A Tale of Tattoos and Hot Tubs

During our *ahem* recent stay in Japan we got the chance to experience something rather exotic – take a dip in a Japanese Bath, or Onsen.

A year ago is still considered recent, right? I digress…

Japan, much like the rest of the ancient world, at some point used public baths as a way to keep their citizens clean. It was also a time to socialize, conduct business. You know, the usual occurrence at a hot tub.

Most of the baths in Japan are separated by sex, no swim wear can be worn, and oh by the way if you have tattoos you may or may not be shunned and barred from the onsen.

That last bit was slightly concerning.

You see, (Grammy stop reading), I happen to own a few of those…and if the “no swim wear” bit was enforced…well, where is a tattoo to hide?

I decided to test my luck. After all a story about being banned from a public hot tub has to be more exciting than a story about how I was too afraid to go for fear of being kicked out.


Hotel Makoto on Miyajima again sets the scene. Adam and I had just finished scarfing down our mostly unidentifiable dinner and were eager to try out the next traditional experience.

We donned yukata – a light cotton “kimon0”, which is not a kimono at all, and is used as a bathrobe for onsen – grabbed our handy-dandy picture card of instructions, and headed down to the public bath areas to test our luck.

The picture card is hilarious and oh-so-helpful. Cute little animations of nude people cheerfully preparing their bodies for the hot tub. It was, I must say, a much more involved process than I anticipated.

Picture Instructions

See, here in America, I just jump right on in to whatever hot tub I stumble upon. No backyard is safe if I can spy a hot tub in the distance. Now, typically I keep my suit on, but there is no showering off. Or bathing. Or any type of hygiene routine prior to jumping in.

Picture cards in hand, Adam and I part ways, I enter the ladies onsen and am greeted…

…by absolutely no one.

It was a big let down to prepare myself for a moment of nudity with absolute strangers and to then be confronted with an empty locker room.

True to the picture card there are several bathing stations along the walls complete with shampoo and conditioner (well, at least I think that’s what they were…I haven’t gone bald yet so…bullet dodged, I guess), and a bucket so that you can douse yourself with water from the shower head. I didn’t really get that last bit – I mean, if you have a shower head wouldn’t you just, you know, use it rather than filling up a bucket to mimic what the shower head already does? Maybe I should’ve read that picture card more closely… Anyhow, once you are appropriately cleaned you are then instructed to enjoy the onsen.

And enjoy it I did.

It was incredibly hot, there were a lot of plants in one corner giving the illusion of being out of doors and it was a little boring too. It almost would’ve been nice if someone else had been there. So I enjoyed the solitude and the heat until I was certain my typical time limit in the States would’ve been up.

After I realized I had accidentally combined steps 1 and 3…I decided to call my onsen experience finished and went back to the locker room where, lo and behold, a fellow bather had decided to enjoy the onsen too.

It was awkward. I mean, the little towels they provide aren’t quite bath-size worthy, plus there I am holding onto my picture card for dear life. Oh, tourist! I dried off and put my yukata on as quickly as I could. I was more than a little nervous about what might happen should this new bather spy my tattooed self. Is there an eject button for rule breaking gaijin here? I mean, I was holding that instruction sheet…

All in all it was a great and relaxing experience – despite my lack of company and slight fears of being kicked out for not respecting the rules. In terms of fanciness Hotel Makoto is pretty minimal – as we discovered during our research before our trip you can get pretty fancy (read: pricey) for a more luxurious onsen experience.

But, for me, and as far as hot tubs go, this was just swell.


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