When plans were made to visit Japan, my coworkers of Japanese descent immediately suggested visiting an onsen, as it is a deeply cultural activity they knew I would love. They quickly remembered I was marked with tattoos, and it seemed my newest adventure was squashed before it could even begin. You see, tattoos are still very taboo in Japan. Although the culture is slowly changing, many still link tattoos with the yakuza, an organized crime organization in Japan. This likely meant I would miss this experience unless I decided to go to a Yakuza friendly onsen. Spoiler alert: I love a good adventure, but organized crime in a foreign country is something I try to avoid.
Knowing how body art is viewed, the onsen idea put out of my mind, and I decided I would just miss this cultural activity. I would just have to find some new fun. Fast forward to a few weeks later… While sitting in a hostel in Tokyo, I decided to go into an extensive google search to see if the onsen really was a possibility. I didn’t want to go all that way and miss out on a Japan “must do”. Low and behold, it was possible!
Day Trip: Hakone Onsen Bound!
The My google search landed me in Hakone, the land of Japanese onsens. By all accounts, Hakone has not one, but several of the best onsens in the whole country. Although the pickings were slim for tattoo friendly onsens, I stumbled upon Tenzan Tohji-kyo, a fully fresh water hot springs sitting just about 2 hours outside of Tokyo. Getting there was just a matter of catching the correct transport. I highly suggest the Hakone Freepass, as it covers all points of transportation to, from and during your trip to the Hakone onsen.
When I arrived in Hakone, I was immediately smitten with this charming town. It had such a country feel, yet still had a plethora activities and spots to grab trinkets. It even had several foodie type spots. If you are interested in planning a full one day itinerary, please click here for kid friendly suggestions from Parenthood and Passports.
Entering the Onsen
I have to admit, I was skeptical I was going to be allowed to come into the onsen even though I was assured tattoos were acceptable. I pressed on anyway. You can opt to take the bus to the Tenzan Tohji-kyo location, but I chose to take the fairly long, scenic walk so I could see the town. If you don’t have physical limitations, I highly suggest this option.
Once at the onsen, I paid the Y1300 for the day entry fee, plus the Y200 for the towel rental. As it is customary to remove shoes inside buildings, your shoes have to be left in lockers at the entrance. Slippers are provided for use while inside. From here, there is free use of the facilities. I also do not speak Japanese, but I could easily communicate with the staff and never once felt like I couldn’t communicate my needs.
What to Expect in this Hakone Onsen (From a Female Perspective)
You can find a common area for clothed relaxing, but males and females are separated for their hot springs experience. This place is very well laid out and at no time was I able to see the opposite sex while I was in the hot springs area.
Once in female area, you will completely undress pretty quickly. There is zero modesty in this area. Although you may feel uncomfortable, rest assured that the Japanese women around you pay no mind. There are all kinds of kinds here.
Before entering the hot springs area, you will rinse off in a short shower type area. You will sit on a stool while you wash off. Unfortunately, there was only bar soap at this particular onsen, but I just tried not to think about it. Once you are thoroughly rinsed, you can move out to the hot springs area.
Here, it was not too crowded and there were several hot springs, at varying temperatures. I suggest trying them all to see what you like best.
It is important to note, the small towel you have should not go in the water at any time. It is to be placed on the side of the hot springs area, or if you want to do as the locals, you can drape it over your head.
Do your very best to keep your hair out of the water. It is frowned upon to let your hair hit the water.
Once you have enjoyed all the wonderful relaxation the onsen has to offer, it is time to gently pat off. It is customary to not wash off after you get out of the hot springs, as you are supposed to preserve all the healing properties of the onsen.
If you like to get ready for the rest of your day, there is an area with outlets for all your primping needs.
From here, you can continue to enjoy the common area, grab a bite to eat or enjoy a massage.
Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed inside, so be sure to take lots of brain pictures!
So What About the Tattoos?
It is absolutely true: tattoos are welcome at this Hakone onsen. With this being said, you may catch a few side eyes. Even though tattoos are allowed, many of the older, and/or more traditional women may look at you a little funny if you are sporting body art. My best advice is to just ignore it. You are prancing around in all your glory, naked as the day you were born. A little side eye for some tattoos ain’t no thang! Enjoy yourself! Drink in all the culture; truly enjoy the relaxation. Besides, these are all strangers in a new land. You’ll most likely never see them again!