End of an era

8 04 2015

Today I heard the news, belatedly, that a Tokyo bar had closed. It was Advocates, an institution on the city’s gay scene and the backdrop to virtually every Friday and Saturday night of a good stretch of my time in Japan and by extension, my twenties. It had closed in December.

I was surprised to find myself quietly heartbroken. Advocates for me conjured up memories of happy, carefree times, and was the backdrop for several love affairs, unrequited crushes and great, life-affirming friendships. I had somehow thought that it would always be there, even if I was somewhere else, going on unchangeably like the sun or the stars. Strange, the expectations we have. Nothing is forever, but for some reason the news of Advocates’ demise touched me more keenly than many other changes. Why? Perhaps because it underlined just how far I have come, both literally and figuratively, since my Advocates days (and nights), how different my life is now compared to then. And that in a very real sense now, there is no going back.

The bar itself was tiny, little more than a counter with a few seats and zebra-striped wallpaper, and the crowd spilled out onto the street corner, creating an instant block-party atmosphere in the heart of Tokyo’s gay neighbourhood, Nichome. It is the kind of place you could go by yourself, assured that you would know someone – or if you didn’t, you would make a new friend. At some point in the evening, everyone out in Nichome would pass through. In a society where street life is nearly nonexistent, many bars seem cliquey and intimidating and foreigners are often held at arms length, Advocates was incredibly fluid. There were always freshly-arrived tourists, drunken Japanese girls eager to try out their English, lovey-dovey couples, cruising couples, fashionistas and denizens of the Tokyo in-crowd, wide-eyed English teachers in from the far-flung provinces and eager for a good time, cute suburban Saitama boys, worldly Japanese returnees and occasionally a go-go boy (Tsuyoshi!) porn star or drag queen stopping by on their way to some other, more obscure corner of Nichome. The bar-men doubled as mini scene-celebs, advertising underwear in gay magazines. And everyone talked to everyone else. You could just turn around and meet someone new every time you were there. ┬áPlus – it was cheap. The 1000 yen all-you-could-drink beer blast was an institution, even though it didn’t serve real beer, but rather happushu, described by wikipedia as a “beer-like low malt beverage.” But at three hours unlimited refills (as long as you held on to your texta-marked plastic cup) for eight US dollars, no-one was complaining.

In all my travels around the world, I never found another place like it.

Advocates was where I got snapped by a Japanese street style magazine, where my brother met his wife (!) and where I took my mother when she visited Tokyo. I spent agonising nights there being ignored by my first great love after our break-up, and then flirted with Kohei, chased after dreamy playboy Masa and got chased by Taku. I made great friends there, some of whom I’m still close to to this day, others who have faded into the mist of time and a whole cast of supporting characters who drifted in and out of the picture – a tall Australian leather craftsmen, loud South Africans, a Cuban dance instructor, a foppish magazine editor, a West African pharmacist, cute straight boys, interchangeable girls from Sapporo and Fukuoka and Gifu, a drugged-up Osakan with killer cheekbones…Advocates was the nexus of all of this.

And now – it is no more. RIP Advocates!