Dropping down into Narita Airport from Seoul, a childhood dream of mine was about to come true. I've been obsessed with the aesthetic of the East for decades...and like most little kids, it all started with catching Sailor Moon and Gundam Wing on T.V. after school and then moved into Ukiyo-e prints, Noh Theatre, and Butoh dance as I got older. The trip itself, which lasted a month, was a hope to deeply understand the Japanese culture and to experience everything that I possibly could in such a short amount of time.
From temples to tattoo studios, this little guide to Tokyo, Japan (and a bit beyond) will hopefully help and inspire you to take a trip of your own!
My first stop was Three Tides Tattoo in Tokyo, a few blocks away from the famed Harajuku shopping district. Although Lolita and Fruits fashion has wavered in popularity since the early 2000's, if you're lucky you'll still catch some outrageous street fashion...Three Tides was thankfully a calm oasis from the bustle of shoppers, and the artists here are humble and serious about their craft. Ali and Rita, the shop managers, were incredibly welcoming and helpful. While there, we shot some footage with Ganji and Ichibay, stay tuned for that soon, and I got one of my dream tattoos! Ganji is known for his unique style and illustrations of Yokai, Japanese ghosts and demons...a perfect fit for my Shunga inspired mirror.
I can't really describe my experience here in words that express my gratitude fully. Being at Three Tides was basically a dream come true...I'm so thankful to have a piece to remind me of it for the rest of my life. And as a stranger a long way from home, I felt really welcome and happy here. Ganji, Azusa, Ichibay and the staff are sincere and devoted to this important art form...I would suggest everyone making a trip to this spot if you're in Tokyo. It is an absolute must.
In Yokohama, a quick train ride from Tokyo, Aki of Diablo Art has a small studio that is covered with colorful manga, toys, and art. Aki is an artist who almost completely dedicates himself to the tattoo art of otaku, a word that describes those who are obsessed with anime and manga. As a fan of it himself, he really knows not only the characters and stories, but the need for hardcore comic geeks to have a place where they feel understood and accepted. Like otaku's, Aki explained that being a tattoo artist in Tokyo is very much an outsider underground art. Tattooing is still illegal, and therefore shops have to be hidden, and there isn't really a huge supportive tattoo community like in Europe or the US. But, Aki explained, the whole reason why you would go to Japan, especially for tattoos, is that if a traditional Irezumi piece or an Otaku piece is what you want, why wouldn't you want to go to the place it originated?
And although highly tattooed Japanese dudes may seem super intimidating, keep in mind that this is just your sweet lil Western mind grasping to the idea of Yakuza...Aki, and all the other artists I met, were so down to earth. They're aware that what they're doing is risky, but they love what they do, and their work is an expression of that. They want to share it. Like Aki said, "There's no other choice in my life." Aki described the Japanese as homogeneous, but underneath the societal stress of trying to be like everyone else, there are artists out there who make it their lives work to be and do something different.
My last shop visit was with Ichi Hatano at his Ichi Tattoo Tokyo studio. Known for his Irezumi work, Ichi gets guests from around the world visiting his spot...which was difficult to find, but his lovely assistant Pearl came and picked me up from the subway station! The walls were covered in prints from artists, including Luca Ortis, and the entire studio was clean and quiet except for the nice purr of a tattoo machine in the other room. In sentiments that mirrored Aki's, Ichi described how many Japanese tattooers keep to themselves, but that with his guest artists and yearly trips to conventions, that is where he feels most at home, and most connected to the tattoo communities that have the freedom to outwardly express themselves and their work.
After visiting hundreds of shops around the globe...I have to say that in Japan is where I felt the most care, not only for the art form of tattooing, but for their clients, and even for myself. As a voyeur, I'm not really bringing them any business, but instead bothering them with my many questions and curiosity! But it didn't seem to matter. Many of these artists say no to interviews, because the journalists wipe away the cultural significance of tattooing...they'd rather focus on Yakuza, the connection of which to tattooing should be eradicated if Japan is ever going to embrace tattoos as the fine art that it is. Ichi was incredibly kind and patient; you could tell, the way that he looked at his tattoo books and art, how he spoke about tattooers and conventions, that this is something so important and sacred to him. It was wonderfully inspiring and life-affirming.
Another stop on my tour was the Bunshin Tattoo Museum. Literally filled to the brim with knick knacks, prints, photographs, books, magazine, dolls, antique needles, machines and more...it was overwhelming. The collection is stuff into a small space, and 1000 yen is the cost...but that also gets you a really cool pin and a look at some of the most awe-inspiring stuff in the world. It even included Horiyoshi III's Spaulding and Rogers Award of Excellence...as well as shrunken heads, and human skulls. What could be more fun for tattoo lovers than that?!
Oddly enough I also ended up visiting on a day when another Japanese journalist and her photographer showed up to interview the woman who runs it, and snap a few pictures. As a foreigner, they were amazed that I had found it, and asked if I wouldn't mind posing for their piece...which is how I ended up in a Japanese magazine! I swear, anything is possible here...
Most tourists will perhaps question going to Onsen if they have tattoos, but there are many these days if you look about, especially in Tokyo. In the countryside I had zero trouble; I went to the Shogaiseishunnoyu Tsurutsuru Hot Spring twice and fell in love with the waters there. If you want to take a little hot spring home with you, most corner stores actually sell "Essence of Onsen"...like bath salts, each packet contains minerals from different springs from around the continent!
Being in public had its moments of discomfort, but I get stared at way more in New York. No one gaped at me with their mouths open here; people are far too polite. I had a few old women point and nod their heads in disapproval...some cute kiddos in the Onsen couldn't help but gawk. All in all, however, it was fine. The customs agent when I got off the plane asked me if I was a Yakuza, but I'm pretty sure he was joking...and no one ever treated me with serious disdain or disrespect. In fact, I mostly found people will go out of their way to help you here!
I will say that at times traveling can be stressful and alienating. Even without tattoos I would've stood out as a white woman traveling alone. And although sometimes I felt really estranged, there will always be reminders that your community is out there. I will never forget walking onto a train car and sitting next to a guy with a full bodysuit and face tattoos. No one would sit next to us...and I wanted to ask him so many questions about what it's like to deal with this all the time, but I didn't. When I got off on my stop, we locked eyes and smiled. It made me feel like anywhere, even briefly, we can have moments of connectivity.
I feel like to fully grasp Japan, you should probably know a little bit about their culture...beyond the romanticized version of geisha, cherry blossoms, and sake. Perhaps the reason why my visits felt so sacred was that Buddhism and Shintoism permeate the history and people of Japan. In these philosophies, time is to be savored and enjoyed. Living like this immediately anywhere can become peaceful and at one with everything...and that's what this trip felt like. Pure magic. And I hope you experience it here too.