Ah, the onsen—a distant dream for those with tattoos in Tokyo…or so we thought. More and more bathhouses are allowing our branded friends through the door, and after being wholly deprived of the water-based experience due to my body art, I wanted to seek one out to finally be able to say I had onsen-ed.
The list of tattoo-friendly onsens is short as tattoos are linked to the yakuza, Japan’s mafia. Hardly any bathhouses want to be known as their associates. Even fewer onsens are actually in the city, many being on the outer edges of town.
Ultimately, I decided on Saito-yu for my premier onsen experience. It is just off the Yamanote Line in Nippori, and supposedly friendly to tattooed folk. Whether that meant merely tolerating or actually inviting tattoos, I would soon find out.
I headed there late evening on a Sunday, hoping I hadn’t mistakenly understood this onsen to be welcoming. This particular bathhouse is open from 2:00 PM to 11:30 PM, making it great for night owls (a.k.a. me). It even has a stack of English brochures displayed outside the door, making me quite a bit more comfortable.
I ducked inside and paid for my ticket at the machine: ¥460. They also offer lotions and bath towels for purchase. Cautiously, I went to the changing room and began to ready myself for stares—I do happen to have a large red octopus running down my side—but to my surprise and relief, none came. After that it was smooth sailing.
I now 100% recommend the nighttime onsen experience. There was something so gratifying about sitting in the open-air bath in the dark. I left completely refreshed and had the best night’s sleep.
For the newbie: make sure to rinse off before entering any of the pools. This is common courtesy at the onsen. Also, don’t forget to bring all of your favorite pampering goodies—face masks, scrubs, brushes, and lotions. The atmosphere will make you want to pull out all the stops.
Saito-yu has five different variations of baths with a range of temperatures. There is the verrry hot pool (you can hardly stand it), then the extremely cold pool. These are meant to be done in rotation, stimulating the circulatory system and detoxing the skin.
There is also the “electric bath,” which is not as scary as it sounds. No electric current here. Instead, there are jets situated at different angles, heights, and pressures to massage different parts of the body as you sit in the different alcoves. Not to go without mention are the carbonated spring water bath and the silky open-air bath—encircled by a calming array of plants and slatted bamboo to allow privacy, but still with access to the elements.
I was entirely glad I hadn’t let the “Japan hates tattoos” talk deter me from my bathhouse trek. As an American, the concept of bathhouses is not in our culture. It was new, fun, and interesting.
That being said, it was also strange to be so bare in a public setting. I think back to my secondary school locker room, where we changed in shame in the corners, hoping to conceal ourselves as much as possible from the other girls. Here, the young and old mix comfortably and casually, all shapes and sizes, and there is something so body-positive about it. No one appears weird or wrong, and definitely not ugly.
For those like me, from countries without a public bath culture, you will be surprised how natural it feels. On a deeper note, it makes you realize how little our appearance matters, and by the end you feel very comfortable in your own body.
There is hope for us, my friends. Don’t let the unwelcoming rumors cheat you of your onsen experience. We do have options, and it seems as if they are only increasing in Japan. Wherever you hail from, the trip is worth going to the nearest (which may be not so near) tattoo-friendly establishment.
Tattoo-Friendly Onsens and Public Baths
6−59−2 Arakawa, Higashinippori, Tokyo 116-0014
7-4-16, Kita Koiwa, Edogawa-ku, Tokyo
5-19-10, Kawaguchi, Saitama 332-0011
742, Miyakami, Yugawaramachi, Ashigara-shi, Kanagawa 259-0314
1630 Otake Narita-shi, Chiba 288-0841
51 Kotoku, Nikko city, Tochigi 321-2523
36 Ikaho, Ikaho-cho, Shibukawa-shi, Gunma 377-0102