Basic Onsen Etiquette in Japan & How to Onsen with Tattoo’s
Japan in it’s history was lavish with tattoo’s, but as times change in Japan (as they often do), the Japanese culture became more and more strict with the usage of tattoos, until now, still in 2016 we see many onsen, santo (bath houses), gyms and hotels will still turn people away who have tattoos that are visible.
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Overall this custom bans anyone from entering their facilities if they have a tattoo. So beyond now knowing that tattoos are considered taboo in Japan over all, what else do we need to know about etiquette when it comes to Japanese onsen? (hot springs). Be sure to read through till the end to find out how you can still enjoy the Japanese hot spring (onsen) experience whilst pimping out your favorite ink!
Or I highly recommend a hand-book guide to the best onsens in Japan below:
Etiquette Rules #1
Be sure to fully wash yourself before entering into an onsen or santo. You’ll want to scrub yourself down, then rinse yourself. Many times there will be a stool you can use to sit on while washing.
Remember that in Japanese culture, baths are not for cleaning yourself, they are for relaxing. Many onsen and bath houses will expect you to bring your own towels and soap for cleaning, so be sure to do so. Plus you can save money by avoiding having to purchase the bath houses soap and towels.
Once you’ve cleaned yourself before entering, clean up your area and make it ready for the next customer after you. Also note that taking pictures in an onsen is kind of weird and you should not do it. Although some will allow, I’d say, be respectful of the naked people around you!
Etiquette Rules #2
You can use your towel to cover yourself whilst walking about the onsen or santo. Do not dive or splash in the water, do not wring your towel out in the water. And when you are in the water place your towel on your head. You can also set the towel to the side on a rock if you’d rather. If you need to wring out your towel, don’t do it in the onsen.
Don’t be a pervert. Pretty simple
Do not swim in the onsen, this is time for relaxing, if you want to swim go to a pool.
Etiquette Rules #3
Do not wear a swimming suit or bring a towel into the water to cover yourself. You’ll need to get over being naked in the onsen or santo. This is how things are in Japan, no body really cares. Overall bringing things into the water is shown as dirtying the water. So don’t do it!
If you want shared gender bathing experience go to a konyoku bath. You can also look for a kashikiri-buro bath which is used for families and must be reserved beforehand.
Etiquette Rule #4
Remove your shoes, many onsen have traditional Japanese flooring called tatami mats. It’s customary to remove your shoes before entering upon a tatami mat, so before entering the onsen area with the tatami mat, take off your shoes, and don’t label yourself the biggest gaijin in the world.
Etiquette Rule #5
Be sure to understand what changing room is yours. The women’s dressing room will usually be a large red curtain with the kanji for woman on it 女. If you end up going into the woman’s changing area, you’ll get slapped, head butted then possibly arrested for being a hentai 😛 so don’t do that.
Etiquette Rule #6
Since all onsen and santo are basically buck ass (nude only), you’ll need to place your clothes in a certain location. In the changing rooms you’ll find baskets that you can place your clothes in, many times you’ll have a locker. Don’t leave your stuff just hanging out all over the place, it looks trashy and it’s super rude!
Etiquette Rules #7
If in doubt, ask. Many onsen will have specific rules about their onsen or santo. You can read signs on the wall or simply ask if you are unclear.
This is where many times people with tattoos will need to address the issue if they are unsure the onsen allows tattoos. Still to date, many of these onsen do not allow tattoos but its become more common now days that you can find onsen that allow tattoos or at least be able to cover them up.
So unless you want to reserve a private onsen experience, you’ll need to know the rules of the onsen about tattoos. Tattoos in Japan have a few bad connotations. First is that the famous Japanese gang the Yakuzas have tattoos and second people were tattooed when they were in prison to show that they are criminals. So these ideas are still somewhat strong in Japan and thusly why some onsen don’t want to deal with Japanese or foreigners with tattoos!
But there are a few things you can do if you have a tattoo in Japan and want to enjoy an onsen or santo, gym or hotel. You can simply find locations that allow tattoos (Use Tattoo Spot (it’s in Japanese)) or if your tattoo is small enough you can use a water proof sticker to cover up your tattoo.
Still check with the onsen before hand to avoid any conflicts with patching your tattoo, but many onsen are now allowing patching up their tattoos.
You can purchase Japanese onsen tattoo patches here.
You can also check out this product here about how to remove your tattoo naturally at home!
Now you know some simple Japanese bathing etiquette! By following these basic etiquette rules you will impress the owners and the Japanese, and help pave the way to more leniency for tattoos and foreigners moving into the future. Being someone that has a small arm tattoo I’ve been doing my research very thoroughly so I hope you can trust my advice and you can also enjoy the Onsen experience in Japan!
About the Author
I've been interested in Japanese as a language and as a culture since I was about 15 years old. In April 2017 my wife and I moved to Fukuoka, Japan to go to school for 2 years. We've since returned to America and now are looking to expand Nihon Scope further for future visitors of Japan to get in touch with the best school they can. We're also here sharing our experiences of Japan and the culture. Get in touch with us on Facebook for the quickest response!