Japan's future-forward capital city, with a whopping population of over 38 million in the greater Tokyo area and 14 million in the city itself, is a study in contradictions. Residents range from outrageously out-there, alien, and gender-bent to culturally traditional and politically conservative (though it's worth noting that the past few years have seen LGBTQ activists elected to government offices including Kanako Otsuji, the first openly gay member of the House of Representatives, and in 2019, Taiga Ishikawa to Japan's House of Councillors). There's also growing support for same-sex marriage rights.
Yet there is queerness everywhere, even if just below the surface. To wit, some of the most popular genres of manga and anime are gay-themed "yaoi" and "BL" (short for "boylove") romances, which sell like gangbusters among Japanese females and have inspired dozens of live-action movies in the same vein. There are even Yaoi and BL-themed cafes in Tokyo with cosplaying male staff that exchange wanting glances and flirt with each other to customers' delight. And one of the most popular TV dramas of late is "What Did You Eat Yesterday?" about a gay couple and the wonderful food they consume (which has inspired viewers to create those dishes at home).
The center of Japan's gay universe hides in plain sight, smack dab in the 7-square-mile district (or ward) of Shinjuku, Tokyo. A 10 or 15-minute walk from bustling Shinjuku Station brings you to a quieter, more residential feeling section of the city called Shinjuku Ni-chome, which is home to at least a hundred LGBTQ bars and clubs, a sauna complex, and gay-centric shops brimming with clothing, accessories, paraphernalia, and adult goods.
NY-based, Japan-born photographer Kaz Senju documented this buzzy yet discreet scene and some of its denizens in the fantastic, English-language 2018 photography books "Shinjuku Story" and "Shinjuku Story Vol.2," which offer a deep dive into Shinjuku Ni-chome's history and how it became the "gayborhood" it is today, with glimpses behind the closed doors. And in 2019, Queer Eye dispatched its Fab Five to Tokyo for a season to dig into the culture and gay life.
Tokyo's first Pride march was held in 1994 and today the city hosts a weeklong Tokyo Rainbow Pride, which includes an array of events, parties, entertainment, and parade. Tokyo's annual LGBTQ film festival, Rainbow Reel Tokyo, celebrates its 30th year in 2021. Planning a return after a 4-year hiatus, Tokyo Bear Week will see bears from all over Asia converge for a jubilant calendar of events and friskiness.
Queer men can also get the inside scoop on Tokyo gay life, and possibly make a friend (or more), via the app 9Monsters: its chat function conveniently auto translates English to Japanese and vice versa, and there's a bit of Pokemon cuteness to the way it assigns a kind of creature (or Monster) to the user and the type of guy they seem to like.
The Best Things to Do
First, check the English-language Time Out Tokyo for the latest updates to the LGBTQ scene, queer art exhibitions, and attractions, plus interviews with local movers and shakers. GaijinPot Travel, a website for English-speaking expats (and would-be expats, also features a helpful page of Tokyo LGBTQ places to check out, from cafes to nightlife, plus Japanese gay bar etiquette and other helpful cultural hints.
Art Museums and Galleries
Tokyo is a contemporary art lover's dream with endless museums, small galleries, and niche art bookstores spread throughout its wards. The Roppongi district's Mori Art Museum is where you'll find some of the higher-profile exhibitions and names in contemporary work including Takata Fuyuhiko, whose digital videos have seen him appear as Britney Spears and explore BL manga/anime and gender. Themes of queerness and sexuality also inform some of the work at the 6-year-old Ken Nakahashi Gallery.
Be sure to stroll quirky Akihabara, a nerd's paradise where manga, anime, and offbeat themed cafes - including hedgehog and owl - line its main strip (you're sure to spot women dressed as French maids trying to lure customers to their respective cafes).
Visiting an Onsen
An onsen—natural spring water bath spa—is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon or night (or both!), and Shinjuku Ni-chome's 24 Kaikan Shinjuku adds a whole lot of gay cruising and action to the mix, with eight floors of facilities including steam room, dark rooms, and private cabins (for a premium). There are other 24 Kaikan locations in Tokyo, while Jinya in Ikebukuro is smaller but includes a rooftop for sunbathing and is foreigner-friendly.
