How to hit Ni-Chome: a guide to Tokyo's gay town 新宿二丁目
You've just come to Tokyo, you're passing through Tokyo, you've just come out in Tokyo, you're er curious' in Tokyo. Whatever it is, there's Shinjuku Ni-Chome (knee-cho-may: "Shinjuku block no.2").
Not even 10 minutes walk from the east side of Shinjuku station, 2-Chome is as unremarkable from the outside as any Japanese street block or, for that matter, any 175cm Japanese boy in trainers, flak jacket, T-shirt, denim and sharp hair.
Shinjuku Ni-Chome is the gay center of Tokyo, which is the world's largest urban agglomeration, with over 34 million people. .By that fact alone, Shinjuku Ni-Chome simply has to be something to write home about. (Write home?! Well, let's say message your best friend.) Compared with the gay quarters of major Western cities, it stands out in two ways: first for its small-scale profuseness.
You are not going to find any big establishments with a capacity of any more than a few dozen people. Tokyo does have major gay and lesbian club nights (see, for example Gay/Lesbian What's On), but not in Ni-Chome.
Everything is tiny, but it's there in great abundance. Shinjuku Ni-Chome also stands out for its multifariousness. We all know gay and lesbian. We all know the scenes' as well. Well, we think we know them.
But until you come to Japan - with perhaps the exception of the leather scene, which is well developed all over the gay world - you are unlikely to have seen just what a scene' can be in a way that is as concrete, organized, established, and taken for granted as it is in that focus of gay Japan: Ni-Chome.
The abundance of bars in Shinjuku Ni-Chome is something easily verified by a ten-minute stroll around its narrow precincts. Glance into the foyers of buildings, up at their sides, for confirmation. The whole area is a crazy checker board of lit-up bar signs. The colors, shapes, sizes, fonts all talk about being gay. But each speaks the dialect of a particular scene. The names themselves form a delightfully diverse vocabulary possible only in Japan where English is still foreign enough to treat entirely as one pleases and whose meanings and associations have a Japanese-shaped history of their own. To map these dialects out would take a decade and superhuman catholicity of taste.
At any one time, most of the bars represented by these signs each hold no more than about 15 people - max! In a space this small, the master' (master-san' to the customers) defines who comes. Those who come are generally regulars, and generally subscribe to a particular scene, or, in Japanese, sen: short for senmon: specialty', area of expertise'. With individual bar space at a premium, there is little room for diversity. The hapless foreigner who wanders innocently in off the street via close echoing staircases or a clanking old elevator may actually find himself lucky, at least for a time. Foreignness adds a patina to any taste, and if you're a fatty who has happened to squeeze into a debu-sen bar, a twiggy clone who has slipped into a gari-sen bar, an old codger who has stumbled upon a fuke-sen bar, or a stocky, hairy number who has heaved into a kuma ("bear")-sen bar well, congratulations! However, if you're an innocent to the language and the culture, such serendipity can be rare. If you find yourself in the wrong place, you may be oh-so-politely tolerated, perhaps ignored, or - in the very worst case, refused service and asked to leave (yes, it sometimes happens). It's best to stick to the beaten track at first, which is where we will point you to here.
If you haven't eaten, and its still early evening, why not make a complete gay night of it and head to Ni-Chome for dinner? The Bygs Building (on block 'C' of the gay Shinjuku map) has an excellent izakaya (Japanese-style restaurant) called 'Uoya Itcho' on the B1 basement floor. Uoya Itcho is big enough to never have to wait long, it's cheap enough to eat and drink your fill for under 3000 yen, the food is good enough to be memorable, and Uoya Itcho is chock-a-block with gay guys: counterfuls and tablefuls of them. There's still enough of a straight presence (10% perhaps?) to keep things on a somewhat even keel, and that 10% includes the waiting staff. The menu at Uoya Itcho is extensive, running from the hale and hearty: fat unpeeled potato fries with cheese sauce, to the exquisitely otherworldly: a whole skewered and sashimi-ed fish, still vainly arching its back, wide-eyed and gaping at its own garnishings.
You're feeling rotund and satisfied, and those three draft beers with dinner (finished off, was it, with a cup of warm sake?) have really warmed you up; so let's move up a gear. Go out of the restaurant, up the escalator, left out of the Bygs Building and then immediately left again. One block after the Bygs Building, just past Rainbow World' bookshop, and you're on Ni-Chome's main drag, Nakadori, running left-right. Go left down Nakadori and after a few paces you'll come to Advocate's bar, just on your left, on the corner of the block.
Advocate's is the smaller of Ni-Chome's two open-air bars. Like the other much bigger one, Dragon Men, its openness gives the crowd there the kind of fluidity that few other Ni-Chome places have. Advocates is cruisy, the ultimate in easy-come easy-go: a great place to get chatting to strangers. Especially when the weather's warm, the crowd at Advocates spills way out into the street, giving Advocates something like the feel of a block party. There are flyers at both Advocates and Dragon for other bars and events, and, if you really need to know something, the staff of both Advocates and Dragon speaks adequate English.
