If you climb the C5 exit from Shinjuku-Sanchōme Station, it’s basically a straight shot to Ni-chōme. That’s Tokyo’s gay hub. Mostly just a cluster of alleys, tucked on the edge of this winding road. If you aren’t actively looking for it, you’ll miss it on your way around. It’s surrounded by the usual assortment of FamilyMarts, 7-11s, and Lawsons grounding life in the city, but then you turn the corner and all of a sudden you’re elsewhere. A lot of my nights in Japan have ended here. And the trains stop running around 1. So it’s where, for better and worse, a lot of those mornings have started, too.
Ni-chōme probably boasts Earth’s highest concentration of gay bars. They’re scattered across two blocks, sometimes one on top of the other. Some fit six or seven bodies, and others fit nine or ten, and you’ve got bars for bears and bars for twinks and bars for guys that are really into yukatas. There’s karaoke. There’s a hot spring. If you’re looking for something, or someone, you’ll probably find it. And the area is mostly foreigner-friendly, but the sheer quantity of queer spaces shouldn’t be confused with queer visibility: while some of Tokyo’s more dubious enterprises are loud on the street (the “massage parlors” in Shibuya; the dudes hawking binders of women by the stations), gay life in Japan is almost entirely under the radar. If you’re not seeking queer spaces out, you won’t even remotely run the risk of finding them.
Like everything else in Japan, the country’s relationship with queerness is pretty multi-tiered: despite today’s recalcitrance, Japan’s has historically both tolerated and praised homosexuality. It’s not like you can’t be out today, as a native Japanese, but the repercussions, in a country so tied to traditions and customs, are staggering, across all areas of life—to the extent that one must seriously consider compartmentalizing judiciously. So homosexuality works its way into a preponderance of the literature, and boy’s love occasionally finds itself in the country’s media; and there are a handful of cities and wards acknowledging same-sex partnerships; and some cities have pride parades, with a handful of small, but dedicated, groups working for queer rights; but coming out runs you the risk of severing yourself from everyone and everything you know.
So you have love motels and marriage arrangement services. You have capsule gay bars. You have little rooms that fit like eight where you can drink in drag. It isn’t that you can’t find whatever, or whoever, you’re looking for in Tokyo, but what the most densely populated city in the world does is make you look.
One night, I met a guy visiting from Kobe in this bar who told me he’d just gotten back on Grindr. The room clapped in faux-applause. When I asked why that was such a big deal, he told me that queer dating apps in Japan were a mixed bag. They worked for you, he said, until they didn’t. He’d heard no shortage of stories where family members and employers had sussed people out from the closet. It had nearly happened to him. The apps could easily go from casual tools to life-altering entities.
But, he told me, that doesn’t matter now. I’m going to try it.
And the room gave him a toast.
One night, I ended up sitting next to some bankers, and after insisting that I was not an FA, they let me join their circle. We talked about whatever, darting in and out of English, and in the middle of some over-elaborate story a twenty-something kid hovered just outside of our huddle. Everyone registered his presence, but no one said anything. I didn’t know why that was. So I didn’t say shit either.
Eventually, he pursed his lips, turned around, and left the bar.
One of the guys sitting beside me clapped his hands and said, It’s hard starting out.
One night, I met a Japanese-American guy at this sauna who said he was from San Diego. He told me a story about this guy he’d been dating in Tokyo, and it was great for a while. After about a year, they’d even talked about him moving to Japan.
But one day, he said, the guy just went dark. He didn’t hear from him for one week. And then another week after that. He didn’t have any contact info for his family, and they had no mutual friends, so for all intents and purposes his partner had dropped off of the globe.
It was crazy, said the guy, and then he slid a little deeper into the water.
Like, I get it, he said. But still. Crazy.
Another night, it was me and this Chinese guy at the barside, and we’d grin at each other every few seconds and not say anything. He was from Hong Kong. I don’t speak Cantonese, and he spoke scattered English. So he’d point to someone else’s jacket, or their shoes, and I’d laugh; then I’d point across the bar at someone a little too sauced, or two guys making moves on each other, and he’d do the same. I’d mime a phrase in English, and he’d say it once, and then again in Cantonese. He played this song on his phone, and I played this one on mine. It was another way of communicating, one I hadn’t really had before, because we didn’t have to know what we were saying to get it across.
The past few years have been an interesting time to travel as an American, but especially as a queer American. And particularly if your point of origin is in flux with its relationship to queer bodies. What’s become moderately acceptable, if not at least mostly speakable, in the States, remains very much much a battle all over the world. And while that may be obvious to some folks, it’s still a little jarring to find the similarities between a dinky little gay bar in Dallas, or Madison, and their underground equivalents in Shinjuku. In a lot of ways, queerness is its own country. Despite all of our differences, that we find different ways to navigate our spaces is one of the great unifiers; they aren’t cut out for us, so we mold them ourselves.
On one of my last nights in Tokyo, I ended up drinking with a guy from Singapore. The first thing he said to me , cheesing from ear to ear, was, Same faces every night, right?
He helped manage a bathhouse back home. He’d come to Japan to scope out their own.
A lot of married guys, he said. I guess it’s part of the culture.
Then he told me a story: spending an evening at an onsen in Hokkaido, he had an encounter with this guy in his thirties. They did whatever they did, and afterwards, the Singaporean saw the other man’s ring. When he asked him why he was fooling around, the man told him that of course he wanted to come out. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. Everything would fall apart.
So, said the Singaporean guy, I asked him if he thought lying was better.
And he told me he wasn’t lying, said the Singaporean guy. This was just the way things were.
I told him that was wild, but I understood. There are plenty of places across the American South where the same holds true. Then we talked about whatever else, and when we looked up we’d missed the trains. In Tokyo, after dark, cabs cost more than a brick, so if you miss them you’re either stuck or you’re paying a minor fortune. The Singaporean guy suggested we find ramen, and maybe hit up an onsen afterwards, and it made me think of this poem by Ikkyū Sojun that, if I have my way, will be on my tombstone. But we hadn’t walked five minutes down the road when we ran into the San Diego guy, and also one of the business men. They were smoking on the side of the road.
Here was the largest city in the world, and we travelers had run into each other again. There’s a warmness whenever that happens. Like a sexy sort of familiarity. You know that you’re probably leaving too soon, and you’ll never see each other again, but, in a weird way, that makes you a little more available. You’re open in the moment in this way you wouldn’t be otherwise. So we all left in spurts. And we left mostly silently. A grin, a rub on the shoulder, a pat on the ass, and then we were gone, back up the road or across the country or thousands of miles back home, whatever that looked like.
Shibuya, Tokyo; Setagaya, Tokyo; Iga, Mie; Takarazuka, Hyōgo; Naha, Okinawa; and Sapporo; Hokkaido.
 Ni-Chōme is, apparently, pretty popular with black flight attendants.
 The second thing was, Are you a flight attendant? When I asked him the same, he said, “Not with this body.”