The Best LGBTQ Bars and Clubs
Most of Tokyo's LGBTQ bars and clubs are concentrated in the Shinjuku Ni-chome district, ranging in size from traditional pub to windowless walk-in closet. The latter tend to be like extensions of the owner's home (owners and managers usually go by mama-san, or "momma"), with collections of books, manga, and just a handful of seats.
Many of these bars tend to be reserved for Japanese patrons (or at least those fluent in Japanese, so one can socialize with the owner), and require the purchase of snacks with your drinks. However having a local friend, or joining an LGBTQ nightlife tour through Viator or Out Asia, can grant you entry.
However, there are also plenty of foreigner (gaijin)-friendly LGBTQ bars and clubs to keep busy. Kick things off with the misleadingly named New Sazae, which is actually Tokyo's oldest gay bar—it opened in 1966—and pays plenty of homage to decades past with its decor and "funky disco" and soul music nights. The 1,000 yen entry includes a free drink, and keep an eye out for longtime manager Shion behind the bar.
Arty Farty is a favorite of both visitors and locals (including expats) and it gets super packed on weekends. There's a dance floor, bar area, and go-go boys on Saturdays. Conveniently, it's next door to sibling venue The Annex which also features a dance floor and a side order of darkroom sleaze, plus the occasional fetish-themed night. Admission for one venue allows access to both.
AiSOTOPE Lounge, possibly the district's biggest gay venue, boasts two dance floors, a stage, and mixes things up with men-only (and very cruisy!) and women-only parties. Speaking of women, Gold Finger bar is officially women-only but has let individuals across the gender spectrum inside, and even hosts a special trans event, FTM Bois Bar.
Eagle Tokyo, like other Eagles around the world, is a haven for bears, cubs, and their friends (as is Leo Lounge) but is open to all including drag show fans during their Dragmania parties and events. AiiRO Cafe caters to all sorts, from bears and hipsters to lesbians to drag queens. Also take a peek into the upmarket, inclusive Kinsmen.
The Best Places to Eat
One exquisite, destination-worthy dining experience is Florilege, where chef Hiroyasu Kawate fuses French and Japanese cuisine and ingredients into artful, brightly flavorful set menus (the option juice menu is well worth the supplement!).
For more casual fare, some gay bars and cafes also offer food including Alamas Cafe and women-only Dorobune.
Where to Stay
To Americans, one of Tokyo's most iconic properties is Shinjuku's 177-room Park Hyatt, which many will know from "Lost In Translation." Set in the top 14 floors of a 52-story building, the hotel has stunning city views—including Mount Fuji on clear days—and a swimming pool/gym. However, some feel the property is overdue for a fresh upgrade and renovation while its sister property, the 746-room Hyatt Regency, is more convenient to Shinjuku Ni-chome's bar scene.
Another Shinjuku icon is the two-tower, more than 1,400-room Keio Plaza, which you may recognize from a couple of Godzilla films. It has some fine views, loads of amenities (including a pool), and even offers a "Preferred Pride Package for LGBT Community" that includes: 45th floor Club Lounge access, complimentary teabags, and 10 percent discount on Out Asia's Ni-chome nightlife tour. Do bear in mind smoking is still permitted in some Japanese hotels, so be sure to notify them of your room preference.
For a deeply Japanese experience with a contemporary luxury twist, Hoshinoya Tokyo offers guests ryokan-style accommodations replete with tatami mats, shoji screens, and soaking tubs.
Tokyo is also rife with budget-friendly "business hotel" chains, like Tokyu Stay, which are often filled with excellent conveniences like in-room washer/dryers, kitchenettes, and those magical electronic Japanese toilets (though they tend to lack comfy, sprawling beds). Tokyu Stay Shinjuku is just minutes by foot from Ni-chome.