Japan’s relationship with tattoos is notoriously complicated. Even at the height of their popularity during the Edo period, the samurai class made attempts to ban these creative decorations that depicted designs that were considered subversive. Because of their popularity, the bans were ineffective and so the culture of horimono — literally “engraving” — remained strong among working-class craftsmen such as carpenters and firemen for centuries. By the Meiji period, bans became stronger as Japan tried to assimilate Ainu and Ryukyu culture — both with long traditions of tattooing women — and remained in force until after WWII.

Despite the lift on the ban, tattoos often remain hidden — partially because of the association with yakuza — and restrictions at pools, beaches and baths are on the rise. There is one place that remains welcoming to a special group of inked individuals: Mount Oyama.

horimono documentary tattooed dude

Photo by Alex Reinke and Luca Ortis

Exploring Oyama’s Tradition of Tattooed Pilgrims

Every summer, the holy mountain of Oyama — just over 90 minutes from Shinjuku — welcomes pilgrims, many wearing just fundoshi, proudly displaying their traditional horimono tattoos to the gods and the locals alike. It’s the only place in Japan where tattoos are celebrated in this way.

This summer, a small film crew will accompany the Choyukai — a group of tattoo artists and tattooed individuals — on their pilgrimage to Mount Oyama to create a documentary about the practice, the group members’ thoughts on tattoo culture in Japan, and more. Though filming during the pilgrimage and related ceremonies will be unobtrusive to prevent any disruption, there will also be in-depth interviews with individuals involved. The team has the full cooperation of their subjects and the local community, including the city office, the pilgrimage leaders and the head priest of the Shinto shrine where the filming will take place.

Help the Horimono Documentary

While the film crew has generously received permission to film this otherwise inaccessible event, they still need help to make the Horimono documentary a success. The team started a Kickstarter fund to raise money to complete production and cover the cost of travel and accommodation, as well as fees for archival footage, and more. There is a selection of pledge rewards, ranging from temporary tattoos featuring the Choyukai logo to exclusive pre-release viewings and an exclusive guided trip to Oyama, including a Noh-by-firelight performance.

To find out more about the Horimono documentary project, who’s behind it and more, check out the project’s Facebook page or Kickstarter page.

Watch Horimono Online

Horimono: Japan’s Tattoo Pilgrimage is now available online to view via the VICE News YouTube channel for free. (Running time: 17 mins)

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