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Japan's gay and lesbian sub-cultures are ancient and sophisticated. There are references to homosexual relationships in 11th century diaries and even in an amusing turn of events for the womanizing protagonist of The Tale of Genji, one of the world's earliest novels. Traditions of same-sex love flourished in later centuries.
Most recently, some young gays and lesbians have become decidedly more visible (there is even a guidebook for the general public, called "Gift of Gay", which details gay and lesbian influences in popular culture and history) participating in gay pride events and declaring a holiday on April 4, midway between Girl's Day and Boy's Day, wittily named "New Half Day".
Two popular stereotypes exist about Japan. First, that it is prohibitively expensive (great values for travelers do exist and it's even possible to have a fabulous budget vacation here); and secondly, that Japan is an unfriendly place for foreigners. In fact, Japan is inhospitable to other Japanese who step out of place. Shinjuku Ni-Chome, a small sub-district of downtown Tokyo, houses well over 200 gay and lesbian bars crammed into a 5-block area. Each bar may only have room to seat a dozen customers, and as a result, The Peppermint Bar will only welcome Peppermint Gals and their fans (whatever that happens to be) and other visitors, Japanese or not, will be given a decisively cold shoulder if they occupy precious space. Locate venues that feature your "type" and you will be welcomed into a cozy and secluded world where other patrons are pre-matched to your tastes. This is simply the result of hundreds of years of specialization within the shadow world and an economic reality of limited space and prohibitive rents.
- OCCUR (Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement
Ishikawa-Building 2nd Floor, 6-12-11 Honcho Nakano, Tokyo 164 Japan, (813) 3383-5556, FAX 3229-7880, email. Grassroots gay activist organization and sponsor of the Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival (see below).
FUKUOKA -- area code (81-92)
Population is about 1.4 million (that's over 55,000 Utopians).
2-18-13 Oakville Kego 1, 401, Chuou-ku, 733-6555. Women-only. Closed Mon.
Bar Haven for Girls
3-13-23 Nakahara Bld 102, Chuo-ku, 761-5984. Women-only.
3-5-12-2F Tenjin, Chuo-ku, 752-3600. Mostly female patrons, but the bar is open to everyone regardless of sexual preference. Men are also welcome. Plenty of space between the chairs and the bar. You can relax and enjoy your drink. Several staff members also speak English! Inexpensive.
Chuou-ku. Mixed gay and lesbian bar.
Lady's Bar N
1-13-1 Haruyoshi, Hakata-ku, 752-0126. A distinctive incense fragrance greets you at the door. Many patrons are in their 30s or over. The oldies' tunes, carefully selected by the staff, create a mellow atmosphere. Wed is Mix Day, when men can come if accompanied by a regular female patron. Otherwise, women-only. Inexpensive.
4-27-15 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, 436-1478. Opened as a forerunner of the Kyushu lesbian bar scene. A wide variety of women come here, from students and office workers to housewives and foreigners. Lots of exciting special events including regularly scheduled party nights. Women-only nightly. Reasonable prices.
Chuou-ku. Mixed gay and lesbian bar.
HIROSHIMA -- area code (81-82)
Click here for Hiroshima hotels and accommodations.
Shintenji, 243-5935. Almost any cab driver will know where this famous Hiroshima specialty restaurant is located and expect lines at the door. What's all the fuss? Okonomiyaki, a sort of vegetable pancake grilled right at your teppan table or counter grill, is a delicious, popular and inexpensive Kansai area dish. But Hiroshima is famous for its mountainous version and this is the place to grab an icy mug of beer and dig in. Try to sit at the counter so you may enjoy the free entertainment as your dinner is assembled from up to a dozen fresh ingredients. First select your "main ingredient" such as bacon, shrimp, squid or even strips of rice mochi. Next, the chef will pour and shape paper-thin crepes the size of a large dinner plate. Onto this go shredded cabbage, tempura cracklings, and bean sprouts. Shake on a bit of seasoning, add the main ingredient, and then flip the crepe over to cook the meat and steam the veggies. On another section of the grill, noodles (soba or udon) are sizzling with a little oil and an egg before being dropped on top of the already bulging crepe. Final embelishments are added: scallions, bonito (dried fish shavings), sweet and dark sauce, and bits of nori (dried seaweed).
OSAKA -- area code (81-6)
Osaka is a modern metropolis sprung up around a Shogun's castle that rises imposingly from its peach and plum blossom heart. Japanese say that the most handsome men in the region migrate to Osaka. The big city does provide anonymity for gays who flee the "small town" nosiness of metropolitan surroundings including Kobe and Kyoto when they want to relax. There are plenty of hunky country lads and city slick angels to meet. Much of the scene takes place around the transportation hub where trains, the local subway and the bus terminal to the international airport intersect.
Osaka's gay scene feels more friendly and international that Tokyo's. A decade of economic contraction in Japan has wiped out many small businesses, gay bars included. The clubs that remain now welcome a broader mix of guests, even women and straights, rather than the highly specialized clientele typical in the past. In Osaka, things have remained fairly stable with a few places closing and a few new clubs opening to take their place. As always there are hundreds of Japanese-only gay bars around, but the places listed here are where visitors and foreigers living in Japan can meet up with locals for fun.
