(Updated March 2009)
(1) Japanese Cock-Tales
Thai Guys Magazine, Bangkok
I was in Tokyo for a seminar and in the elevator of my hotel I noticed a beautiful young man with pitch-black hair and alabaster-skin smiling at me. To cut a long story short, after a brief conversation in the coffee shop, we ended up in my hotel room and made love passionately. It was like a dream. He wanted nothing from me (other than a lot of tenderness) and he even insisted on paying for the meals we ate out, even though he must have been about half my age. ‘This is MY country,’ were his words uttered with a smile, but also with a certain pride.
This was certainly a welcome change from Bangkok, where I had made a short stopover. I missed the opening ceremony of the congress that night. We had lunch (and more) each day after that. He couldn’t stay for the night because he still lived with his parents. He said, he was going to get married soon.
On the last day, he took me to the airport but wouldn’t kiss me goodbye, although in his eyes I noticed tears. I really wanted to send him some token of my appreciation from home, but he had not given me his address because, he said, his parents would question him if I were to write. I never heard of him again. Who hasn’t heard that kind of story?! Is it still likely to happen?
Japan has a rich tradition of gay life. In that respect, it can almost be compared to the old Spartan civilization. During the Edo-period (1600-1868), many samurais and daimyos (regional rulers) shared their beds with young pages. While women were needed for continuing family lines, many aristocrats considered a young man an object more worthy of passionate or tender attachment. Romantic love-stories between men abound, as is evident from collections such as Saikaku Ihara’s (1642-93) Comrade Loves of the Samurai (Tuttle, 1972).
The founder of the Noh-theatre, Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), is said to have been the lover of the Ashikaga-shogun. In the urban merchant-cultures of Naniwa (Osaka) and Edo (Tokyo) gay brothels peacefully co-existed with heterosexual ones (see the still fascinating account by Ferdinand Karsch: Das gleichgeschlechtliche Leben der Ostasiaten. München, 1906).
Does this mean that average Japanese are aware of this tradition? Unfortunately not! Educated “gaijins” (foreigners) usually know more about Japan’s glorious past than the Japanese themselves. The reason is that, starting with the Meiji-era (1867-1912), Western middle-class moral standards were adopted wholesale whilst, on the other hand, the Western sexual revolution of the sixties was largely missed.
Therefore, nowadays Japan sometimes seems to be more Victorian than contemporary Britain or Germany. Foreigners always marvel at the inconsistencies: At certain matsuris (Shinto-festivals) young and not so young Japanese males still freely exhibit luscious buttocks in undoshi (loincloths). These matsuris are a favorite photo opportunity for foreigners and are called oshiri-no matsuri (buttock-matsuris) by the more appreciative.
Yet, no self-respecting Japanese woman would never bare her breasts on a beach, as German women especially are fond of doing. In sentos (public bathhouses), both sexes just barely cover their most precious parts with a skimpy towel like the ones we use for drying dishes, though bathing together is seldom practiced now (with few exceptions in remote areas).
An idiotic law that forbids the showing of pubic hair in photos, films (even in artworks!) is still being enforced–while in most cities and resort areas, especially in certain establishments poetically named “Music”, women freely expose their genitals on rotating platforms to eager “salary-men”, who-gaping like little boys under an Xmas-tree-are allowed to snap Polaroid pictures. Click, click, click, click!
Prostitution, which used to be a highly respected and sophisticated form of business in old Japan, is officially outlawed. However, everyone knows, that certain massage parlors at Lake Biwa, called “soaplands”, offer precisely that. The setting is all that matters, and the absurdity of it all is part of the attraction.
A good thing for gays (native and foreign) in Japan is that there are officially no laws on the books against homosexuality and the age of consent is remarkably low, though vague. Christian moral values have not been adopted, but are rather an affectation of the bourgeois middle-class. Buddhism, all in all, is more tolerant on sexual mores than Christianity, and the native Shintoism has always wisely avoided the formulation of religious doctrine, as well as their accompanying moral prescriptions.
However, in the spirit of Confucianism, family obligations are still being taken seriously by most Japanese. The pressure to marry (if necessary by arrangement, called omiai) is overpowering. For this reason, you will meet many married men in Japanese gay saunas, especially on Sunday afternoons, yearning for a male embrace after they have taken the children to the zoo or played golf with colleagues from work. Secrecy about their double life is the rule, as it is for extra-marital relations in the straight world. Fortunately for them, the Japanese have a talent for looking the other way.
