Japan Tattoo Friendly Onsen in Nagano

Tattoo Friendly Onsen in Nagano, Japan

Remember when I mentioned how Adam and I did almost zero planning for this trip? Well, another great example of that mistake was assuming we wouldn’t have any trouble finding a tattoo friendly onsen (spa) in Japan. LOL. I mean, yeahhhh, I read a little bit about it beforehand, but I couldn’t really find any useful information about it online and just figured it wouldn’t be an issue because come onnnnn, it’s 2016! (Stupid American mentality…) So, not only do most public onsens not accept tattooed people, but if you haven’t done your research beforehand and try searching for one while you’re in Japan… It’s basically impossible because every website is in Japanese and you’re rarely able to translate it. *D’OH!*

Adam and I spent a few nights in Tokyo before heading to Nagano for the Snow Monkey Tour and I was already denied access to the onsen at our hotel in Tokyo because of my tattoos which was unfortunate because we paid a bit more for the hotel because it had a spa… I went up to the front desk our first night there and asked about it. I started pulling up my sleeve to show her the large tattoo on my arm and she gasped and said, “OH! No no, sorry, sorry.” We even got together with one of Adam’s friends a day or so later who lives in Japan and she was walking around with us, speaking Japanese to the people working at the tourist centers, trying to help us find somewhere, and even they seemed surprised that I had tattoos and didn’t really have many recommendations for spas it’d be okay to visit.

I started to hate myself a bit for having tattoos at all after that. I was worried I’d leave Japan without getting the chance to experience a traditional onsen. Being denied for the way I looked was a strange feeling and really bummed me out. Maybe it’s because I really respect Japanese people and their culture, so being judged by them hurt my feelings, haha. (I hoped it was obvious I wasn’t associated with the Yakuza gang, but you never know…) I get it, though. And I respect that. So, after searching and searching, I reluctantly gave up on it and figured it wouldn’t happen.

Buuuuut of course since Adam is the greatest and works miracles all the time, he was able to find one for us! The only downfall was that it was back in the same town we had just come from the day before where we saw the snow monkeys. (I didn’t mind one bit, though!) So instead of heading back to Toyko like we had planned, we packed our things, left our hotel in Nagano the following morning, and traveled back to the Yamanouchi area.

The train ride back was lovely. Nagano was super cold and it was snowing pretty heavily that morning. The views on the way back to Yamanouchi were so pretty.

I really loved that little town. There’s a single old-fashioned train station, and winding roads leading to onsens that are scattered all over. There were big hills, small streets, buildings stacked on top of each other, and lots of abandoned homes. The traditional ryokan we stayed in was called Shimaya, and it’s run by a guy named Ichiro and his wife. Ichiro was a funny guy and made us feel right at home. (He really liked that we were from Seattle. I learned that pretty much all Japanese people know Seattle because of Ichiro Suzuki who played for the Mariners before switching to the Marlins.) Anyway, like in most Japanese homes, you take your street shoes off at the door. The ryokan had rows of house slippers for you to wear to your room.

They had yukatas in the cabinet for us, complete with instructions for how to wear them. I didn’t realize men and women wore them differently. We loved sleeping on the ground on futons (what they call them) and decided we’re definitely going to change the theme of our room at home to incorporate one. (Someday we will anyway…)

The view from our room was incredible! We’d usually sit to eat out on the patio area since they had a cute little table out there. We lived off of sweet cakes, crepes, and these rice and seaweed triangles. You can find them at 7/11 and Lawson, which are convenient stores all over Japan.

After derping around a bit, we finally had the chance to soak in the onsen! Adam paid a bit extra so we could have it to ourselves. You get 50 minutes. The onsen at Shimaya is up the street, so our walk was chilly, but it was worth it once we got there. The sun was just starting to set and the water felt so wonderful. (I snagged a few photos from the Shimaya website.) Ichiro tried really hard to get a photo with the sunset behind us but it didn’t really work, haha. I should have brought my big camera, but we weren’t sure what it would be like once we got there, so since Adam’s cell phone is in a waterproof case, we settled on bringing that which is why the photos are grainy.

Tattoos out! The spa is surrounded by other buildings and homes, so if someone happened to be looking out of their window, I’m sure they saw us. Oh, well. :) The water was super hot, but with the cold winter air, it was perfect. Afterward, we changed and then walked to a popular dinner spot down the street. It was quiet except for a few other couples chatting, smoking cigarettes, and sitting cross-legged on pillows on the floor. I ordered some sort of milky noodle and veggie dish with saki, and Adam ordered a beer and soba noodles; his favorite.

At the hotel, there were drawings and paintings all over the walls that guests had hung over the years, and there was a little corner to write notes, leave gifts, etc. So, you know, obviously, I had to leave my card… :)

In the morning, we said goodbye to Ichiro and he gave us some breakfast recommendations near the train station. We ordered an egg sandwich and toast with jam, but barely had enough cash to pay for it! We were able to scrounge up enough coins, though, thankfully.

After reaching the main train station in Nagano, we ordered hot cocoa and a cherry blossom latte before leaving for Tokyo. Yum! I always had lots of snacks on hand, too. Crackers, cookies, peanuts… I’m pretty sure we gained some weight in Japan. It’s impossible to resist all of the adorable sweets!

