by Mark Chesnut
There are very few places on earth where you can spend an evening hopping among more than 300 gay bars, take a pop culture tour with a guide that's dressed as a maid, and play 1980s video games on the original machines for which they were originally created. In fact, there is most likely just one place where you can do all this: Tokyo. One of the world's largest and most sophisticated cities, it has nearly all the ingredients to become Asia's capital of gay tourism. With its combination of history, tradition. and 21st-century razzle dazzle, it's an excellent introduction to the wonders that await elsewhere in Japan. Recently, I traveled to Japan for the second time, and spent several glorious days exploring the fascinating culture, traditions, gay life, and forward-thinking technology that make Japan unlike any other nation in the world.
A city of some 12 million people, Tokyo offers a mouthwatering glimpse into the technological future. A lot of it has to do with little conveniences. Taxis have doors that open and close automatically, and riders can pay the fare with their cell phone, using tap pads. Toilets, both public and private, often have heated seats and remote controls for things like courtesy flushes. Thoughtful planning and organization extend to personal behavior as well. Civilized practices like showing up on time and queuing for trains (rather than mobbing the platform) are the norm.
Getting to Tokyo is a rather efficient and modern experience as well. I flew nonstop from New York City aboard Japan Airlines' business class, which is artistically called “Seasons,” and blissed out in the sleek sleeper seat, complete with oversized personal video screen and excellent, on-demand meal service. My flight landed at Narita, the nation's largest international airport, which sits nearly 40 miles outside of Tokyo but has several good options for getting into the city. Taxis can be quite expensive (well over 100 dollars; the exact price depends on your final destination), but if you decide to treat yourself to a private ride, you can arrange it ahead of time with companies including Charter Bus & Limousine (www.charterbus-limousine.com) and Tokyo MK (www.tokyomk.com), which makes the pickup process that much easier.
Most travelers, whether visiting for business or pleasure, choose one of the well-organized, efficient, and more reasonably priced public transportation options. Airport Limousine (www.limousinebus.co.jp/en/) offers scheduled bus service, which runs directly to most major hotels and operates frequently both day and night. For a fare of about $38, you'll enjoy reliable service and arrive at your hotel in anywhere between 75 minutes to two hours, depending on where you're going, the time of day and how many stops the bus makes before yours. The advantage of this service is that, like a taxi, you'll most likely be dropped off directly at your hotel, but at a fraction of the price.
You can also sample some of Japan's legendary high-tech train service en route from the airport to the city. Narita Express (www.jreast.co.jp/e/nex/), also called N'EX, is a limited-stop train with reserved seats and convenient connections to the city's major rail stations; it costs about $38 and takes about an hour. In addition, last year, Keisei Electric Railway Co. began operating the Narita Sky Access service (www.keisei.co.jp/keisei/tetudou/skyliner/us/), with trains that travel at up to 99 miles per hour (they're billed as Japan's second-fastest trains, behind only the Shinkansen bullet trains, which can travel at speeds of up to 186 miles per hour). With Sky Access, you'll reach Tokyo's Nippori Station in just 36 minutes, for just over $30. When taking any of these train services from the airport, you then may take a taxi from the city train station or connect to local rail. With Skyliner, for example, you can also buy a combo Skyliner and Metro Pass, priced at about $33 to $62, which includes rail connections within the city.
New flight options for visitors flying from North America have been available since late last year, thanks to an expansion at the city's secondary airport, Haneda. Located closer to the city center, Haneda is linked to the city by the Tokyo Monorail, which runs every three to five minutes and costs just under $6 (linking to Tokyo's Hamamatsucho Station), and the Keikyu rail line (www.keisei.co.jp/keisei/tetudou/skyliner/us/), which runs every five to 10 minutes to Tokyo's Shinagawa Station and the Asakusa Subway line and costs just under $6. The trip to central Tokyo from Haneda airport takes less than 30 minutes.
It's a weekend night in Tokyo, and I'm wandering through the narrow streets of Shinjuku Ni-chome (usually simply called Ni-chome) the gayest neighborhood in Japan's capital. This busy area is jam-packed with restaurants, cafes, saunas and shops that sell rainbow-themed gifts as well as more sex-oriented items. It's also home to so many gay bars that during one visit it would be impossible to count how many. As I walk down the street, I notice countless glowing signs on nearly every building, indicating that there are multiple gay bars inside.
Happily, I'm accompanied by Masaki Higashida, the IGLTA ambassador for Japan. He also works with mainstream companies that want to target the gay market, and he operates a website called Gay Life Japan. He's obviously an expert in the field, and he's a big help at taking me around these streets. Most of the gay bars in Tokyo are quite small, and gay nightlife is very compartmentalized; some bars are more frequented by older, some by younger; some attract more women; some are mostly for bears or men who are into leather. Some are less straight-friendly, and some might have a reputation for being less welcoming toward foreigners, although Masaki explains that's really not the case. “It's not that foreigners are not welcome,” he explains. “It's just that the staff and patrons speak no English and don't feel comfortable when someone comes in who doesn't speak Japanese.”
We pass by two of the most popular bars that open onto the street: Dragon Men and Advocates. Since their patrons spill out onto the street, these two venues are among the easiest gay bars to find, and they attract a mix of ages and nationalities, making them good places to meet people and perhaps get advice about other places to visit. I've been to both before and enjoyed my time there. As with most Tokyo gay bars, these are not massive, over-the-top nightclubs. Both are relatively small (by international standards), with tables, a bar and chairs. Dragon Men has large floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto the street, making it easy for patrons to come and go and people watch. Advocates is strategically ensconced on a high-visibility corner. While it's quite tiny inside, the happy crowds of patrons outside during warm-weather nights make this one of the best places to connect with locals and foreigners. At both, you'll likely hear a mix of Japanese and foreign pop music, as well as multiple languages spoken by the customers.
