Gaycation: Japan

1 03 2016

Well this is an interesting beast: a hipsterish, yet very North-American-earnest, look at gay life in Tokyo. Its the first in a new series by Vice on gay life around the world hosted by Hollywood lesbian starlet Ellen Page and her gay BFF – with future episodes promised for Jamaica and Brazil. Keep an eye out!

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Shinjuku Nichome

4 01 2016

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A good chunk of my twenties was spent on the streets and bars of Tokyo’s gay quarter, the notorious Shinjuku Nichome. Here, on six to ten city blocks, tiled buildings are piled high with tiny local gar bars, sex shops, gay manga, bear ramen stores and a rentboy-staffed octopus ball stand, poky dance clubs, basement “underwear lounges” and sexy underwear shops, two temples, a twenty four hour sauna, a party central all-night convenience store, cruising dudes and the men who love them.

It is a super-gay oasis in an otherwise super-straight city, a warren of seedy little streets and dark doorways, connections found and lost, lives and loves coming together, lust hanging in the air.
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Above Cauro Hige and below, Inu Yoshi.

I had been sad to hear of the rumoured decline of the area, faced with the same challenges as gay bars everywhere, their role as meeting places under threat from the convenience and reassuring anonymity of phone apps.

Advocates, the most-loved bar by foreigners, had closed although I found it replaced by another gay bar, Aiiro, whose business model seemed to be a carbon copy.

Dragon and Arty Farty were still there, as was Word-Up, the foreigner-unfriendly “Japanese only” bar, as well as a host of smaller nights. I had been looking forward most to the FancyHIM Party, a wild Tokyo fashion folly unlike anything I have since elsewhere in the world where chic revellers turn up in the over-the-top homemade outfits. US singer AB Soto was appearing and I had seen him out on the town the night before.

But in the end, the evening took a different turn and I ended up instead with friends piled up inside one of the district’s little bars, up a dingy flight of stairs on a second storey landing.  Zero One is one of the new generation of bars in the district targeted at Chinese guys and their fans; I saw at least two others, Taiwan Bar and Panda, as well.

At Zero One, its name derived from Chinese gay slang, we sat at the counter knocking back vodka with green tea while Taiwanese pop videos played. It was a fun, unexpected night.

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There were other discoveries too. A new (to me) Latin themed “anticapitalist” bar was strung up with people power flyers and Zapatista posters. A women-only bar advertised monthly female-to-male transexual nights. A longstanding Thai restaurant (of which the area has several) had moved premises. The portly owner of a bar called Cholesterol  had become famous in Taiwan as a “blowjob expert” and he was being mobbed by tourists asking for pictures. Chic new cafe-bar “Phonic Hoop” had opened up across the street and the ‘cruisy’ Starbucks on the corner of Yasukuni-dori now seemed suspiciously straight.

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My favourite finding of all though was just outside Nichome proper, down the little lantern-strung shotengai (shopping street) across Yasukuni dori, leading down a gentle slope. Here, passing by on a bike from ‘the neighbourhood’ I found a bizarre little restaurant, announced with a statue of a cat eating spaghetti on an upside-down acrobat. It was late at night and the restaurant was closed, but my curiosity was piqued.

Peering in, I could make out the retro interior, littered with angel statues, more images of cats, marionettes, Joan Miro prints and circus memorabilia. I decided to come back in the daytime to explore. It was called Cafe Arles.

Cafe Arles, it turned out, had something of a cat theme. A live specimen greeted me at the door the next day and prowled lion-like under the tables where lone customers read newspapers at lunchtime or furtive couples whispered. One woman’s fur coat was slung nonchalantly across a stone cherub. Stale smoke hung in the air and Ella Fitzgerald was playing. I ordered the house special, the Neapolitan spaghetti, from the Japanese-only menu and was delighted to be served first a place of starters: one-third of a banana, still in its skin, a single maple syrup cookie and some nuts, as well as lemon tea in a bone china cup.

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The restaurant had been there, it transpired, since 1972. And yet in all my Nichome nights, I had never found it. A district full of surprises.





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.  Plus – 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!





Tokyo nights

19 08 2013

With jetlag from the States still in full force, I wasn’t in much of a mood to sample Tokyo’s new nightlife. But perhaps this was just as well, as from a nightlife perspective, the trip was poorly timed. The club scene in Tokyo revolves much more around monthly parties than weekly events so it is always a good idea to check what is on before finetuning the date of arrival. I had missed my two favourites, the Shangri-la party at Ageha and FancyHim, as well as a gay night held at the kitschly baroque Christdon Cafe, an approximation of a Renaissance chapel complete with cherubs, trompe l’oeil and faux-flaming torches. Great idea for a venue.

I had also just missed a three-week revival of Maniac Love, the much-mourned 1990s afterhours haunt of Tokyo’s young, glamourous and chemically-enhanced, and the permanent closure of the legendary Eleven (formally Space Lab Yellow):

The superbly-named Shibuya dancehall dance-off event Cat Fuck looked to be on hiatus too.

That is not to say that there was nothing happening in Tokyo though – just none of the old places that I knew about. There were new parties at venues like Tabloid as well as the Prism party, although their venue of choice, Rehab bar, had apparently shut up shop suddenly after the owner’s mysterious disappearance. There was also an irregular art-party held in an old abandoned hospital and one where everyone dressed like zombies. And I was excited to see that the super-fun Nichome gay wrestling was back.

