I exited the Shinjuku-sanchome metro station, keen to discover Tokyo by
night. My pupils dilated and contracted, adjusting to the flash of
ubiquitous neon, engrossed in a canopy of foreign characters and
I could still taste the remnants of tempura flakes and barbecued
eel from dinner as I mentally recounted my second enchanting day in
Tokyo -- sunrise photographs of the vibrant Tsukiji fish market, treks
through scores of deeply misunderstood Harajuku teens to reach the
sacred Meiji Jingu Shrine, and soliciting the favors of Kannon, the
goddess of mercy, at the hectic Sensoji Temple. In a short 48
hours, Tokyo had completely ambushed my senses.
Curious to discover Tokyo's gay nightlife, I had mapped out a
plan of action before leaving my swanky hotel room at the world's most
seductive Ritz Carlton. While my Japanese friends had insisted
homosexual hangouts were scarce in the capital city, diligence and the
guidance of the hotel's cherubic concierge supported another theory --
a raging yet clandestine scene, centralized in Tokyo's unofficial
gayborhood, Shinjuku Nichome.
As I retrieved my pocket map outside the metro station, I noticed
a group of muscular twenty-somethings sashaying in the same direction.
I stalked the group for about five minutes, finally stumbling upon the
lost city of Homo Edo.
I heard familiar English intonation and gravitated towards some
expats practicing Japanese with a group of Asian jocks who were clearly
reveling in their endearing accents. I was quickly adopted by the
multicultural assembly and given a primer of gay Tokyo.
We were standing at the heart of the Shinjuku gayborhood, facing
the world-famous Advocates Cafe, which claims unofficial rights to the
main street. In a society where foreigners are often viewed with
suspicion, Advocates Cafe became a pioneer of gay nightlife by opening
its indoors and outdoors to locals and foreigners alike. It now
maintains its reputation as the early-evening watering hole, loud and
chaotic, packing the street like a small gay Pride parade, where
smiling visitors toast to Tokyo's iconoclasms and eager Japanese boys
eye up the Westerners and each other.
My newfound friends -- three Anglo-Japanese couples -- shared a
common theme: the young expats had studied in Tokyo, fallen in love
with Japanese guys and never left. The Texan, the Bostonian, the Aussie
and their Japanese beaus took on the mission of helping me discover the
gay scene over the course of two short nights. Their insider knowledge
revealed a shocking and unexpected statistic: Tokyo flaunts the highest
concentration of gay bars in the world.
HUNDREDS OF BARS
The narrow, stacked buildings standing above us struck me as a series
of futuristic beehives. Inside were vertical assemblies of petite gay
bars, stacked one on top of another, amounting to more than 200
individual businesses in a five-square-block area. My new friends
warned of the strict members-only entrance policies for the boutique
bars -- some catered to a particular sub-culture like hardcore leather
or bears, some attracted those into a specific fetish like sniffing
sullied underwear, others drew gents interested in kinky Japanese rape
After encountering much door-slamming disappointment, my new
friends informed me that most of these shoebox-sized bars were
miserably boring. Varying from the size of a cruise ship cabin to a New
York City studio, few could hold more than a dozen people at a time.
Instant membership is impossible. Personal friendship with a member or
the bartender determines the right to enter, and a xenophobic attitude
precludes most foreigners from ever sampling the esoteric flavors.
But it turned out that there is fun available for visitors.
Advocates Cafe is by far the easiest place to make new friends during
your visit. After that, the crowd divides between the wildly popular
dance club Arty Farty and its smaller outpost, the Annex, the leather
palace Dragon Men, or the upscale Kinsmen. There are also numerous
word-of-mouth events that crop up almost nightly.
This particular Saturday night, the crowd at Advocates buzzed
about a late-night Madonna-themed party at Arch. Come 1am, this was the
destination of our group, which had grown to a dozen people
representing five countries. As we entered the subterranean chamber,
familiar tunes poured from the sound system, and we gazed at paper
dolls representing Madonna's various looks. Club kids, drag queens,
Harajuku girls and shirtless, toned circuit boys partied like it was
1999, flailing their arms, shaking the sweat from their thick black
manes and eagerly and incorrectly shouting the lyrics.
In an instant, the intoxicating cacophony turned to order as
patrons diligently assumed seats on the dancefloor. On an exact replica
of the set from the Sticky & Sweet Tour, an incredible impersonator
(strangely resembling Madonna after fresh rounds of Botox) performed 10
numbers with a troupe of professional dancers. During the rendition of
"4 Minutes," there was even a guest appearance by Justin Timberlake
(okay, he bore little resemblance to the real thing).
The perfection of costumes and choreography, the crowd's
too-orderly conduct, the constant greetings from the people sitting
next to me (with copious spit spray with every welcome), the countless
rounds of sake, beer and vodka sodas, and the awesome people I met that
night reigned as the highlight of my two-month trip to Asia.
A few nights of partying later, I had yet another reason to be
fascinated with the land of Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Atari, Nintendo,
Honda, Sony and Mitsubishi. Tokyo is home to an original and robust
world-class gay scene, with constantly changing offerings.
As Tokyo creeps out of the closet, fashionable bars and
restaurants, such as the Grill Room at the Park Hyatt and the Dom
Perignon Sunday brunch at Forty-Five in the Ritz-Carlton, are
noticeably filled with the upper echelon of gay society. This
fast-forward capital city provides a niche for all flavors of gay life,
relentlessly imbuing every day with a wow factor that makes you feel
you have arrived in an alternative universe: Planet Tokyo.
GAY BARS AND CLUBS
Addresses in Tokyo are notoriously difficult for foreigners to
decipher. To help find your way, check out the links to websites below.
Click Tokyo for our full listings and links to bars, hotels, saunas and other businesses and gay information sources.
Tenka Building, Shinjuku Ni-chome)
(1/F Futami Building,
2-14-11, Shinjuku Ni-chome)
(B/F Dai-2 Hayakawaya
Building, 2-14-6, Shinjuku Ni-chome)
(2/F 33 Kyutei
Building, 2-11-7, Shinjuku Ni-chome)
(1/F Stork Nagasaki,
2-11-4, Shinjuku Ni-chome)
(2/F Homebase Building,
2-18-5, Shinjuku Ni-chome)