Neko:

I don't know how to condition hands without them getting the callouses - if you're into hitting hard things...

I agree though that they don't have to look like crap all the time...my teacher files them with an emory board to keep them smoothe...

Still, they look like little mountains, at least to me...

I remember when I met him (I was friends with him before I started Karate or knew that he did Karate) I did not immediately notice the callouses on his hands.

I think they are very noticeable to Karate guys. Others sometimes notice, but not always.

So, if you keep 'em filed smoothe, they don't really look that obvious nor outrageous.

As for challenging a dojo, I don't do that either...nor do I frequent rough biker bars (any more) where a fight is not that hard to find...

However, I know that the no pads, full contact sparring I did with my teacher (who did do regular bar fighting in the past) gives me no worries since it's unlikely to find oneself up against someone as good as him.

Also, my "knobby" knuckles, which do sometimes peel, split, crack and generally get ripped off, give me more confidence to punch the hard bone of someone's skull, if I have to, than if I had hands that were just used to a heavy bag...