Things may be getting a little easier for lovers of the traditional hot springs who also love their ink.
While traditional Japanese tattooing is celebrated for its bold imagery and colorful patterns, the inked themselves still get plenty of negative attention in Japan. The full body tattoos done in the old fashioned manner are almost entirely limited to the yakuza, and even though Western-style “fashion” tattoos are becoming more popular among younger people, too much body art is likely to make it tough for you to enjoy one of Japan’s traditional pleasures: the onsen.
Hot springs hotels in areas frequented by tourists – particularly ski areas – tend to be more permissive of tattoos, but stories of people being turned away from onsen remain numerous. A little over two years ago, an academic from New Zealand was turned away from a hot spring resort in Hokkaido for her facial tattoos. Although this case may have been an extreme example, it does present an issue that the country should tackle, particularly given that it is looking to welcome the world to its shores (and its hot springs) for the 2020 Olympics.
The Japanese government has responded relatively quickly, and in a refreshingly liberal way, to this issue. In a statement delivered last month, the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) has requested that onsen resort owners take a more tolerant view of their foreign guests’ reasons for getting tattoos in the first place, most of which don’t have much to do with being a part of a criminal organization. In its remarks, the JTA pushes hotel and resort operators to allow guests with tattoos to use their hot springs. However, this permissiveness is not legally binding, and if owners are still reluctant to have guests with tattoos using the bathing facilities, they are requested to give guests the choice to use stickers to cover up their art or to give these inked guests the chance to use a private bath.
So, if you’ve been longing to do a bit more exploration of Japan’s many onsen, it looks like good news on the horizon. But remember, it’s not law that onsen hotel owners have to let you use their baths, and don’t expect them to be impressed by that ironic Garfield tattoo you got five years ago.