After perhaps a nice white wine or a couple of G&Ts at Advocates, how about something a little cosier? Retrace your steps in the direction of the Bygs Building. You'll notice how many gay video, magazine and book shops there are brightly lit as convenience stores and strangely sterile-looking for all the horniness they're peddling. Take the first on your left after Nakadori and on the second block you come to, on the left, you'll see the entrance to Bar GB downstairs.
GB is where the picking up hots up - and where the sparkle of above-ground fun shares eyes with the more careful business of sizing up, glancing, holding it there, or looking away. GB is dominated by the big central square bar, around which the customers sit and stand. The staff at GB is welcoming and friendly. The drinks at GB are generous, and GB is rarely less than full. The light is dim, and cruise, without outright sleaze, fills the air: Bar GB is a great place for hatching plans and hooking up for later action. People are fully engaged with each other at GB, and no one is a stranger for long. The TV is playing music videos. In the smoky air, blue and white by flashes from the screen, the night that's about to unfold can be felt warming up at GB.
For a more personal kind of vibe, with a friendly mix of Japanese and foreign guys, we recommend Rehab Lounge. The owner extends a warm welcome to foreign guys, and it's not the kind of place where you can sit alone without getting to chat to someone. Rehab Lounge is more spacious than your average Ni-Chome bar, but not so big as to ever get impersonal. While not primarily a dance bar, DJs do often spin there on Fridays and Saturdays. Daily Happy Hour from 7pm-9pm.
Once it's heading for midnight, you might feel like a more all out dose of fun. Take another look at the flyers you picked up. Like the bars for the Japanese, the club nights are also strictly segregated. It might 30s-only night at ArcH or diva night at the Annex. There might even be something gay on that evening at one of the big places off Ni-Chome like Ageha or the Warehouse.
Arty Farty is often a good place to start. Go left out of GB and take the first street on your right. You'll see the red sign for Arty Farty out on the pavement on the left side of the street. Arty Farty is a second floor dance club with as diverse a crowd as you'll find anywhere on Ni-Chome. Like anything gay in Japan, however, it is generally young, with few over-40s, but whoever turns up is not going to feel out of place.
No matter how quiet things might seem on the street, Arty Farty is routinely jam packed. On walking in you line up at the bar. Even at its most packed it doesn't take more than five minutes to get served. Unlike the other clubs, entrance is free, but buying a drink - upon which you get a stamp on your hand - is obligatory before you can enter the dance floor, a step or two down from the bar. The place is usually thronged, with generally two-thirds to three-quarters of the crowd on the dancefloor. The dor is, as the name suggests, whackier than it is conventional, but is not very noticeable when it's dark and crowded.
Arty Farty is good solid gay clubbing - not exactly cutting edge, but done in a very crowdpleasing way. (From 9pm to midnight you can make requests.) Don't expect the DJ to mix. The atmosphere is fun and it's the vibes that the punters are there for. Arty Farty is packed close enough to feel the heat, there are sofas if you feel like a break, attitude doesn't get the vaguest look in - and it's easy to hook up. Party on!
Saturdays are busiest at ArtyFarty. Fridays, while very well patronized, are not as jam-packed and clubbers can enjoy a more idiosyncratic, freer, even slightly freakier gay atmosphere than they can on Saturdays.
In summer of 2006 Arty Farty opened a 'branch' known simply as the Annex. It is quite a different space from Arty Farty in that, while still small, it has way more headroom - to the point of incorporating a mezzanine floor. Club Annex attracts a somewhat less sweaty and frenetic crowd on Saturday nights than its sister club, Arty Farty, and Annex is recommended for those who want to drink and dance without feeling like they're commuting on a crowded Tokyo train.
ArcH (formerly Ace) is real institution. If you want to see drag queens and/or boys with their shirts off (again, depending on the night), ArcH is a fairly trusty place to head for. The sound system at ArcH is more than adequate, ArcH doesn't get quite as packed as Arty Farty, meaning there's more room to maneuver, and the DJs at ArcH really know their stuff. The scene at ArcH changes quite dramatically according to the event, so, as usual, choose your night. But expect a warm, real' gay crotch-grinding, feelgood evening, arms up and smiling at ArcH.
Whatever time you stumble back out into faintly lightening air, Ni-Chome will still be peopled. if you're hungry, there's a raamen (Chinese noodle shop) across the road from the Bygs Building, or the 24-hour Shinjuku-Gyoen branch of Freshness Burger (the more gay-friendly option) on the other side of Shinjuku-dori avenue across from Block V. The rest of Shinjuku is cleaning up and getting ready for 24 hours of it all over again. Taxis are passing, perhaps the subway's started running. If you've got lucky, there are love hotels galore to crash in, there's your hotel room, your bedroom, the next two weeks, two years ... maybe the rest of your life!
Not tonight? well, take a stroll towards the park, wearing the right air, or, if you're carrying the right sized wallet try a sauna, sex club, or boy bar ("King of College" is right next door to ArcH). Whatever, there are plenty more nights, bars, men and surprises left in Shinjuku Ni-Chome.
Click here for links to foreigner-friendly gay and lesbian bars and clubs in Japan, as well as useful Japan-related gay/lesbian web links.