In Japanese saunas one will often encounter a scene that would seem to be quite extraordinary in the West: in the hectic semi-darkness of a mixed room you will see a fat young man lying impassively on the “tatami” (reed-mat), while a handsome and muscular suitor is kneeling next to him, eagerly trying to “please” him in every possible way. These fat boys are called “chubbies” (debu) and are very popular in Japan.
They have their own specialized bars and magazines and there will always be those craving “chubbies” exclusively. Strangely enough, drag queens do not seem to command the (almost shaman-like) respect they enjoy in Thailand. Nevertheless, it is sometimes hard in Japan to determine who is, and who is not, because many young men, especially students, uninhibitedly exhibit a female (long-haired) charm that would inevitably lead to derision in the USA or in Germany. A leather-scene practically does not exist in Japan.
At the entrance to Osaka’s most beautiful sauna, Hokuokan (Northern Europe), the startled foreigner will still be greeted by a large sign “Japanese Only”. Inside, he will be treated courteously. Not everything is what it seems to be in Japan. Some of the Japanese customers, especially the younger ones, will shy away from foreigners because of their fear of AIDS.
Sometimes it is amusing to watch their fascination with size battle their irrational fears and see which will win out. But one can still observe Japanese indulging in unprotected sex with each other.
The bar-scene is varied and complicated by the well-known difficulty of locating addresses in Japanese cities. It is best, to visit one gaijin-friendly bar (like “Ken’s” in Kyoto or “Village” in Osaka-Umeda or “GB” in Tokyo-Shinjuku) and ask the Mama-san (the male, often rather feminine, manager) for directions to other places. The latter also sometimes asks for “your type” and might even try to match you up with another lonely customer. There are bars that welcome foreigners and others that do not. But since there are so many of them, this is not a huge problem. Generally, the gay bars in Japan are much smaller and more intimate than those in the USA or in Europe.
They often consist of a counter, offering seats for about eight customers and perhaps some more seats along the wall. The advantage is that the mama-san feels more responsible for your well-being and will try to engage you in some kind of conversation. The disadvantage is your limited range of operation. You might get stuck between some utter bores and before you can move on to another bar, you will have been relieved of ca. 800 Yen ($7–for the first drink) in Tokyo or Osaka and even 1400 Yen ($12–for the first drink with some tidbits to munch on) in Kyoto and the provinces.
Most bars will have karaoke (the English songs are usually in the back of the book). Often, you will have to pay 100 Yen for each song you select. Whether you sing well or miserably, you will always receive some polite applause, which the mama-san initiates. If you are good, some customer might ask you to sing his favorite English song. If the mama-san is talented, she might sing along with you. Karaoke is not a bad way to relieve you of your loneliness (at least temporarily).
Park cruising seems to have gone out of fashion in Japan, even though there are some areas with long traditions (as mentioned in the gay guides). The reason may be that the saunas have become more prolific and more comfortable. Besides, in the larger cities there are now sex-clubs with “back-rooms”, peepholes or mazes, much like in the USA. These charge slightly less than the saunas (less than 2000 Yen–$16) and mainly cater to customers under forty.
Most of these establishments, if they are not brand new, can be found in the various gay magazines (zashi), which can be bought in some bookstores and perused in most saunas and in many bars. Next to the address (in Japanese) there is usually a map, which can be shown to a taxi driver. Until recently, these magazines were the main tool for making contact with like-minded individuals. Many shy boys who had never set foot in a gay bar, not to speak of a sauna, would place an ad in these zashis. Now, however, most of these boys own (or have access to) computers and find friends through the internet (try “Gay Net Japan”).
Summing up, we could say that gay contacts in Japan are usually safe and are of a non-commercial nature. On the other hand, Japanese men are almost always much shyer than, e.g., Thais and (probably partly for that reason) linguistically more inhibited. Unfortunately, in this era of ever younger (body-and teeth-conscious) idols (pop-singers) on TV and on stage, the daddy-complex-syndrome that attracted so many foreigners to Japan after the war has more or less disappeared.
