Finding A Gym When You Have Tattoos In Tokyo
Staying Fit When Inked In Japan: You’re Going To Need Cover-Up
Tattoos can keep you out of large fitness centers and gyms in Japan, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have options.
“I’m usually a fit guy, but I broke my ankle, had to have two surgeries, and then with the pandemic/working from home, I’ve gained a lot of weight. I checked out my three closest gyms with my Japanese girlfriend (kickboxing, Anytime Fitness, and Konami) but they all refused to let me join because I have a pretty big tattoo on my upper arm. I said I’d keep it covered, but they all showed me the door. What gives? Is keeping it covered with a shirt not good enough anymore?”
Oh Japan. You’d think with the pandemic and the Olympics (presumably) still coming, gyms would have realized that turning away people with tattoos is bad for business, but apparently, it’s not bad enough.
Many hot springs and other such facilities have changed their policies to accept tattooed tourists, and others have been considering this as a means of reaping the rewards when post-pandemic travelers come knocking at their doors. Gyms, on the other hand, seem to be doubling down on their anti-tattoo stance.
they all refused to let me join because I have a pretty big tattoo
I ran into this myself several years back and made a list of all the gyms I couldn’t go to. It turns out, anything that’s a chain gym will probably turn you down flat, including international chains. The only chain that was open-minded and got my business was Curves for Women, but with limited locations and obviously being for women, that’s not an option for everyone.
Here is my list of major chain gyms and their tattoo policies as of February 2021:
Gyms that ban tattoos outright:
- Anytime Fitness
- Tokyo Sports Oasis
- Joy Fit Group
- Konami Sports Club
- Central Sports
You cannot join these gyms period. If you are found to have lied about having a tattoo when you joined, or get one after the fact, you will still be kicked out regardless. Your local branch of said gym might be willing to forgive your tattoo, but don’t expect this from all locations. In some cases, you might even have to pay for the rest of the month/next month after you’ve been expelled, due to their billing schedules (according to three Japanese/foreign individuals).
Many people still cling to the belief that Anytime Fitness is a safe place for tattoo-havers to work out, but as of 2015, they changed their official policies and now ban tattoos outright. Members that joined prior to 2015 must fully cover any and all tattoos, and may not use showers/pools for “sanitary reasons” (from a former Anytime Fitness member).
Gyms that accept fully covered tattoos:
- World Plus Gym
- Mira Fitness
- Gold’s Gym
What this means is that when applying to join the gym you must disclose that you have a tattoo, show them said tattoo, and then they will decide on how to proceed. For example, if you have one small (¥500 yen coin size or smaller) design, they will note it down, you will be required to keep it covered at all times, and can (most likely) join the gym. If you have multiple/larger tattoos, your experience will vary. You may be allowed to join, but on the condition that you do not use the pool/sauna, or you might be politely declined.
The emphasis here if you are allowed to join is on keeping it fully covered. Just covering it with a t-shirt/clothing is not enough. Those could slip, and accidentally expose your ink to public attention. In my friend’s experience at Gold’s Gym, he took off a sweatshirt which left part of a chest tattoo peeking out of the v-neck of his t-shirt when he was on the treadmill. Another member complained that he saw said tattoo, and my friend’s membership was canceled.
How do you ‘fully cover’ a tattoo?
There are plenty of liquid tattoo covers out there, and two of the best are Mehron and TatJacket. That being said, they take time to apply and dry fully, and might not be as water/sweat proof as you require. In that case, your other options are either tattoo covers or muscle tape.
Tattoo covers are flesh-colored sheets of plastic that you apply over your tattoo. They can be applied like a bandage (remove the backing and stick over the tattoo) or like a temporary tattoo (remove film, wet, apply to tattoo with pressure and pat dry). You can easily find them online by searching for tattoo covers on Amazon Japan or Rakuten. The issue here is with skin tone – if you do not fall within their standard “pale, pink, tan, or ochre” shade range, I’m afraid this isn’t an option for you yet.
