Untethered: The Lesbians of Shinjuku Ni-chōme, Tokyo

On my last day in Tokyo, I stumbled out of a love hotel at 6 a.m. and out onto a street where other people were also winding their way home from nights out. The love hotel was ostensibly queer friendly, but it didn’t really matter because interactions with staff and other patrons were kept to a minimum, and even during checkout, again, a curtain was suspended just low enough in front of the checkout desk to hide both the receptionist’s and our eyes from view. I’d snapped a photo of the funnily-placed clip-art pride flag on some of the displays in the hotel and laughed at the astrology themed ceiling of the elevator, which I also photographed. This openness without overt acknowledgment had become something fundamental to my understanding of Tokyo’s sexual culture, especially in nights preceding.

Upon gathering my things from my actual hotel room — or really — a minimalist container for my stuff that I napped in during the day, I checked out and readied myself for the trek back to the train station, this time with my travel backpack and ancillary bag stuffed with souvenirs. But I was stopped by a young reporter trailed by a cameraman and a middle-aged man who I would soon learn would serve as translator and note-taker. We stepped out of the rain under an overhang where he explained via the translator that he wanted to interview me for a Japanese TV Show. I didn’t ask which one. I was exhausted but amused. I just said yes and figured if things got weird I’d simply leave. The questions, though, and the tones of voice of both the reporter and translator were warm and friendly, and we mostly talked about my visit to Japan, why I’d come (it was on the way back from Bangkok, and I wanted to explore historic sites and go to the onsens and see the city), and what my favorite parts of my trip were. That was when I mentioned spending a night out, drinking with locals.

“So you made Japanese friends?” the reporter asked. I didn’t disclose who, exactly, but, said yes. He asked me about how we communicated, and I explained some people spoke English and one person was actively translating, and for the rest, we just typed back and forth via Google Translate. What I didn’t tell them was that the friends I’d been out drinking with were all women I’d met in one of Tokyo’s cozy gay bars in the historic gayborhood of Shinjuku Ni-chōme.

I took the Shinkansen (the famous Japanese bullet train) back to Tokyo from Kyoto, where I’d transferred after coming from Kinosaki Onsen town, a small vacation town in the north of Honshu, Japan’s main island. I’d gone there in pursuit of tattoo-friendly hot springs — which they did have — in addition to a very special Buddhist temple and a variety of seafood specialties, being extremely close to the north coast. I’d stayed in a super affordable guest house run by two hilarious and outgoing sisters who kept countering my interest in the traditional architecture of the guest house with “it’s an old house!” like that was a bad thing. Things had been mellow and just what I needed after my illness and concussion and, let’s be honest, PTSD flare-up combo. But upon arriving in Tokyo, circumstances and I would conspire to turn me into something I just started referring to as a Feral Tokyo Night Rat.

On my first day back in Tokyo since my arrival in Japan, I had few plans except for a house/techno show recommended to me by my friend Rose that started at 11 p.m. in Shibuya. Knowing the trains stopped from midnight until about 5 a.m. had me perplexed. What would I do? The event, like most parties that began at or just before midnight in Japan, would go all night until the trains started running again. But I was tired and concerned about spending that much time vibing alone in a venue.

Still, I went. When I got to the venue, I encountered a line winding down the street, people waiting to get in somewhere. Two people strode up and down the street with walkie talkies, directing the queue. I flashed the QR code on my phone and asked if this was the event I was going to. The guy shook his head no and helpfully showed me the entrance, just past the queue, to a basement space. I descended the stairs and thought about how, of course, I would expect nothing less from Rose.

The vibes were a little good (local women DJs and an eclectic international and somewhat queer crowd) and a little off (some weird aggressive stuff from one white dude and one bartender and some annoying rave baby behavior). By the time I wanted to leave, it was 3 a.m. — an in-between time, still two hours to go before the trains. I could simply stick it out in the venue, but after the bartender had made me feel far less than welcome and a little self-awareness had me contemplating the fact that I was easily the most visibly dykey person in the fog-machined underground venue (other queers were of a different flavor), I opted to try my luck outside. (The venue had a smoking section near the coin lockers, and there was no re-entry, so leaving was truly leaving.)

Once outside, I began my walk back down main streets and found few places that were open in an inviting way. I walked for an hour, past early morning construction workers, fellow post-party-goers, a few old ladies, and a couple of passed out individuals. By the time I made it back to Kabukicho, where I was staying, it was 4 a.m. and I was famished. I settled on a 24-hour ramen restaurant, paid the ticket machine, and was seated by an energetic server at an individual place at a long panel bar along with one fellow tattooed individual. Halfway through my bowl, they thumped their hand on the bar in a way that wasn’t aggressive, but was just a little tipsy and exhausted and asked me if I knew of anywhere to get tattoos in Japan last-minute or on a walk-in basis. I didn’t know, I was sad to say. They were cute. I struggled for a moment to make further conversation, but my brain was — for a variety of reasons: concussion, fatigue — just not braining. The conversation petered out. They finished their ramen and left, and I had a little moment thinking about how fleeting some meetings were.