I've also enjoyed drinks at Arty Farty, which is slightly more stylish than most gay bars in the neighborhood, with a good mix of international music and a well-dressed crowd. The small dance floor here is well used, especially on weekends. Fans of Arty Farty are also likely to visit The Annex, located on a nearby street, which belongs to the same owners and has a bit more space for dancing.
We proceed to Mezzo Forte, a small second-floor bar, where I meet Masaki's boyfriend and some of their friends. We take a seat on the banquette that wraps around the wall and I gaze at the bar, noticing bottles with names written on them on paper. In many Japanese gay bars, visitors who plan to visit regularly can buy a large bottle of liquor and leave it behind the bar, marked with their name, to drink from on their next visit. Like nearly all of Tokyo's gay bars, there is a karaoke machine here, which is not surprising since the popular sing-along concept was invented in Japan. Like some of the other smaller bars, Mezzo Forte feels more like a private living room than a public bar, and the owner and staff are friendly and smiling, although I speak no Japanese and they speak no English.
You could easily spend your entire Tokyo vacation exploring each and every one of the dozens of gay bars, but you definitely won't need to go to that much trouble in order to enjoy your visit. Additional hot spots include DNA, a chic bar where both gays and straights often start their weekend evening with a cocktail, Wordup Bar, where a well-dressed, mostly male crowd enjoys live DJ music every weekend, and Rehab, which is a good choice if you don't speak Japanese, since the staff speaks English well. Rehab is well known for its cool vibe and extensive drinks menu, which includes imported beer and cocktails.
For a larger-scale nightlife experience, head to Arch, Shinjuku's most famous gay dance club, which hosts various men's and women's nights, packing in the crowds with excellent DJs. You'll want to check ahead of time, since every night here has a different theme.
Other noteworthy gay bars include two places in Shinbashi, a district of Minato just south of Ginza: The stylish Bravo and popular Town House, both of which are pleasant bars where you can sample sake and Japanese beers (at Town House, you can drink outdoors when the weather is warm), or try out your skills with karaoke.
Ni-chome may be square one for gay nightlife in Tokyo, but it's far from the only area worth exploring, and each neighborhood has its own allure. The city is easily toured by local train networks, which connect the most-visited neighborhoods economically and without getting bogged down in traffic. Local rail service within Tokyo is clean, efficient, and safe, with fares starting at about $1.55. A good option for visitors is the Tokyo Free Ticket, which allows one-day use on all Tokyo Metro subway lines and Toei subway lines, buses and trams, as well as JR lines within Tokyo city limits.
At first, taking trains in Tokyo may be a bit intimidating for non-Japanese speakers (including me), but during my very first visit, I soon found myself checking out subway maps, paying my fare and figuring out my routes with no problem at all (nearly all signs have information in English and place names spelled with the Roman alphabet).
A good place to start your exploration is Asakusa, which was Tokyo's downtown area between the 17th and 19th centuries. I began my very first tour of Tokyo here, enjoying the ambiance of old “Edo,” with narrow streets, classic architecture, and traditional shops selling interesting souvenirs. It is also home to the Sensoji Temple, which was founded in the 7th century by three fishermen who discovered a tiny image of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, in their fishing net. I'll never forget my visit here during Sanja Matsuri, a vibrant Shinto festival that takes place in the spring to honor the men who founded the temple. Traditional music and the scent of fresh food filled the air, as masses of participants in equally traditional garb made their way through the crowded local streets—a perfect photo opportunity.
Asakusa is also home to Nakamise, one of the oldest shopping districts in Japan, which dates to the late 17th century and is the ideal place to pick out your own kimono. Nearby is the Edo Shitamachi Traditional Crafts Museum, which displays more than 370 works of art made by craftspeople from the area. Additional must-sees include the Imperial Palace, where ruins of the old Edo Castle are found in the East Garden, the National Museum of Modern Art, which has not only art exhibits but also a crafts gallery and film center, and the National Museum of Nature and Science, which highlights the natural history of the Japanese archipelago through permanent and temporary exhibits as well as a 3D movie theater.
I've also enjoyed relaxed strolls through the lovely, peaceful Ueno-Onshi Park, which is the site of several museums and attractions. Among the best are the Tokyo National Museum, where I checked out historic art and ancient artifacts that tell the story of the nation, and the Tokyo Fine Arts School, which runs the excellent University Art Museum. The museum features some 28,000 works from a variety of eras, including taxidermy animals, ceramics, textiles, calligraphies, prints and paintings—truly an impressive venue for examining the region's rich artistic traditions.
For modern diversions, I often visit neighborhoods like Shinjuku (www.city.shinjuku.lg.jp/foreign/english/), a bustling area dotted with skyscrapers and lots of retail space. A centerpiece here (and likely where you'll arrive) is the Shinjuki station, which is, by some estimates, the busiest train station in the world. Check out the seven floors of shopping that await at Mylord, a popular department store, and perhaps the electronics at Yodobashi Camera. A welcome break from the neighborhood's fast pace is provided at Shinjuki Gyoen, a public garden that opened in 1906 for members of the imperial family; today it's a lovely place to stroll, with sections landscaped in English, French, and Japanese styles, and two teahouses offering a pleasant place to stop for refreshments.