Using Tattoo Seals to Visit a Japanese Onsen

June 10, 2024
Illustration of three women sitting in an onsen hot spring bath with folded towels on their heads
Soaking in an onsen (Designed by Freepik)

This isn't a sponsored post, and it doesn't contain affiliate links—I just wanted to share my experience using tattoo seals to visit Japanese onsens.

Thanks to geothermal activity throughout the country, bathing in onsens (or hot springs) is a quintessential part of Japanese culture.  The options range from remote, scenic pools to large resorts and urban hotels, and soaking in the hot, mineral-rich water promotes relaxation.  I knew I wanted to experience this aspect of Japanese culture during our trip to Japan, so I booked hotels with on-site onsens.

Cartoon of tattooed man with a bottle of beer and text reading "No tattoos and drunks allowed!"
Onsen rules at Onyado Nono Osaka Yodoyabashi, our hotel in Osaka

But I had a problem: my three tattoos.  Most onsens don't permit visible tattoos, since in Japan tattoos are associated with organized crime.  Wearing a rash guard or similar bathing cover-up wasn't an option, since onsens require full nudity (there are separate facilities for men and women).

Nearly all of the guidebooks and travel blogs I came across recommended using bandages to cover up tattoos.  However, one of my tattoos is fairly large (about 6"/15cm long) and I wasn't confident in the ability of a bandage to cling to my skin while soaking in hot water.  Luckily, there was a solution: tattoo seals, which are also referred to as tattoo stickers, tattoo covers, or foundation tape.

Side-by-side photos of Stacy's shoulder, one with her tattoo and the other with her tattoo covered with a tattoo seal
One of my tattoos without and with a standard size tattoo seal

What are tattoo seals?

Tattoo seals are opaque, durable stickers that are designed to conceal your tattoos while you're in an onsen.  They are intended to match your skin tone, although since they are primarily marketed to Japanese consumers the color range is limited to light and medium shades.

Tattoo seals come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Measure your tattoos (in centimeters) to figure out what size you need.

Stacy's forearm with an opaque tattoo seal
Extra-large "LL size" tattoo seal

Where can I buy tattoo seals?

If your hotel's onsen requires tattoos to be covered, they might sell seals at the front desk—two of the places I stayed, Sora Niwa Terrace Kyoto in Kyoto and Onyado Nono Osaka Yodoyabashi in Osaka, had tattoo seals available for purchase.

I like to plan ahead, so I bought my tattoo seals online.  All of the listings I found on Amazon U.S. looked incredibly sketchy, so I purchased them from Amazon Japan instead.  Based on the measurements of my tattoos, I needed three different sizes: standard size in light ochre, large size in light ochre, and LL size in pink ochre (light ochre would have been a better match, but the color options were limited for the largest size).  I had to pay for international shipping (about $15) but it was worthwhile to be confident that I would end up with products that worked.

Ebay is another option.  There are several listings for the same brand of tattoo seals I purchased that appear to be legitimate and have good reviews.  The manufacturer's website doesn't offer international shipping as of June 2024, but that may change in the future.

There are likely other options for buying tattoo seals online or in-person, but those are the best solutions I found after a lot of Internet-based research.

Three tattoo seals in different sizes with a pen for scale
My tattoo seals with a pen for scale

How do you apply tattoo seals?

Most tattoo seals are packaged between two layers of packaging: a white backing and a clear piece of plastic on top. 

Start by thoroughly washing the skin area you're covering with soap and water, and then dry it completely.  Peel off the white backing, revealing the sticky surface.  Position over your tattoo, making sure it's completely covered.  Press down, starting in the middle and working your way out to the edges.  Make sure you smooth out any bubbles or wrinkles, and take care to thoroughly press down the edges.  Once the tattoo seal is securely in place, carefully remove the clear piece of plastic.  (Here's a Japanese-language instruction video.)

My extra-large, LL size tattoo seal was made of a slightly thicker, fabric-like material similar to a bandage, and didn't have a top layer of clear plastic.  It went on like a sticker: I peeled off the white backing and stuck it to my arm.

How long can I leave tattoo seals on?

Tattoo seals adhere to your skin incredibly well—I left them on for over 24 hours, in order to get two onsen visits out of each set.  I would apply them in the evening, shower, soak in the onsen, and shower again, and then repeat the process the following evening. 

However, I eventually developed skin irritation under the extra-large, LL size tattoo seal (probably because it was less breathable and/or used a different type of adhesive that my skin reacted to), so I switched to removing the extra-large seal immediately after each use. 

Sign indicating that tattoos are allowed
Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku

If I can't or don't want to use tattoo seals, can I still visit an onsen?

Some onsens do allow tattoos.  The hotel I stayed at in Tokyo, Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku, allows tattoos, plus it's budget-friendly and conveniently located—I highly recommend it to everyone, tattooed or not.  This article has additional recommendations and information about finding an onsen that allows tattoos.

Another option is to stay at a traditional ryokan, or inn, with a private onsen that you can reserve by the hour.  This article includes several recommendations throughout Japan.

Is using tattoo seals worth it?

For me, yes.  Unwinding in the onsen at the end of each day was one of highlights of my time in Japan.  However, there are so many other cultural experiences in Japan—if soaking in an onsen doesn't work for you, for whatever reason, don't stress out!  You'll still have an amazing trip.

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Photo of various sizes of tattoo seals with text reading "Using tattoo seals to visit a Japanese onsen"

I didn't receive any compensation for this post, and it doesn't contain affiliate links.  All product and hotel recommendations are based on my own experiences, which I paid for out-of-pocket.