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Onsen and Organised Crime

Nagasaki, Japan


In the morning we checked Couchsurfing again and found that we still didn't even have any negative responses from the Kyoto Couch-hosts. Lots of people's profiles said that they were fully booked for the next two months and the mood on the Kyoto forum was more agitated that other places, although nowhere near as nasty as Tokyo's forum. I came to the conclusion that Couchsurfing is broken: so many people know about it now that those hosting are constantly busy and have now started to feel like they are being put upon, rather than doing it because they want to. It's a real pity, but they obviously need to change something to re-balance the surfers versus hosts populations. Maybe they need to insist that you have hosted before you can surf; this would have excluded us too, but we would have tried to host before we set off if those had been the rules. At this point we pretty much gave up on Couchsurfing in Japan and decided we could get by with our treats once every three days. It also meant that we had to consider dorms from now on. We booked one for Kyoto.

We had been so stingy the first few days that, even after our expensive meal the night before, we still have some money left over, so we decided to spend it on the ¥1000 onsen package our hostel had leaflets for. For those who don't know, onsen are Japanese hot springs and, we were informed, a must do and a national institution. They are all over Japan and we were in danger of spending the whole time worrying about which one would best and never doing it, so to avoid this we just agreed to go for this one since it was near, sounded quite nice, and seemed reasonably priced; the ticket price included a ferry to Ioujima, a little island off the coast from Nagasaki where the onsen is, and entrance to all manner of different types of hot-tubs, Turkish baths, saunas, and so on. We managed to get a ticket at the ferry port by pointing and saying “onsen” and fifteen minutes later we were walking into a large complex, looking like a health centre. It was all a bit confusing but we followed some other people and came to a reception desk.

Behind the reception desk there was a sign saying “No tattoos”, with a little image of a butterfly crossed out and another one of something more manly. This was first English we had seen in the place. Joanne and I both have tattoos and since onsen are taken naked there was no chance of hiding them. There had been no mention of this in the leaflet at our hostel, nor any mention of it at the ferry port where we bought our all-in-one ticket. We pointed to the sign and she shook her head, but seemed surprised and confused that we would have tattoos. I pulled the neck of my t-shirt down so she could see the one on my chest, which is small, and she shook her head again and managed “sorry”. We were a bit annoyed to say the least, having shelled out what was a lot of money for us and come all the way here without getting any warnings. I looked up the word for “refund” in my phrase book, but it was clear this was not an option, so I tried donata ka eigo o hanasemas ka a slight variation on the sentence I knew, meaning “Does anyone speak English”. She nodded and picked up the phone.

Soon we were talking to a very apologetic manager who kept on bowing and saying sorry. He explained that in Japan tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and they are not socially acceptable. It's common, he told us, for onsen to ban tattoos. Culturally it's different in Japan, he explained. He wouldn't hear of a refund either, though. We explained that we had never been to an onsen before and we knew nothing about it until we saw that sign. OK, he said, what they could do was give us a cottage, where we would be in private and nobody would see the tattoos. This sounded too good to be true. In the public onsen we would have been separate into men's and women's facilities, but this way we could be together. Also, the private cottages must have cost at least three or four times what we had paid, so it was definitely a result! Of course it did mean that we weren't going to get the “real” Japanese onsen experience, but what could we do? And why did the Lonely Planet not mention this – or any of our friends who had been to Japan, for that matter? The cottage was lovely, clearly far better than anything we could afford, with a large hot-tub in a walled-in area outside. It did mean we were missing out the many different types of baths, but it was a nice little treat anyway: TV, aircon, robes, tea; the place even had two beds in case you needed a lie down, as well as a kitchen, and a lounge area.

When we were on the ferry back to the main island it occurred to me that the reason we had been refused entrance to the bar the day before was probably because of the tattoo that was visible on my ankle, next to where the shopping bag I had thought was responsible, had been hanging. What a socially conservative country! Quite a lot of the Westerners we had met in Japan had tattoos, some of them quite large, and walking around with them uncovered. How shocked all of the Japanese people they passed must have been! Ours were only small and caused all that trouble, getting us a big freebee; maybe the manager thought we would break his legs or have his head cut off if her didn't make it good for us.

When we got back we celebrated our victory by going out for dinner again, but this time to a much cheaper place, that sold local specialities. Mine was quite a nice seafood dish, but Joanne wasn't very impressed with hers. Nagasaki has a large Chinese and Korean influence in their culture due to having been Japan's only open port for many years. The food was kind of Chinese and Joanne had really gone off Chinese food since our short stay in China at the start of the trip.

The next morning we had time to see some temples before getting the train to Kyoto. Near our hostel was “temple street” with many temples, including all the best ones in Nagasaki. What a disappointment! Japanese temples are incredibly austere. None of them were at all pretty, in fact I didn't even take any photos, and they were not at all interesting. We decided not to bother paying to go into any since they all looked so dull and ugly. After all the beautiful ruins, temples, and pagodas we had already seen, I suppose Japan was up against stiff competition, but this was like they weren't even trying. A Church of Scotland in Glasgow has more appeal than a Japanese temple. Instead I took photos of amusing Engrish on signs and t-shirts as we whooshed passed the religious monstrosities.



We quickly headed off to the train, grabbing what were becoming a staple for us to eat on the journey. We still don't even know their names, just calling them “triangles”. They sell for about ¥100, which is one of the main attractions, and they are triangles of rice, wrapped in sea-weed, and filled with what is a random filling if you can't read Japanese. The sea-weed is cleverly wrapped outside the rice, but between two layers of plastic, presumably so that it doesn't get soggy against the moist rice. Ingenious! But also heavy on the packing. The amount of packaging used in Japan is really shocking: packets of biscuits are wrapped individually inside the big packet, and it's not unusual to have to make your way through three layers of packing before getting to what you want to eat, not to mention the piles of plastic bags they throw at you from behind the counter; seems we didn't need to steal all those laundry bags from the hotel in India after all!






permalink written by  The Happy Couple on July 9, 2009 from Nagasaki, Japan
from the travel blog: Michael's Round-the-World honeymoon
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Sorry about the tatoos. Many interesting stories to tell about the yakusa and missing fingers from my time.

Quite a few of the guys I knew when I lived there had tatoos, including one Maori with loads, and didn't have any problems.

Again Gaijin (foreigners) normally get cut a lot more slack).

Most yakuza are absolutely covered in tatoos from the neck line to the cuffs and on down to the bottom of their legs so it is quite possible no-one would have mentioned your tatoos had you not brought it up.

permalink written by  Alisdair Matheson on August 9, 2009


?very interesting read indeed. can u please give us the details of the hotel u stayed in and the place where there was a private onsen with a bed room? would love to go there

permalink written by  pk on July 6, 2012

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