This fast-forward capital city provides a niche for all flavors of gay life, relentlessly imbuing every day with a wow factor that makes you feel you have arrived in an alternative universe.
Shinjuku, established in 1698, was one of four gateways into Tokyo. Today it's the heart of the gayborhood where the world-famous Advocates Café claims unofficial rights to the main street. In a society in which foreigners can be viewed with a certain wariness, Advocates Café became a pioneer of gay nightlife by opening its doors to locals and foreigners alike. It now maintains its reputation as the early-evening watering hole, loud and chaotic, packing the street like a small gay pride parade, where smiling visitors toast to Tokyo’s iconoclasms and eager Japanese boys eye up the Westerners and each other.
The narrow, stacked buildings above resemble a series of futuristic beehives. Inside are vertical assemblies of petite gay bars, stacked one on top of another, amounting to more than 200 individual gay bars, shops, and other businesses in a five-square-block area. There’s a strict members-only entrance policies for the boutique bars — some cater to a particular sub-culture like hardcore leather or bears, some attract those into a specific fetish like sniffing sullied underwear, others draw gents interested in kinky Japanese rape porn. Varying in size from a cruise ship cabin to a New York City studio, few could hold more than a dozen people at a time. Instant membership is impossible. Personal friendship with a member or the bartender determines the right to enter, but local attitudes preclude most foreigners from ever sampling the full palette of esoteric flavors. Some local terms include: gai-sen for Japanese who prefer foreigners (aka "potato queen"); debu-sen (chubbie chaser); and fuke-sen (lover of older man).
What some call the xenophobia of the Japanese, is also a kind of modesty around outsiders, and a desire to avoid being judged by alien standards. An example of differences between the cultures appears in the Utopia website: "Some straight sports clubs make a good deal of money by selling amateur erotic videos of their freshmen members being initiated at nude drinking parties." Try that in Texas, if you dare. But, as Utopia points out, "traditions of same-sex love and cults of youthful male beauty flourished for centuries, ... public parks... have been cruising spots for hundreds of years, and guidebooks devoted to homosexual pleasures (were) published in the 1760's!"
There is certainly plenty of fun around for foreign visitors. Advocates Café is by far the easiest place to make new friends during your visit. After that, the crowd divides between the wildly popular dance club Arty Farty and its smaller outpost, the Annex, the leather palace Dragon Men, or the upscale Kinsmen. There are also numerous word-of-mouth events that crop up almost nightly. See our map & listings page for locations and websites for the most accessible places to check out, or just explore parks and nooks along the streets in the Shinjuku district. Tokyo Rainbow Pride now takes place in April. For some photos see the Tokyo Fashion Flickr page.
The major gateway to Japan is Tokyo's Narita Airport, about 50 miles northeast of the city. Most domestic flights land at Haneda Airport. Buses and trains, and the Haneda Express monorail will whisk you downtown.
The subway is the most convenient way to get around Tokyo, although it can get very crowded at rush hour. The subways, buses, trams, monorails, and suburban railway lines are operated by several different companies. Some of these include: Tokyo Metro with nine metro lines; the Tokyo Monorail; and the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation with four Toei subway lines and bus and tram services.
Taxis are an option that were considered expensive in the past, but prices have come down lately, and the white glove treatment is a startling contrast to a cabbie experience in the West. Most drivers don’t speak English however, so having a cell phone will allow a Japanese-speaker at the other end of your journey to give directions to your driver. Local addresses are difficult for visitors, so if you don't have the cell phone, have the address in print, or try giving a nearby landmark as a destination, and walk the last bit.
To get beyond Tokyo on public transportation, see the website of JapanGuide
Currency and Money
The yen is the local currency. Many ATMs do not accept cards issued outside Japan. The exceptions are those in post offices and in some foreign convenience store. Check with your local bank before leaving for information about possible partner banks here.
Media and resources
Utopia, the English-language guide to gay Asia, has good coverage of Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, with maps and listings for all the gay businesses.
Travel Gay Asia has listings for SE Asia, Thailand, China, Indonesia and Sydney Australia, with good coverage of Tokyo and Osaka in Japan.
Japan Visitor, a general guide to the country in English, has sections on Tokyo, and specifically Gay Tokyo, with bar, hotel and sauna listings, plus maps.
Bento is another English-language guide to eating, drinking and exploring in Tokyo and Yokohama, as well as Kyoto and Osaka/Kobe - with gay listings too. Tokyo Fashion online magazine is devoted to clothing, accessories and style - including gay style and with photos from recent Pride events.
For a look at, though not an easy read about local lifestyles, several gay magazines are published each month, in Japanese only. They can be quite large - up to 350 pages or so, filled with articles, fictional stories, photos and manga. These include: Badi covering the youth market, with fashion, health and relationship articles, community news and event listings; G-Men, catering to gay macho, bear and muscle interests; and Samson, specializing in older, chubby guys, businessmen in suits, and occasionally also fundoshi --those attired in the Japanese loincloth.
Barazoku, Japan's first gay magazine (from 1971), is no longer published but still has a website for historical and archival purposes. Also see an article on Yaoi in the Guide archives, by Mark McHarry, published in 2003.
The Tokyo Tourism site has tips on places to visit, events, accommodations, restaurants and more.
Tokyo remains the city with the world's most 3-star Michelin-rated restaurants, well ahead of runners-up Paris and New York. See a 2013 list of all 15 at the Business Insider website.
