An onsen（温泉）is a hot bath whose water is heated by geothermal energy from the very volcanically active crust of Japan. An onsen usually consists of a spa-like environment, sometimes with several special pools (bubble pools, cold pools), and one or two regular hot pools, often 44-55 degrees Celsius, that can be indoor or outdoor.
Onsens are a staple of Japanese life, and you should definitely try a soak if you visit. For most people, you just need to show up, pay a fee (usually between 500 and 1000 yen), bring a small towel (or rent one at the facility), wash up and hop in. That is unless you have tattoos.
You might have heard about Japan’s absurd relationship with tattoos, only to a certain extent caused by the association of tattoos and Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
You might have heard the stories of people getting asked to leave an onsen once they reveal their tattoos. But don’t fear, you won’t have much trouble trying out an onsen in Japan. Keep in mind that the smaller facilities usually don’t care much about your tattoos, whereas large, touristy places somewhat paradoxically can have more of an issue with your body art.
If your tattoo is small
Is your tattoo small enough to be covered by a plaster? Then just cover it up, and you’re fine. Many onsens even offer them to guests. It may not even be necessary to cover them up, but if you want to be sure, plasters seem to be a surefire way to get around any tattoo rules. No one is going to do a thorough check of your skin before letting you enter.
Many places have big tattoo-cover plasters, around 20x25 cm, so is your tattoo is on the bigger end of small, you can still cover up easily.
If your tattoo can be covered by clothes
This is the category I fall in, and where my techniques have been tested. I recommend you avoid big resorts for a higher success rate. There are three approaches here:
- Call and ask in advance if tattoos are allowed. But beware: your best bet is small facilities where locals go, but there you likely won’t be able to find an English speaker. If you live at a hotel, ask the reception desk to call ahead for you.
- You will mostly get a “no” on the phone. However, this doesn’t mean that most places are tattoo-free. It just means that if they will just play it safe and turn down tattooed guest with a blanket rule. In many (if not most) places, you can just gamble. Just go in. Worst case, another guest gets upset and notifies the staff. I do believe this is quite rare. Think about it: just what level of indignant would you have to be to get out of your warm bath after a long day, get dressed, fetch staff and make a scene? Assume no one cares about your tattoos. You will be fine. There is no 100% guarantee here, but if you can live with being asked to leave after only 10 minutes of hot spring, this option will almost always work. It’s the approach I recommend. Also, as long as you are respectful, you are helping change the view of people with tattoos in Japan. More people showing off their ink without shame is a great way to change the public view of tattoos.
- Get a private bath. Available at many hot spring hotels, in a private bath you can do whatever you want, and they are not that expensive compared to the public version, especially split between several people. Even if tattoos technically are not allowed, there is no chance that anyone other than your friends seeing your tattoo.
If you have tattoos on the neck, head or hands
If this is you, then of course option 2 and maybe even 3 above won’t cut it, since the staff might turn you away before you get a chance to enter. However, you can still call ahead. You might get asked about the nature of your tattoos, and it is possible that you will get more negative answers than someone with less bold body art. And you can always get a private bath.
In general, don’t be discouraged. Getting in an onsen with tattoos is slighlty less work than getting vegetarian meals in Tokyo, and it’s worth the little bit of extra effort.