The population of metropolitan Osaka is over 17 million (that's almost 700,000 Utopians).
Instructions to the Doyama-cho gay nightlife area: from the JR Train Station, take the south exit, turn left and cross the street to the Hankyu Umeda Station building and continue through to the other side where you will find the large, red HEP 5 shopping center (with the huge red Ferris wheel on the roof) and to its left, adjacent to the elevated tracks, a shopping alley called EST St. Continue down EST St two blocks until it dead-ends at the main avenue with the overhead highway and turn right to the corner of the major intersection. Doyama-cho is now diagonally opposite from where you are. Cross left under the overhead highway, then turn right and cross the smaller diagonal street. You are now at the corner edge of Doyama-cho, a maze of late night bars and restaurants. Turn left at this corner and walk to the next alleyway and take a right. Take this alley straight ahead to find Lupu, Coco love hotel, and Hokuoukan sauna. Explore the alleys to the right in the vicinity for many of the bars mentioned below, which advertise their names on rows of small signs that rise vertically on the building exteriors.
3/F Daini-Shouei Kaikan, 6-14 Doyama-cho, Kita-Ku (see map, right around the corner from Explosion, just south), 6361-2366, email. The extremely friendly owner, Chanho, welcomes gays and lesbians to his bar. He's fluent in English and a great information resource for visitors. Super inexpensive drinks and snacks. 20-40yo, international crowd. Chances are you'll feel right at home here. 大阪市北区堂山町６—１４ 第二松栄会館３F
Doyama-cho (somewhere opposite Just Rainbow Shop, see map), 6312-0588. Lesbian bar. Inexpensive drinks.
Jamaican Bar WaaGwaan UTOPIA VERIFIED MAR 2013
4/F Nippo Sunrise Town Bld (see map), 06-6365-1991, email. Lesbian-owned WaaGwaan is a small and cozy place to unwind and savour a little taste of Jamaica. Straight, LGBT, black, white, Asian, Latino, mixed - no matter who you are - all are weclome. So, drop in, forget about your worries, and enjoy the moment with some Jamaican food and drinks! Revel in the no-problem Jamaica vibe.
2/F Taiyo Biru, 2-1-6 Sonezaki, Kita-ku (near Umeda Station), 6367-1080. Women-only bar, with no cover charge. Cheap drinks.
Women-only parties held at different locations.
Lupu (mixed) UTOPIA VISITED SEP 2012
Kansai-Chuo Bld, Bekan 1/F, 101 15-2 Doyama-cho, Kita-ku, 6364-1357. This lesbian-run mixed bar welcomes visiting gays and lesbians. Owners Yu and Rika are extremely friendly and will quickly put you at ease. Yu speaks English and both are very helpful. Inexpensive drinks and snacks. Karaoke if you like. Relaxed atmosphere to meet old friends and make new ones. They are happy to host birthday events and will organize the cake and decorations. Open 8pm-5am, closed Wed. Utopia Member Discount.
- Club Dawn
3-3-8, Nakazaki-nishi, Kita-ku. Women-only disco night every 2nd Sun of the month (Jan and Aug are exceptions because of simultaneous national holidays). Admission includes drink. Unlike Tokyo, the night ends early! Open from 7pm to midnight only.
B1 Sanyo Kaikan, 8-23 Doyama-cho, 6312-5003, email. Large dance club popular with trendy gays, lesbians and visitors. Open nightly until early morning. Girly-EX hosts women-only events on the last Sun of each month.
SAPPORO (Hokkaido) -- area code (81-11)
Sapporo is Japan's 5th largest city. Its population is nearing 2 million (that's about 80,000 Utopians).
4/F Bld on the corner of South 5 West 5. A wonderfully friendly women's bar.
TOKYO -- area code (81-3)
Japanese onnabe (drag king hosts) from a women's club in Tokyo,
in a shot from the documentary film "Shinjuku Boys".
Suffering for more than a decade from Japan’s self-induced economic slump, Tokyo has seen much of its luster worn away by a recession seemingly without end. Art museums and performance spaces, once the crowning jewels of any serious department store, have turned into tired craft supply shops or now exhibit bins filled with last season’s unsold dishware. Once splendid designer boutiques openly hawk second-hand goods and hair scrunchies in sad sign-of-the-times sidewalk sales.
But there are also positive changes resulting from the flatlining economy. Bars are more mixed and friendly for foreign visitors (they need your business). English signage is now in common use, even on drink menus. With falling rental rates, savvy club owners have taken over neighboring venues, doubling or tripling the size of their once tiny establishments.
With prices having barely risen over the last dozen years, no tipping, no added taxes, and the dollar currently soaring against the yen, Tokyo is suddenly more affordable than New York, Paris or even Los Angeles! Taxis, once pure luxury rides -- with their lace doilies and white-gloved drivers who open the door for you -- have become a suddenly affordable, comfortable alternative to packed trains. Any tourist in their right mind should take advantage of this golden opportunity to discover the world wonders in the heart of this fascinating, and friendlier-than-ever Imperial city. Tokyo may never be this cheap again!
