The art of Gengoroh Tagame

18 06 2017

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Above, new Tagame-inspired swimwear from hipster manga company Massive and below, the infamous bath at Ueno’s 24 Kaikan.
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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.





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!!)