All photos by the author
Shinjuku 2 Chome is like a gay bar buffet. Located across two small city blocks in Tokyo, the special ward is said to have the highest concentration of gay bars in the world. But unlike the large, loud, and perpetually-sticky drinking house and dance clubs familiar to Americans or Europeans, the queer-friendly spaces in the district are small, intimate, and stylised or themed, each with a capacity fewer than a dozen heads.
Each bar is run by a mama, typically both the owner and bartender, as well as the person who picks the theme of his micro-bar. Some bars in Shinjuku 2 Chome are curated to attract clientele with specific sexual preferences, such as chubby chasers, BDSM enthusiasts, and exhibitionists. Others are designed around a hobby or shared interest, like J-pop or sports.
In some bars, the spaces are so small that it's often easier to identify the queer community or subculture the bar caters to based on the customers, rather than what's on the walls: Clientele may have similar hair styles or body types, or everyone could be sipping drinks through leather gimp masks.
There is something for everyone in Tokyo's gay, boozy epicenter. Mamas and their watering holes become known as one-of-a-kind local legends, of sorts, especially if they're one of the many barkeeps who have kept their businesses open for over multiple decades. On a recent trip to Shinjuku 2 Chome, I interviewed various bar owners about their mini-speakeasys to learn what makes one nine-foot-long bar stand out from countless other boozy cubbies.
THEME: NO THEME, BUT BEAR-FRIENDLY
Arata grew up near Kyoto where his parents were involved in an artist and scientist commune. He thought it was typical to have geologists, writers, painters, and musicians come to the house to drink and talk. He wants to see something similar with his gay friends, extending his family beyond blood relatives.
In his early 20s, he partied a lot and went to lots of drag shows in Osaka. Then, at age 39, Arata suffered an attack of transverse myelitis. When he recovered, he decided to open a small bar called Bumpy so he could spend more time with his friends. Bumpy is nine-feet-by-nine-feet and seats six people, not much wiggle room given that Arata is 300 pounds and over six feet tall. It's so small that everyone has to get up when a customer at the end of bar wants to use the toilet. The bar is un-themed, but Arata is a big, gentle bear-like guy and the bar attracts both bears and bear-lovers.
Bar owner: Hideki
Bar theme: Folk Art/Countryside
Hideki grew up in Akita, the northern countryside of Japan, but moved to Tokyo roughly 11 years ago. During the day, he worked as an electrician, and spent nights serving drinks at a friend's bar. He eventually decided that he wanted to focus on opening his own gay bar, and opened Donpan this past June. He describes his current career as his "true calling."
His micro-bar is about 10-by-12 feet and seats nine people. The interior reflects his rural upbringing, including handmade crafts and folk art that adorns the walls. Hideki wants the atmosphere to feel homey and relaxing, a respite from the busy Tokyo streets just outside.
His parents and sister recently visited Donpan, and subsequently told the young bar owner they support his decisions, even though they previously had rejected his gay lifestyle. Hideki says, "Dad is sending more folkcraft from home to make this place look like my hometown."
Bar Name: DOCK
Bar Owner: Yoshino
Bar Theme: Sake and Cruising
Yoshino has owned a notorious cruising bar in Shinjuku 2 Chome called DOCK for the past 13 years, though his life was very different in his 20s. Yoshino was doing very well as an IT engineer and even owned two sports cars. Eventually, his career floundered and he lost everything, leading to a suicide attempt. He says the former owner of Dock changed his life by offering him a job. "The previous mama picked me up when I was sinking to the bottom and saved me."
Dock originally opened in 1999 and Yoshino is a "third-generation mama" at the micro-bar. He thinks there are too many gay bars in the area that mainly serve shochu (Japanese distilled vodka), but not enough good sake (rice wine). His goal is to make his bar filled with "erotic energy, naked men, and the best selection of sake in Shinjuku 2 Chome."
Bar Owner: Fujio
Bar Theme: Literal Equality
Fujio always dreamt of living in a big city and moved to Tokyo when he was 17. He opened his bar Cream seven years ago when he was in his mid-30s.
The inside of his well-lit bar is painted all white and also reflects Fujio's personal style. It's almost too bright and conspicuous for a bar in Shinjuku 2 Chome, where other spots tend to be dark, unassuming holes-in-the-wall. Gay bars in Shinjuku 2 Chome can serve as a physical "closet," where men who aren't out can escape from their everyday lives. Not at Cream, though.
Fujio believes in literal equality: No matter who his customers are or what they do, he greets them with a straightforward "What do you want?"
"Everyone is equal here, no matter what they do for their day job," he says. "Lawyer, policemen, graphic designer, musician, they all pay the same price of $15 per drink."
Name of Bar: Gai's Bar
Bar Owner: Gai
Theme: For Everyone
Gai plays two roles: Actor by day, bar owner by night.
He thinks Japanese workplaces are hostile to openly gay people, so he celebrates the same-sex marriage movement in Japan. At the same time, he often questions why people can get married, but why being out is still taboo.
At Gai's Bar, where he is the mama, Gai welcomes every gender, where most of the gay bars in Japan are gender-specific. Being an actor, Gai has learned to play many different roles, and his bar reflects that, often hosting men, women, transgender, old, and young customers at the same time. On special occasions, Gai and his staff cross-dress to mix things up.
Gai has a partner he's been in relationship with for 22 years. The mama is out to his family and hides nothing about his identity at his bar, but that's not the case with his partner who hides his Shinjuke 2 Chome life to his family.
For more of Kaz's work, visit his website here.