos as to whether they will be able to use the Japanese baths , and it is a difficult question to answer. Just like everything else in Japan, acceptance of tattoos is evolving. But like it or not, tattoos have a negative connotation in Japan. It is commonly said this is due to “yakuza” (Japanese organized crime) members having tattoo body murals which identifies the gang they belong to. This practice began during the Edo Period (1603 to 1867) when the yakuza started to appear in Japan along the main highways. But it goes back even further to the Heian Period (794 to 1185). Imperial Court members in Kyoto who did something so bad as to get them banished from the court were tattooed.
Are Tattoos Accepted?
The short answer to the tattoo question is no, tattoos are not accepted at Japanese baths. It can sometimes be difficult to get an answer to this question from onsens. The Japanese prefer to keep things vague, especially in a situation such as this where they are afraid the answer may offend someone. But there are exceptions, and some baths do accept tattoos. There are many variables such as the size of the tattoo, the location (large city vs rural area), type of bath (ryokan, onsen, sento), etc. You can always just use the bath, and if asked to leave the bath, or told you cannot use the bath, you should accept this graciously and move on. Do not start asking questions, or trying to argue your case. Doing so will not help your situation, but only make it worse. One thing I have learned from traveling around Japan for more than 25 years and living in Japan more than 12 years is that while yes does not always mean yes, no always means no. Anyway, it can often be difficult to get
But fear not, there are other options. More and more sentos (public baths) in the larger cities are now accepting tattoos. If you are on one of our tours and have a question as to whether there is one close to your hotel/ryokan, please let us know and we can help with finding one. Another option is to find lodging with it’s own Japanese-style bath attached to the room, but this can be expensive. Another option is that many hotels and ryokans located at onsen will have “family baths”. These baths can be reserved for an hour and can be locked off and used privately. There is often a fee for doing this. The normal cost is 2,000 Yen to 3,000 Yen ($19 USD to $28 USD). Many of the onsen lodging we use have family baths. Of all these options, I would suggest trying the family baths.
Over the years, I have really come to appreciate the Japanese-style baths. It is a unique, and very Japanese experience. Personally speaking, I love them. On your trip to Japan, if you do not try the baths, you have not truly visited Japan. I would hate to see someone miss out on this experience because of tattoos. But with a little planning, you won’t miss out on this unique Japanese experience.