As recently as 20 years ago there were still many young Japanese who felt attracted to gaijins, more or less regardless of looks or age, because of their sheer size and “otherness”. These foreigners (mostly North-Americans and Australians) symbolized the good life the after-war-generation had grown used to admiring in films and on television.
Nowadays, there are many handsome young Japanese who will only sleep with their own kind, and if they try some sex with a gaijin in a dark sauna-room, they certainly do not want to be seen with him in public.
Therefore, paradoxically, the quest for a lover (or long time companion) seems to be more difficult for many older foreigners than casual sex in an impersonal setting. Even young Westerners, if they are not extraordinarily handsome, seem to suffer from this development. Therefore, our initially quoted idyllic tale, might now be rather the exception which proves the rule. And globetrotters from the West, who might be looking for exotic adventures should be prepared to be somewhat disappointed by modern gay Japan.
(2) Gay BKK and Gay Tokyo
by Dan Madigan
Sushi or green curry? Hairy daddies or cute burnished boys? One a vibrant hi-tech society and the other a tropical haven, Japan and Thailand offer two completely different experiences for the gay traveler.
The congested but endlessly seductive city of Bangkok with an indisputably out, loud and proud gay scene may be the first place on anyone’s list – the Babylon Sauna alone is worth the price of a return flight from anywhere in the world – but although Tokyo may seem rather more subdued in comparison, there is certainly no less going on. Those sexual samurai are just a little bit harder to find, that’s all.
As there is a distinct difference between the way the Japanese and Thai cultures regard homosexuality, the openness of their respective gay scenes also reflects attitudes to sex and pleasure in general. In Bangkok, gay culture permeates almost every level of society and is accepted as much as any aspect of Thailand’s thriving sex industry. In Tokyo, the sex industry is no less extensive, but it’s all behind closed doors, and thus it can seem like you’re entering a secret world. This makes you feel rather illicit at times and is rather strange if you’re used to more openness.
One thing you can’t complain about in Japan is the variety of bars catering to all sorts of different body types and tastes. It is easy to see Bangkok bars as formulaic in respect to this, and –dare I say it–tacky. But I had heard that Japan’s wide variety of choice was really only available for the Japanese themselves, with foreigners often not welcome in some of the more specialized bars, and when you can walk into any bar in Bangkok and find a hot welcome, this is slightly disconcerting, not to mention racist.
Deciding to put this to the test, I nervously ventured up the stairs to Ku Su O, a bear karaoke bar in Shinjuku, and despite finding the broad-shouldered, bearded hunks a bit intimidating (until I heard them sing, anyway) I was made extremely welcome without knowing a word of Japanese. Conversely, another white guy and I were turned away from one of the Tokyo saunas, despite being noticeably less drunk than any of the locals who we watched stumble, as furtively as they could, through the hallowed doors. I guess it’s just best to try and find out for yourself.
Of course, apart from the great disparity in prices between Japan and Thailand, another problem with Tokyo is that it doesn’t have any specifically gay hotels. Nothing like Bangkok’s Malaysia Hotel anyway, where a large clean double room for a night costs less than two cups of coffee in the more fashionable parts of Tokyo.
While we’re on the subject, the cheapest place I did find for coffee in Tokyo (apart from a few free cups the morning after), was the a place called Monsoon (http://members.xcom.com/barmonsoon), which plays loud dance music and on weekend afternoons is full of young, cute guys. Considering a plain cup of good old filter coffee is anything up to 1,000 yen (about US$9) in a “straight” coffee house, you’ll be pleased to know that nursing a hangover in Monsoon will set you back a mere 500 yen, and that includes a refill and a chat with the very friendly staff.
But the plus side to business hotels in Tokyo is that once you have paid for your room you can do anything you like in it and no-one is going to bother you. Your friend for the night is not going to have to leave his ID card at reception, for instance. I for one would also gladly forego the Malaysia’s 24-hour room service for the excellent porn available in Japanese hotels –some hot Yakuza action is so much better background to an orgy than fuzzy MTV, don’t you think?
Despite the recent crackdown on underage drinking, most would agree that Bangkok’s gay nightlife is still second-to-none in Asia–the Silom area alone houses almost 50 gay establishments, compared to around 10 in Shinjuku – something else to bear in mind is that no one you meet in a bar in Tokyo is going to ask you to pay for sex.
