It’s really hard being a person with tattoos, especially when you are a foreigner in Japan wanting to try out the traditional onsen. Even though it’s not as big of a problem in today’s world in most countries, the reason why tattoos are still taboo here is because of those that are known as the Yakuza.
For those of you that don’t know, the Yakuza are basically Japan’s equivalent of gangs, organized violent groups that tend to be involved in Mafia- style crime. Members of the Yakuza have been stereotyped as mainly males with heavily tattooed bodies and slicked hair which has made Japanese people in general fear tattoos as a warning sign of those associated.
While obviously one or two small tattoos wouldn’t make you in the running as a member Japan has created a sort of blanket rule banning tattoos from many places, the most common being Onsen/ Sento.
Being a foreigner in Japan with tattoos I find it a bit annoying to have to deal with these rules because Onsen is such a traditional Japanese experience that you don’t get many places but yet, even with two small tattoos many places I am not allowed to go.
Thankfully, because of the Olympics, Japan is getting a bit better about this rule since there is an influx of foreigners but if you are still unsure if a place allows them you are in luck.
Last year, when I first came to Japan I learned about this site called Tattoo Friendly (https://tattoo-friendly.jp). Started by foreigners this website is the best place to go to learn of all the places that are tattoo friendly- whether it be Onsen, Sento, Gyms, Pools, Beaches or just Hotel and Ryokan. It is primarily in English but also has a version in Japanese and I enjoy browsing it as they also tend to have good recommendations as well as articles about things such as good bathing manners in Japan, etc.
If you want to have a full onsen/spa experience without going very far (to a mountainous area outside of Tokyo) there is a great spa called Thermae-Yu in Nishi-Shinjuku which fits the bill. Based on 2019 Excellence Standards I found this listed on TripAdvisor’s Top 10 highest rated spas for the Tokyo area so I thought I would give it a try. Despite not being on the Tattoo Friendly website, it just so happens that this place is somewhat tattoo friendly.
Despite having signs saying that tattoos are not allowed, if you are a foreigner you are still able to use the facility if you show your passport at the entrance. From there, the front desk will prompt you to buy a skin patch to use to cover up your tattoos while inside.
Prices for these patches are 300 yen and come in both a small and large size. What makes them special is that they are manufactured specifically for the purpose of use in an onsen, as they bond to your skin much better than bandages (although just as a warning they are a pain to get off!) In addition, the person at the front desk will hand you a guide to the spa and the floors, along with a wristband that gives you access to your locker to store clothes and bags. Make sure to keep this on you though because it is also used to pay for things, as a quick scan at different areas will track your purchases inside the spa to then be totaled at the end. Once done you will be directed to another desk where you can pick up your towel and lounge wear for inside the onsen.
Unlike some smaller onsen you will find, the locker room where you change is on the first floor therefore the lounge wear is there for full comfort in lounging around the spa facilities. For women the lounge wear comes in two different options a dress and jacket or top and leggings. I opted for the dress and jacket as it seemed more comfortable. They also have three different sizes- Small, Medium, and Large, so plus-sized people this spa will also cater to your needs!
On the second floor of the building you will find the hot spring baths. Split between male and female sides, each area contains 6 different baths you can choose between, each one with their own natural properties. The first thing to do before going into the main bath area is to ditch your clothes in yet another set of lockers (complete with their own sets of keys on wristbands which are waterproof so make sure to also take them with you!) and then head to the shower room in which you can choose between sitting and standing showers to cleanse yourself before entering the main baths. Shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are all provided so make sure to use them to try to get all the dirt from the day off!
1. Main Bath
The highlight of the onsen would definitely be this main bath as it is pure hot spring water. Each day water is transported from Kami-no-Yu (Divine Hot Spring) in Gifu Prefecture to Shinjuku which is then heated to 42 degrees Celsius and hydrolyzed to maintain the same quality as the springs. It is partially outside since the roof is slightly open and covered in slats allowing the cooler air to balance out the high heat. There is also a lovely mosaic of fireworks overhead which completes the nice atmosphere.
2. Silk hot water bath:
This creamy, dense bath containing a large amount of small bubbles at about 42 °C. The large amount of superfine bubbles gently wraps the entire skin, resulting in a high cleansing effect. We will remove the dirt on the skin surface and expect a beautiful skin effect, providing you with the best bath time.
3. Sleeping hot water bath:
This bath was one of my favorites since it is made for lounging, with rows set up of about 6 feet, low water level and a small rest for your back so you can fully recline in comfort. The heat of the water lulls you as a jet attached to the backrest massages you to a state of pure relaxation.
4. Jet Bath:
At a temperature of 40 °C this bath will heat you from the inside out, as powerful jets within will massage your whole body. According to their website, the combination of the two promotes blood circulation and relieves fatigue and stiffness. The improvement in circulation is also supposedly helpful for dieting by promoting the burning of fat in areas that tend to hold tension such as stomach and thighs.
5. High Concentration Carbonated Bath:
The last bath that I had the chance to experience was this one which is filled with thermal water which has such a high a high concentration of carbon dioxide in it which makes it carbonated. After a couple of minutes of soaking you will notice the strange sensation of millions of bubbles slowly covering your body. Similar to water with high salinity this bath helps to soothe inflammation as well as reduce irritation and itching which is perfect after a long day of walking.
Outside of the baths, on the second floor you can also find saunas and a room where you can do your hair and wash your face after getting out. On other floors you will find a restaurant where you can get nice Asian food as well as a bar, lounge area, massage parlor, and rock spa but as I went later in the day on Sunday and I did not have the time or opportunity to use any of them as most of the additional services are extra. For the three hours I spent and access to the baths I paid a total of 3228 yen ( Normal usage Fee is 2364 yen for 12 hours but an additional 864 is added on weekends and holidays) which isn’t bad considering I got out of the rain and relaxed a ton.
If you are looking for a bargain I do suggest going to Thermae-Yu on the weekdays for the cheaper price and also going later in the day as between midnight and 9am prices go down to 1836 yen. Maybe a good place to stay the night if you miss the last train and have sobered up a bit after a night of drinking (if you appear to be drunk they will not let you in so be careful!)