I can’t believe how many Japan photos I still have to sort through. School is over in a few weeks, and then I’ll have all summer to play, so I hope to be a bit quicker this time around and get those photos posted. As always, thanks for reading!

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  • Reply
    Craig Aude
    May 23, 2016 at 1:19 PM

    Your my daughter so, I love you even though you have tattoos.

  • Reply
    Craig Aude
    May 23, 2016 at 1:35 PM

    “You’re”, doggone it!

  • Reply
    Mitzie Mee
    May 25, 2016 at 10:03 AM

    “Not making merry” *LOL!!!* I’ve heard about the tattoo thing from my Japanese friend. i think it’s because it’s mostly criminals and gang members who have tattoos, so blocking tattoos is a way of blocking gangsters from entering the onsen. Though my friend told me that most places would be fine with it, as long as it’s covered up?

    • Reply
      May 27, 2016 at 10:56 AM

      Yeah, I think some places it’s okay if they’re covered, but I have a lot so I’d literally have to be covered in bandages, haha. I’m so glad I was able to find one though. :)

  • Reply
    May 26, 2016 at 8:04 AM

    I had no idea that most onsens didn’t allow tattoos! (Granted when I was there I hadn’t gotten one yet, so it wasn’t a big deal) but now I do have a small one on my back. I guess I’ll have to cover it with a bandaid when I head back (hopefully sometime soon!) There is so much that I still want to explore, since I only went to Osaka and Kyoto last time I was in Japan!

    • Reply
      May 27, 2016 at 10:58 AM

      Yeah if you cover it you’ll be fine! I really wanted to make it to Kyoto, but we didn’t have time. I hear that’s a beautiful place! I could easily live in Japan. I can’t wait to go back either!!

  • Reply
    June 2, 2016 at 1:01 AM

    Ahhh this is so fun to read! We rented a campervan in Japan so we had to rely on onsens to bath. I have a small back tattoo and my boyfriend has a larger back and arm tattoo, most of the times we just pleaded ignorance but there were a few times we were rejected and it was really awful. I think you summed it up perfectly and yup totally get wanted to plead with them “I promise I just love Japan and tattoos and not part of Yakuza!” Your trip sounds amazing and I love that you endured to have an onsen experience – such a cute and pretty one too!

    • Reply
      June 3, 2016 at 8:31 AM

      Aww, sorry you were rejected! It is a strange feeling, isn’t it? I respect it, though, and I understand, so it’s hard to feel too upset about it, but I’m glad we were at least able to find this private one. Maybe next time we visit there will be other public ones available that accept tattooed folk!

  • Reply
    June 3, 2016 at 6:27 AM

    I am so glad I stumbled onto your blog! I have been thinking about going to Japan next year, but I havent decided yet. I can see you really embraced the culture! And you’re right, those views are unreal. I bet the pictures don’t even do it justice.

    • Reply
      June 3, 2016 at 8:29 AM

      That’s so exciting! You’ll love it. :) I still have so many Tokyo photos to post. I’m terrible at blogging regularly! Haha, and yes, I feel none of my photos did that trip justice!

  • Reply
    noemi of
    June 6, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    I didn’t know about the tattoo and onsens, did you ever find out why it wasn’t allowed? Or is it really because they’re afraid you’re a yakuza member? :) Good that you’re able to find one though. :)

    • Reply
      June 6, 2016 at 8:01 AM

      Yeah, I think it’s because of the Yakuza gang. They’re worried tattoos might offend their older guests. Maybe things will change down the road, but I’m happy I was able to find one, too!

  • Reply
    McKenzie Allyshia
    June 16, 2016 at 5:27 PM

    I have never heard of onsens before, but I was surprised that many did not allow tattoos. It is so normal to have them here that I would have never thought that they could be discouraged in other places. How interesting! I absolutely loved reading about your time and it has definitely made me want to visit Japan one day! P.S. You have such wonderful writing!

    • Reply
      June 17, 2016 at 1:46 PM

      I know – I will never assume anything when traveling ever again! It’s always a good idea to do your research first. And thank you – I appreciate you visiting!

  • Reply
    Sam @ Alternative Travelers
    September 13, 2016 at 5:12 PM

    Wow, learned something new today! Had no idea that tattoos weren’t allowed in onsens! I’d looove to visit Japan one day and do have a tattoo on my arm, so it’ll be good to have this info! I’d probably opt for covering it since it’s on the smaller side, though I’m sure I’ll have a few more by the time I go ;) Gorgeous photos too btw!

    • Reply
      September 15, 2016 at 7:23 AM

      I know, isn’t it crazy?? But I get it. I think if your tattoo is fairly small, covering with a bandage is perfectly fine! I’d literally be wrapped in all sorts of weird ways if I did that, haha. Thanks for visiting!

  • Reply
    January 26, 2017 at 1:28 PM

    Oh yes a friend of mine had told me about this so my boyfriend and I are both waiting to get tattoos before we come back from Japan later this year (hopefully!) I was researching onsens recently and it does seem hard to find one that accept tattoos. Also hard to find mixed onsens, but there’s always the really expensive option of having one inside your room haha

  • Reply
    August 2, 2017 at 5:18 AM

    I am feeling a bit distressed while planning a trip to visit my son in Japan next year since I have several tattoos. Any idea if there is a foot spa that allows tattoos, I have several on my feet/ankles

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