There are specific places to go for that. You can also assume in Tokyo that your sex partner will know all about safe sex, something that most tend to be pretty blasé about in Thailand. Or worse. My traveling companion was convinced that I should be less rude to a certain few ladyboys unless I wanted to be stabbed with a syringe full of HIV-infected blood. Horrific scare stories aside, that’s not to say that Tokyo doesn’t have its fair share of bitches, it’s just they’re not looking to make any money from you so will generally stay out of your face.
The Telephone Bar (www.telephonepub.com) is one of the most popular on Bangkok’s Silom Soi 4 and you’ll meet some nastiest (and most fun) local queens. It’s not so good for cruising as some of the clientele can be a bit pushy, but it is excellent for people-watching, with moderately priced drinks and good service. Opposite Telephone is Balcony (www.balconypub.com), which from our vantage point seemed just as packed with both local and foreign manmeat. The main attraction on Silom Soi 2, DJ Station, is always bursting at the seams so if you like sweaty spectaculars, this is the place for you. The Henry Club, opposite, is a pretty tame go-go bar full of spoilt, sullen youths, to be avoided at all costs.
The scene in Tokyo is centered in the garish district of Shinjuku, although garish in Japan is pretty monochrome by Thai standards. GB (B1F, Shinjuku Plaza Bldg., 2-12-3 Shinjuku Ni-chome. Tel: 03 3352-8972) is probably the most popular bar for foreigners and the Japanese men that like them. It’s extremely small and completely dominated by a square bar that offers excellent cruising opportunities – perfect for arranging group sex sessions, in fact. The bar staff and clientele are extremely friendly and generally very drunk.
Opposite is Dragon, a small but extremely busy dance club that caters to a mixed crowd, hosting theme parties and leather nights. On the weekend nights I visited it was just packed with bare-chested men, both foreign and Japanese, sweating profusely to English techno along with a scattering of fabulous drag queens. The prices seemed average, and the bar staff are both gorgeous and supremely honest. Slightly worse for wear, I twice handed over a 5,000 yen note thinking it was 500, which doesn’t actually exist, and on both occasions it was returned along with a slightly concerned look. Now I’ve never been ripped off in Thailand myslef, but we’ve all heard the stories.
Another bar in the area is Kinsmen, one of the few bars in Shinjuku that welcomes women (along with Dragon), and we met a whole contingent of fabulous Japanese dykes from Sydney. Regular prices, big butch bar master, mainstream music and a good vibe. Arty Farty is just along from GB (2-17-4 Shinjuku Ni-chome. Tel: 03 3356-5388) and by Tokyo standards is reasonably large. It’s busy with the same kind of crowd as GB with women welcome on Sundays, and serves a full range of drinks and a limited food menu. Arty Farty is open daily from 2 p.m. and this is the one place you might actually get a cozy seat
Opening at 6 p.m., a bit earlier than other bars, Advocates (7th Tenka Building, 1F, 2-18-1 Shinjuku, http://www.f-impression.com/ advocates) is a tiny open-air bar and cafe on a corner in Naka Street, situated roughly between the two biggest gay bookstores. The crowd here, if you can call three full tables and enough people to fill two square meters a crowd, was a mix of butch queer Japanese and masculine foreigners. A fashion-conscious yet kind of unassuming lot, but the place does have the best vantage point to watch the cute men walking up and down the street.
And seeing as I’ve suggested one place to avoid in Bangkok, it’s only fair I show the same consideration to Tokyo. According to its multitude of flyers, Ace (2-14-6 B1F Shinjuku-ku) hosts drag shows and dance parties with a huge variety of performers and DJs, but I haven’t seen it listed in any of the English-language gay guides to Tokyo and has a discriminatory door policy against foreigners, as well as a strangely anal lesbian on the door the night we chanced in. Make your own mind up by all means, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Rural retreats – well, almost
If you’re going to travel out of the capitals, Chiang-Mai in Thailand is a good base, offering a relaxed scene as well as plenty of non-sexual activity. Japan offers very little to the gay traveler outside the major cities, but if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that there is a strong sense of community that harks back to an older tradition that is alive and well in secluded pockets. The town of Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture is such a pocket.