But all the parties in Tokyo were under siege from a draconian new anti-dancing law, which meant that venues without a special “after hours dancing license” had to close by 1am or strictly enforce a “no dancing” policy, ejecting those who failed to comply. Even Arty Farty, the venerable old mainstay of gay-dancefloor-hook-ups soundtracked by perky dance-pop (and favoured haunt of the dancers from Tokyo Disneyland on their days off) now closed at this ridiculously early hour. In Nichome at least, this had meant a move towards more sit-down bars. There were new places like Boiler Room, an underwear-only lounge and the more upscale (and fully clothed) Owl, next to each other in the basement of a dingy building in a Nichome sidestreet.

But my number one favourite all-time Tokyo bar was still there, and I made it a point to drop by on Saturday night. Advocates is in institution: a super-social corner bar-cum-gay-street party that spills out onto the footpaths and gutters on weekend nights. Its the kind of place where you turn around and start talking to the person behind you, or turn up alone and end up engrossed in conversations with four new friends over the course of the night. My mother has been there, my brother met his wife there, and I spent pretty much every Saturday for five years there. It was pretty great to know that this at least was still going strong.





AKTA – fighting AIDS with cute

19 08 2013

Amid the porno stores, underwear shops and bars of Nichome, tucked into the third floor of a nondescript building, is the AKTA Centre. This government-funded AIDS prevention project aims to provide a safe space for the discussion of gay issues. It hosts occassional art exhibitions and discussion groups, but even if there is nothing going on its worth popping by to pick up club flyers (which I love doing in Tokyo) and cute AIDS education manga.

I got one heartwarming brochure aimed at deaf people, with a cute bearish couple explaining safe sex in sign language on every page (which is a bit pointless when you think about it as deaf people can read conventional text anyway…but so cute!!)





New king of Nichome

19 08 2013

Since the bewildering passing of Masaki Koh earlier this year (who dies from appendicitis? Its so … preventable),  Kenta, a model-go go boy from the Shangri-la party seems to have taken over as Nichome’s number one sex object du jour. It is not hard to see why. He is currently plastered naked on Nichome’s main street outside an underwear store he endorses, if you’d like to take a closer look 😉





Tokyo attractions:

24 07 2008

The Dragon Museum

This is pretty much the best place ever. A bogus dragon skeleton, and faked diary entries from the journal of the expedition that “found” it, in the small sideroom of a store selling rockabilly clothing, with stained glass Gothic windows. I love the total thematic disconnect. 

Its on Cat Street, Shibuya near the Meijidori intersection (look for the building with the sign saying “Too Fast to Live, Too Young To Die” and the giant golden egg on the roof).

Elvis statue in Harajuku

Don Quixote;

loud, claustrophobic version of wallmart thats open all night, with aisles that are really close together selling weird shit. The one in Roppongi has a tank full of Amazonian fish at the entrance, a defunct rollercoaster on the roof and a whole floor for legal ecstacy and speed substitutes, sex aids and party costumes.

 

Owl shop

This shop in Higashi-Nakano only sells owls. And its only open 6pm-6am. Eighties pop idol Kyoko Koizumi bought her owl here!

 

Kabukicho random street

Nothing says “Tokyo” to me like a karaoke parlor in a mock medieval castle, next to a Shinto shrine, infront of a park of homeless people, opposite a private boxing ring and an “image club” where you pay to molest women pretending to be commuters in a simulated train carriage. Also; a restaurant where you pay with tickets purchased from a red metal sphere. 

To get there, walk down from Shinjuku East Exit towards Kabukicho’s Koma Theatre and turn right at McDonalds.

Kawasaki tyre-monster playground

Yumenoshima

Or “Dream Island”. A huge, straggly public park built on an island made of trash, pumped into Tokyo bay as a landfill project. Also contains a eucalyptus forest (which feeds Tokyo zoos’ captive koalas), a huuuuge and impressive tropical greenhouse powered by burning rubbish, and an “Atomic tuna” memorial to fish (and fishermen) contaminated by US nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s.

Todoroki

A lovely little Kyoto-like temple by a stream, in a forest, in a ravine, in the heart of Tokyo.

Summer

So the conventional wisdom is that Summer in Tokyo sucks. Sure, its so hot that your shirt sticks like chewing gum. But there is also: fireworks, flies, hot boys with tattoos at the beach, eggplant horses (see article below), young people on the streets in yukatas, fans (fun!), matsuris, taiko drumming,  Onelove and BBoy park festivals (reggae and hiphop respectively) in Yoyogi Park, Maniac Beach, gay pride, and the incomparable spectacle of the Asakusa Samba Carnival.

Fancyhim/Linda parties

Gay electro/rock/fashion parties where bright young things dress to impress.

 

Fish From Outer Space

It may not be as glossy as the rest of the Roppongi Hills complex ( where Chinese tourists check into the Grand Hyatt requesting a “Louis Vuitton view”), but I thought it was cool:

The Japanese garden (outside the Asahi TV studios) has a pond populated by “medaka”, small Japanese fish that often live in flooded rice paddies. But these are no ordinary specimens. They are descended from medaka taken into space as an experiment in fishbreeding aboard the Mir Space Station. A bilingual sign warns people not to dump unwanted goldfish, lest they eat the more precious space-fish.

 

Fake things

Love hotels, theme restaurants : turrets, minarets, imitation marble statuary. Arabian palaces/ninja dens/prison eateries. Gallic bistros where the waiters are flown in from Paris and the menu is entirely in French. Italian restaurants with swimming pools in the basement. Chinese restaurants where the urinals are shaped like mouths that sing opera at you while you piss. The common thread is a love for really following through with a theme,(to the point of OTTness) , and absolutely no sense of shame. Inauthentic, kitsch guilty pleasure? Whatever do you mean?