- While doing research for a trip to Japan, I learned tattoos were considered taboo.
- Since my husband and I both have tattoos, I worried it would make navigating some areas difficult.
- We never had any negative reactions — I think it’s because so many foreigners have tattoos.
I’d wanted to get a tattoo since I was 18 years old. I loved the idea of carrying art on my body with me wherever I went and was drawn to literary-themed tattoos.
Because I had so many different ideas and was also nervous about how much it would hurt, I spent years adding tattoo ideas to a Pinterest board and jealously ogling other people’s.
In my early 30s, I had been reading a lot of books about trees and how they supported each other through their root system. Inspired by that, I contacted a tattoo shop and got my first one in 2021.
The minute it healed, I was itching to get another. I have only one, a set of three trees in various stages of growth on my left bicep. My husband also has one on his forearm — a narwhal in the style of Audubon drawings.
My husband and I never worried about what people would think about our tattoos until we started planning a trip to Japan. I thought our tattoos would be a big deal, but they weren’t.
I worried having tattoos would cause problems in Tokyo
We discovered through our research that having tattoos might be an issue. In Japan, body art is considered taboo because of its ties to the yakuza, aka the Japanese mob.
While this is starting to change, some Japanese onsen, or hot springs, won’t allow people with tattoos to enter. It’s a way to bar yakuza without directly discriminating against them.
Before arriving in Japan, I wasn’t sure whether we would get a lot of stares while out in public or at an onsen.
Our trip began in Tokyo, which is where I assumed we would have the most issues in such a large city because, with the warmer weather, we would be wearing short sleeves, while surrounded by people. I’m not sure if it was because the city was full of foreigners with tattoos prominently displayed or that Japanese people have accepted that body art is common in other parts of the world, but no one gave us a second look.
Though we didn’t make it to a hot spring in Tokyo, I learned that there were many tattoo-friendly onsen. We also read that many times, if you just covered up body art with bandages, most places wouldn’t have an issue.
After forgetting to cover our tattoos, we made do with what we had
Toward the end of our trip, while in Yakushima, an island south of mainland Japan, my husband and I visited a hot spring by the Pacific Ocean. This had been high on our bucket list. It’s not just unique but also accessible only when there’s a low tide, and the view is gorgeous. We couldn’t wait to sit in a relaxing, warm pool while feeling the cool ocean breeze, with the waves rolling toward us.
As we arrived, we realized we had forgotten a bandage or anything to cover up our tattoos. Luckily, I had a quick-dry towel, so when we got to the circle of rocks where we could change, I helped my husband wrap his arm and then put a hair tie over it to keep it tight.
For my tattoo, I had a cover-up that I could use. The host who owned the house we were renting lived right next door. When he welcomed us to the house and explained how to find the onsen, his wife encouraged me to wear a special towel that went over my shoulders and wrapped around my body so I could cover up while bathing. I pulled the shoulder of the towel down to cover my arm, which seemed sufficient.
The locals didn’t stare at our tattoos or pay us any attention
When we approached the onsen — which was mixed gender and made up of four or five pools, all of varying heat levels degrees — it was fairly crowded, with about three or four men sitting in the biggest one and a woman sitting in a smaller one.
We were a bit nervous and shy, as most of the men were basically naked besides small towels wrapped around their waists, which barely covered anything.
Once we were in the water, though, we stopped worrying and just relaxed. I struggled to keep my tattoo covered, but no one seemed to be looking at me. People minded their own business and no one made eye contact while sitting in the pools.
Yakushima’s stance on tattoos seemed to point to a growing trend
Later that evening, we went out to dinner with our host and asked him whether tattoos were taboo in Yakushima. He smiled and said that people didn’t mind because there weren’t any yakuza in that part of Japan.
Despite having severe insomnia for a week as I adjusted to the 13-hour time difference, I feel extremely privileged to have been able to travel to Japan. From eating melt-in-your-mouth sushi for just $20 to hiking past 7,000-year-old cedar trees, it was truly an unforgettable experience.
Not having to worry about my tattoos made the entire trip better. It’s good to know that these days, Japan is easy to navigate when you have tattoos.