For our full listings of bars, saunas, hotels and other information of gay interest, with locations and websites, see our gay Tokyo map & listings page.
An alternative universe: Planet Tokyo
I exited the Shinjuku-sanchome metro station, keen to discover Tokyo by night. My pupils dilated and contracted, adjusting to the flash of ubiquitous neon, engrossed in a canopy of foreign characters and fascinating calligraphy. I could still taste the remnants of tempura flakes and barbecued eel from dinner as I mentally recounted my second enchanting day in Tokyo: sunrise photographs of the vibrant Tsukiji fish market, treks through scores of deeply misunderstood Harajuku teens to reach the sacred Meiji Jingu Shrine, and soliciting the favors of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, at the hectic Sensoji Temple. In a short 48 hours, Tokyo had completely ambushed my senses. Curious to discover Tokyo's gay nightlife, I had mapped out a plan of action before leaving my swanky hotel room at the world's most seductive Ritz Carlton. While my Japanese friends had insisted homosexual hangouts were scarce in the capital city, diligence and the guidance of the hotel's cherubic concierge supported another theory, a raging yet clandestine scene, centralized in Tokyo's unofficial gayborhood, Shinjuku Ni-chome.
As I retrieved my pocket map outside the metro station, I noticed a group of muscular twenty-somethings sashaying in the same direction. I stalked the group for about five minutes, finally stumbling upon the lost city of Homo Edo. I heard familiar English intonation and gravitated towards some expats practicing Japanese with a group of Asian jocks who were clearly reveling in their endearing accents. I was quickly adopted by the multicultural assembly and given a primer of gay Tokyo. We were standing at the heart of the Shinjuku gayborhood, facing the world-famous Advocates Cafe, which claims unofficial rights to the main street. In a society where foreigners are often viewed with suspicion, Advocates Cafe became a pioneer of gay nightlife by opening its indoors and outdoors to locals and foreigners alike. It now maintains its reputation as the early-evening watering hole, loud and chaotic, packing the street like a small gay Pride parade, where smiling visitors toast to Tokyo's iconoclasms and eager Japanese boys eye up the Westerners and each other. My newfound friends, three Anglo-Japanese couples, shared a common theme: the young expats had studied in Tokyo, fallen in love with Japanese guys and never left. The Texan, the Bostonian, the Aussie and their Japanese beaus took on the mission of helping me discover the gay scene over the course of two short nights. Their insider knowledge revealed a shocking and unexpected statistic: Tokyo flaunts the highest concentration of gay bars in the world.
Hundreds of bars
The narrow, stacked buildings standing above us struck me as a series of futuristic beehives. Inside were vertical assemblies of petite gay bars, stacked one on top of another, amounting to more than 200 individual businesses in a five-square-block area. My new friends warned of the strict members-only entrance policies for the boutique bars. Some catered to a particular sub-culture like hardcore leather or bears, some attracted those into a specific fetish like sniffing sullied underwear, others drew gents interested in kinky Japanese rape porn. After encountering much door-slamming disappointment, my new friends informed me that most of these shoebox-sized bars were miserably boring. Varying from the size of a cruise ship cabin to a New York City studio, few could hold more than a dozen people at a time. Instant membership is impossible. Personal friendship with a member or the bartender determines the right to enter, and local attitudes preclude most foreigners from ever sampling the esoteric flavors. But it turned out that there is fun available for visitors. Advocates Cafe is by far the easiest place to make new friends during your visit. After that, the crowd divides between the wildly popular dance club Arty Farty and its smaller outpost, the Annex, the leather palace Dragon Men, or the upscale Kinsmen. There are also crop up almost nightly. This particular Saturday night, the crowd at Advocates buzzed about a late-night Madonna-themed party at Arch. Come 1am, this was the destination of our group, which had grown to a dozen people representing five countries. As we entered the subterranean chamber, familiar tunes poured from the sound system, and we gazed at paper dolls representing Madonna's various looks. Club kids, drag queens, Harajuku girls and shirtless, toned circuit boys partied like it was 1999, flailing their arms, shaking the sweat from their thick black manes and eagerly and incorrectly shouting the lyrics. In an instant, the intoxicating cacophony turned to order as patrons diligently assumed seats on the dancefloor. On an exact replica of the set from the Sticky & Sweet Tour, an incredible impersonator (strangely resembling Madonna after fresh rounds of Botox) performed 10 numbers with a troupe of professional dancers. During the rendition of 4 Minutes, there was even a guest appearance by Justin Timberlake (okay, he bore little resemblance to the real thing). The perfection of costumes and choreography, the crowd's too-orderly conduct, the constant greetings from the people sitting next to me (with copious spit spray with every welcome), the countless rounds of sake, beer and vodka sodas, and the awesome people I met that night reigned as the highlight of my two-month trip to Asia. A few nights of partying later, I had yet another reason to be fascinated with the land of Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Atari, Nintendo, Honda, Sony and Mitsubishi. Tokyo is home to an original and robust world-class gay scene, with constantly changing offerings. As Tokyo creeps out of the closet, fashionable bars and restaurants, such as the Grill Room at the Park Hyatt and the Dom Perignon Sunday brunch at Forty-Five in the Ritz-Carlton, are noticeably filled with the upper echelon of gay society.