The population of Tokyo is over 8.2 million (that's about 330,000 Utopians).
- Tokyo Journal
Aside from being the monthly English-language guide to current events and life in the metropolis, they also list gay events and venues.
With the real estate and bar business slump, due to Japan's long economic recession combined with the Internet's popularity for cheap networking, prices haven't really risen in more than a decade. A night out in Tokyo has deflated down to earth from the champagne stratosphere, with drinks now averaging about US$5. Also, there is no tipping or added taxes on bar bills which means Tokyo is an astonishing value for travelers!
The following venues are friendly towards women. There are several sorts of systems in play these days. Traditional bars include a tasty snack, sometimes cooked on the spot, along with the first drink and so prices are a bit higher to start off. Although bar-hoppers may opt to avoid traditional bars, these venues provide the extra service of social lubrication and really should be enjoyed, at least once, by visitors. Traditional places cater to leisurely conversations with the Masta (Master), and her bar staff who will politely quiz you and then introduce you to other women they feel are a good match for a chat. This can take some time, so relax and have fun. The best traditional bars reflect the sparkling personalities of owners who are highly skilled in entertaining their customers. Some bars include a flat "table charge" that usually comes with an unthrilling dish of standard bar munchies. Many clubs have now switched to the simpler "shot" system of paying per drink purchased, although cover charges may go into effect on holidays and for special events. Pay as you go at these type of bars. Traditional bars may run tabs until you ask for the bill.
Monthly women-only events like Diamond Cutter (first Fri at Arch) and Gold Finger (every kast Fri) may be taking place when you visit. Flyers for upcoming events along with maps to the location can be found at lesbian and gay establishments.
Most bars open a couple hours after people have gotten off work (about 8pm).
- Chestnut and Squirrel
090-9834-4842. Wed night party for women. One of the best places. No table charge.
SHINJUKU NI-CHOME, SAN-CHOME
The easiest way to get to the gay area is to take the underground walkway from Shinjuku Station's East Exit (down one floor after the train exit ticket machines) to Exit C5, C6, or C8 (see map).
Advocates Café (mixed) UTOPIA VISITED SEP 2012
1/F Dai-7 Tenka Bld, 2-18-1, Shinjuku Ni-Chome, Utopia Map, 3358-3988. Open-air gay café right on the main drag (this corner gets very crowded on weekend evenings, spilling out into the street). At the center of this universe of arty trendsetters is Mitsutaka, gymnast and former Japanese trampoline champion, whose series of out and proud nude athletic photos shot at the beach made him a role model for a new generation of J queers. Indoor and outdoor seating. International crowd f gays, lesbians and friendly straights. The best location in Ni-Chome to see and be seen. Open nightly.
1/F Matsui Bld, 2-15-9 Shinjuku-ku, 3350-8083. Small bar with karaoke for lesbians and their gay friends. Open daily 8pm-5am
Agitation + G
2/F TSK Bld, 7-15-2 Minato-ku, Roppongi, 03-5775-5707. Women-only party, heavily attended by expats along with lots of Japanese women.
Arch UTOPIA VISITED SEP 2012
B/F Dai-2 Hayakawaya Bld, 2-14-6 Shinjuku Ni-Chome, Utopia Map, 3352-6297, email. Theme parties, drag divas, underground beats. Sat men only. Some women-only parties as well. Relatively expensive entry fee includes a first drink.
A snack-style bar in Shinjuku Ni-Chome, for women only.
3/F 2-14-13 Yunibiru, Shinjuku Ni-Chome. Foreign friendly (though not much English spoken). Karaoke, good drinks. Quite popular women's bar.
- Mars Bar
3/F 2-15-13 Shinjuku Ni-Chome (see map), 3354-7923.
See map. This small bar on 6/F is a funky hang-out for 20-something queers and their friends. Young visitors are welcome.
5-10-5 Shinjuku Ni-Chome (see map), 5379-8816. Another branch of this bar.
Tamago UTOPIA VISITED SEP 2012
1/F Nakae Bld, 2-15-13 Shinjuku Ni-Chome, Utopia Map, 3351-4838. Women only. Office Ladies go here to be entertained by the hosts--butch women in male drag. Expensive, but unique. Open 9pm-5am.
2/F Nakabayashi Tenpo, 2-15-8 Shinjuku-ku, 3356-0368. One of the oldest lesbian bars still around. Expensive, but attentive and amusing staff.
- Gold Finger
Every last Fri of the month at the Roppongi Colosseum Hall, 5485-8588. Tokyo's most furious lesbian confabulation for international spy girls!
YOKOHAMA (Kanagawa)-- area code (81-45)
Population is 3.5 million (that's 140,000 Utopians).
- Le Charme
3-27-2 Tokiwacyou, 203 A-Kusute-Jikannai, 663-3270, FAX 252-5853, email. Jazz music and friendly chat. Japanese country style snacks. Customers range in age from 18 to 50 years and come here to meet friends or look for a steady girlfriend. Kind and honest welcome to visiting foreign women. Utopia Member Discount.
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Bright smiles on bikes at VietPride 2013, Hanoi (photo by Jiri Pasz).
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