While Chiang Mai is regarded as being able to provide a warmer welcome than its brasher southern rivals, and I found the locals extremely charming in a rough-hewn fashion, it was clear that the boys here were working for themselves, and I pretended not to notice that they seemed a lot younger even than the working boys in Bangkok.
I stayed at the Lotus Hotel, spitting distance from the Adam’s Apple Go-Go bar, and it was pure delight. Not large, but clean, welcoming and surprisingly luxurious, like you are staying in the guest bedroom of a colonial mansion. All the reception and chamber staff go out of their way to help out, and the owner Mohammed is a darkly mysterious yet sociable character who exudes enough testosterone to floor a camel (you can e-mail him directly for info/reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The hotel has a bijou open-air bamboo hut bar where you can have a drink before heading across the road. The Lotus can arrange for you to be picked up at the hotel for sightseeing trips, or you can, as I did, hire the hotel’s 4-wheel drive and a big Thai driver for the day at very reasonable rates. That particular driver was also available for hire of an evening, so don’t be afraid to ask at the front desk if you want the double-deal.
The Adam’s Apple go-go bar, all part of the Lotus complex, is a stylish establishment with nightly shows that emphasize fun rather than sleaze, and I found the boys gave us perhaps the best natured and warmest welcome that we got in Thailand. There are two saunas in Chiang Mai and we were advised by locals that the House of Male (e-mail: email@example.com) was the more popular of the two.
Built in the traditional northern Thai style, this is a classy joint, small but perfectly formed, like the staff, with a tiny gym leading onto an outdoor swimming pool and open-air veranda area on the second floor where you can watch the poolside goings-on. As we swigged Elephant beer on the veranda, shivering in our robes, a middle-aged Japanese guy masturbated furiously across from us while two of the staff sat either side of him, flicking rather disinterestedly through glossy magazines. That kind of summed up Chiang Mai for me, really, and will remain in my mind for as long as I try to forget the cigarette burns all over the back and butt of one of the go-go boys.
Back in the Japanese countryside, you’re not likely to spot many rainbow flags in the smaller cities, but if you get talking in the Tokyo bars you’ll soon realize that many Japanese patrons are just there for the weekend, and all will be willing to tell you about the gay goings-on in their area, and probably take you to bed you as well.
In Koriyama, much the same as most of Japan it seems, you can often find a handsome salaryman who’ll get drunk enough to let you get him off in one of the myriad of straight expat-style bars, including one called DownTown (Elite1 bld, 2F, 1-6-15 Ekimae). Brazilian owner Alain will often grab a whistle and start really getting down at the head of a conga line to the strains of the Macarena, a veritable Mardi Gras in yellow trousers all by himself. It’s rumored that he’s also rather handy with the camcorder and baby oil to boot, upstairs after the bar has closed.
The best local gay place is Copain, a starkly decorated bar staffed by the lovely master Yamaguchi and another gorgeous, masculine hunk of Japanese manmeat. Very friendly, very reasonable (beers about 700 yen), and not a queen in sight – all suits, S/As and a particularly cuddly bear.
Popstar is another karaoke joint that attracts an altogether younger crowd, owned by an old queen who likes to suck the fingers of the customers. I was informed that this was the best place to pick up, as most of the customers (a mixed crowd of trendy S/As, queens and the same suits from Copain) are scebbae (sleazy). True to form, after not a few hours of rather dreary Japanese love songs belted out by Koriyama’s resident divas, shirts began to be removed in the small, confined bar and the next few hours were a blur of booze, nipple-biting, poppers and Japanese sweat.
The Best Ever
While Japan is probably the last place most would think of for a gay sex tour, and Thailand is the first, each have their unique merits and both offer a bewildering array of sensual experiences, sexual and otherwise. But for me, for all the bawdy heat and willing boys of Bangkok and the straining sexual tension of Tokyo, it was my experience in the foothills of Mount Adatara where I said Sawasdee to my samurai that makes Japan come out on top.
I may already have been biased, as my best one in Thailand was a Japanese guy I met in Phuket, but I found God in that forest that night. He took the form of a ski-patrol warden from the nearby resort. His battle-hard body and unforgettable musk – he’d come straight from working the slopes rather than fighting for his Shogun warlord –mean for me it’s Sawasdee Samurai and Sayonara Silom.
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