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 Travel Article Travel Article Archive  
April 2010 Email this to a friend

Tokyo
Let it All Hang Out

By Paul Rubio

NOTE: This is an archive article. For an updated and expanded article click DailyXtraTravel

In a land where everything feels frenetic, gay life is no exception. Tokyo has the highest concentration of gay bars in the world. Most are tiny and serve very specific niches.

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 fascinating calligraphy. 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 Ni-chome.

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 porn. 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 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.

Addresses in Tokyo are notoriously difficult for foreigners to decipher. To help find your way, check out the links below.

Advocates Cafe
(1/F Dai-7 Tenka Building, Shinjuku Ni-chome; advocates-cafe.com)

The Annex
(1/F Futami Building, 2-14-11, Shinjuku Ni-chome; arty-farty.net)

Arch
(B/F Dai-2 Hayakawaya Building, 2-14-6, Shinjuku Ni-chome; clubarch.net)

Arty Farty
(2/F 33 Kyutei Building, 2-11-7, Shinjuku Ni-chome; arty-farty.net)

Dragon Men
(1/F Stork Nagasaki, 2-11-4, Shinjuku Ni-chome; tokyo.to/dragon)

Kinsmen
(2/F Homebase Building, 2-18-5, Shinjuku Ni-chome; www11.ocn.ne.jp/~kinsmen)


Click Tokyo for our full listings of bars, saunas, hotels and other information of gay interest.

Author Profile:  Paul Rubio

Paul Rubio took a break from his life as a Harvard economist to document his world travels as a gay man. 65 countries and 6,500 stories later, the Cuban-American's seductive syntax graces most gay publications around the country.

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