Reader BM wants to know if morphine can be brought into Japan legally, and if having a tattoo would prevent her from visiting bathing facilities.
She writes: “Due to certain health issues that cause chronic pain, I’ve been on a prescription of morphine for many years. I read somewhere that because morphine is a controlled substance, I would not be able to bring it with me if I ever visited Japan. Is this true?
“Also, I read that onsen (hot springs or spas) often discriminate against people with tattoos (for reasons I can definitely understand). I have a tattoo of a moon and stars on my left shoulder. I’ve wondered if it would prevent me from visiting onsen.”
In answer to your first question, it is possible to bring morphine to Japan if you apply for permission before you come.
Usually, when you want to bring prescription medicine into Japan you have to apply for an import certificate called a yakkan shōmei from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. However, if your prescription involves narcotics, such as in BM’s case, you must instead apply for a special certificate through the Narcotics Control Department.
To get this certificate, fill out an import application form (see the link below) with the drug name, quantity and your travel information.
Assuming you would bring enough medicine to cover your return trip, you will also need to complete an export application form and include the amount of medicine you expect to have left when you leave.
You also need to submit a medical certificate from your doctor stating your illness, why narcotics are necessary for your treatment, and the exact name and quantity of the prescribed medicine.
Mail all of these documents to the Narcotics Control Department in the region where you will enter Japan. So if you plan to fly into Narita airport, you would send the documents to the Kanto Shinetsu Narcotics Control Department.
You should submit all the paperwork at least two weeks before you leave for Japan; the certificate will be mailed back to the address you put on your application.
You must mail the documents — no fax or email allowed — but if you’re in a hurry, Japan Healthcare Info can submit the paperwork on your behalf (if you’re flying into Narita). JHI can also assist you with the entire process and communicate directly with the Narcotics Control Department if you have case-specific questions or problems.
Remember that you must take care of this paperwork before you arrive — if you attempt to bring morphine (or any other narcotic) into Japan without an official import certificate, you can be arrested on the spot.
For instructions in English, contact information for the Narcotics Control Departments, and to download the application forms, please visit www.nco.go.jp/shinsei5.html.
Many thanks to Japan Healthcare Info for their assistance. JHI can also help with any other health-related issues while traveling in Japan. See japanhealthinfo.com for more information.
As for tattoos, it’s true that many onsen, sento (public bathhouses) and pools in Japan prohibit guests with tattoos from using their facilities.
However, rules vary by establishment. While many places ban tattoos, there are some pools, onsen and sento that don’t, or they only request that they be covered. So if at all possible, try to check the rules beforehand, either on their website (if they have one) or ask someone to call ahead for you.
Hiding tattoos is not too difficult at a pool, but it’s nearly impossible at an onsen. If the tattoo is small enough, you might be able to cover it with athletic tape or a wrap-type bandage. Some people with small tattoos don’t try to conceal them when visiting an onsen, so if it’s small enough, you may have no trouble going in with your tattoo uncovered.
Women often carry around small hand towels (or “modesty towels”) in the bath areas, so you could also try draping one of those over your shoulders (but don’t let the towel touch the bath water).
Or you could avoid public baths altogether and stay at a hotel or ryokan with private baths that you can reserve by the hour (many charge an extra fee for this). Or if you’re willing to spend a bit more, find some accommodation that offers rooms with a private bath.
Readers, if you’ve gone to onsen in Japan with tattoos and have any tips to share, please let us know.