Muscle tape, on the other hand, is far more readily available, cheaper, and lasts the longest of the three options. Plus it comes in a rainbow selection of colors, so you can match it to your gym clothes, skin tone, or whatever mood you’re in.
Also called elastic therapeutic tape or kinesiology tape, muscle tape is literally tape you stick over muscles in the hope of preventing/treating pain. It’s widely considered a pseudoscientific treatment (basically a placebo) but is widely accepted for its supposed benefits and readily found in pharmacies, ¥100 shops, and sundries stores like Don Quijote, Tokyu Hands, or Loft. They’re also available online, and in a wider variety of colors than found in most stores too.
Is it discrimination?
This is a topic that not many are willing to discuss. It brings out a lot of issues regarding discrimination between the Japanese (“only burakumin have tattoos” Japanese man, 55) and the Japanese against foreign nationals as well. There was the story of the New Zealand academic with traditional Maori facial tattoos being denied entry to a Hokkaido hot spring in 2013, as well as both pre and post the 2019 World Rugby Cup, fears before the 2020 Olympics… It’s a subject that has been heavily covered by the Japanese and international media.
If your tattoos are a part of your cultural heritage, then you can technically lodge a complaint against the gym for racism — but the burden of proof falls on you to prove the connection between your tattoo and your culture. Plus, you have to have proof that they banned or barred you access because of it and not for any other reason. It’s a tricky thing to prove in terms of a gym, at least, and a fight that I’ve seen many give up on because “it’s not like you’d want to join a place that treated you like garbage and admitted to it” (Japanese, 30s).
You could try making a complaint or contacting the Fitness Industry Association of Japan in order to plead your case, but from what I’ve heard from other tattooed individuals and despite their claims of protecting consumers, they side with the Japanese gym in the majority of cases.
They’re not as limited as they might seem. You can train at home, of course, visit your ward gym, hire a personal trainer and use their facilities/equipment, or try one of the non-chain gyms in your neighborhood.
Most people don’t even know that they have a ward gym or public sports facilities in their neighborhood. These are owned by your city and paid for by your taxes. So long as you live in that ward, you are eligible to use the sports facilities for free (or a reduced rate) whether you have tattoos or not.
That being said, you aren’t completely out of the woods at a ward gym either. If your ward gym is popular, you will need to share the time and equipment (and they are not open 24 hours a day and sometimes not on weekends). If it’s not popular, the equipment options could be limited or extremely out of date.
If your ward gym has a pool, you will be very strongly encouraged to tape over your tattoos, since swimming with a t-shirt on isn’t allowed, or be asked to wear “rash guards” (those fake sleeves that come up to your shoulders). The Toshima City Ikebukuro Sports Center and the Shinjuku Sports Center specify this on their websites. I have been told these are also expected at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and the Shinagawa City Sports Association as well.
Hiring a personal trainer is a good option if you have the disposable income, time and dedication to your workouts to justify it. While a simple Google search brings up several lists of trainers ostensibly available, it was harder to find reviews of their work. A good service to check for personal trainers is Zehitomo, which is a website where you can find local professionals in a variety of industries.
Two personal trainer services that also come highly recommended are Personal Fit and Nihon Barbell Club. Personal Fit has its own studio, but depending on the service you require, you can also work with their trainers at your ward gym or outdoors. Nihon Barbell Club on the other hand does not travel as far for clients, but has a more no-nonsense approach to fitness that many find inspiring.
Depending on what kind of training you want to do and how much you want to work out, trying to find the perfect gym is a lot of work. However, because they are local, they tend to take a more “evaluate you as a person” approach rather than blanket tattoo bans. Naturally, some do, but some are also more relaxed on the keep-it-covered rules (no tape or foundation necessary).
Two that I have heard good things about are Powerhouse Gym by Hide Yamagishi, located in Hatsudai, and Hero Gym, which is run by Shin Kodama. Anyone with an interest in bodybuilding will recognize those names—they have both participated in several International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness events. They are also both tattooed, so make of that what you will.
Whether you have a tiny heart on your ankle or a full-body Japanese design, there are plenty of ways to get fit and feel better in your inked skin.