When I woke up mid-day, I realized I had no plans in particular and that by the time I dragged my butt out of bed, it would only be a few hours before nightlife started back up. I opened the Feeld app, and there, on my screen, on the very first slide, was the person from the ramen shop. They were, indeed, a nonbinary, poly cutie also visiting Japan. I liked their profile, we matched, and when I asked them if they were in fact the person I met at the ramen shop at 4 a.m., they responded with a “NOOOO I was hoping that wasn’t you!” They were embarrassed because they were tipsy and thought they might have been abrasive, but I assured them that they were not. Sadly, though, there would be no meet-up, as they were already on their way to Kyoto for the next several days, the final days of my trip, and we wouldn’t be in the same place at the same time.

It was in that moment that I made a decision. I’d go find the gay bars, check them out, at least sit and have a drink among fellow queers — and what’s more, they were within easy walking distance of my hotel, the gayborhood of Ni-chōme being within this series of adult nightlife districts that ran into each other. Ni-chōme, according to Wikipedia, has the highest concentration of gay bars of any neighborhood in the world. The bars are also small, some allow foreigners and some don’t, too, so I went in prepared to maybe have to try a couple places. It was a Sunday night and Goldfinger, a fantastically named lesbian bar, was closed, but I soon found Adezakura, a bar that had a sign outside saying, in English, something like (I don’t have a photo) “lesbians and women and friends welcome – no fee,” referring to there not being a cover charge. I figured that I fell somewhere under “friends” and that if the sign was in English, it probably meant I could go in, so after a little pacing and a few deep breaths, I ducked under the rainbow flag that covered the door.

A bubbly bartender with a short haircut greeted me. The place was crowded. I bought a drink and found a stool near the back wall that I sat in awkwardly, occupying myself with my phone and soaking up the vibes. After about five or ten minutes though, the English-speaking birthday-celebrating trio next to me left, and then so did everyone sitting at the bar counter. I was alone in the space. It at least gave me a chance to look around. The place was cheery with confetti-filled balloons, disco balls, red walls, photos of patrons, and fake cherry blossoms hanging up near the ceiling among fairy lights. I tried not to tell myself they’d all left the bar because I’d arrived, because it wasn’t true. There were other foreigners there already, and also, in a space like that, eight people filled the room, and it wasn’t so weird for eight people to move on somewhere else come midnight on a Sunday.

I sat at the counter, at the end seat near the door, and the bartender came up to chat with me. She took out her phone, and we started using Google Translate to speak back and forth. I learned she and her gay friends liked to go to Bangkok to party, that it was a fun escape to a place where “it was more open,” where they drank all night and attended drag shows. I was confused. “Don’t the bars in Bangkok close at 12 a.m.? You can’t sell alcohol between 12 a.m. and 11 a.m.” She waved that away and explained that in gay bars there, it didn’t matter. To which, well, I’ll have to go back sometime without needing to be on penicillin and bed rest and see for myself. It was just us until about 1 a.m. when a woman with hair I can only describe as Shane-esque, in a full suit, walked in and sat down at the counter. I tried to be chill (she was cute), smiled at her. She returned the smile and started chatting up the bartender in Japanese. I considered heading out since things were kind of slow, but then realized it would look super rude, like I didn’t want to sit next to her. I also told myself something I’d told myself on other nights out, which is that nothing happens to you if you aren’t there. I bought myself another drink and, also, one for the bartender as I’d seen the woman next to me do. The bartender took a glass and poured herself a beer which she kept on her side of the bar in front of my seat, just as she’d done with the other one she’d gotten.

Then, the pride flag was pushed aside abruptly while a group of women entered, talking loudly and laughing. They took up the entire corner of the bar counter, and another bartender arrived, too, seemingly with them. Soon, I saw the bartender take a bottle of sparkling wine out, and then she rang a bell hung at the back of the bar. I’ve seen similar bells in similarly sized bars and specifically thought of one in Rock River, Wyoming, where, while I was chatting with the bartender, a man came in from working a month ranching cattle without seeing a single other human and bought the entire (tiny) bar a round for $100. The bartender rang the bell, and I thanked the guy for a drink. “I’m just glad to be back among people!” he told me.

And so, they poured sparkling wine into several cups. While this was going on, a young patron entered and took the remaining seat next to me. I heard the word “gaijin” when the bartender was talking to them, and like, yeah, I did not expect some of their sparkling wine and was unsurprised when they gave the bartenders a glass each and skipped over me and the young person who also wasn’t with them. They cheered and toasted, and a woman in the center of the group — and the attention — popped a confetti-filled balloon.

When the bartender came back over to check on me, I already had my question typed out in my phone. “What are they celebrating?” She told me it was one woman’s 49th birthday. I asked her how much to buy her a drink, but this time with hand gestures, so she brought me a menu for “ringing the bell.” It included a reasonable option for buying a round of five shots (costs of things in Tokyo are shockingly affordable), and I pointed to it and gestured to the group, indicating I wanted to send shots. The bartender sort of took over and decided I was buying a shot for the birthday-woman, but also myself, and the two bartenders. She asked me if I wanted two, and I was like oh hell no and asked if I could give one to the young person next to me. They mixed up a concoction of cranberry juice and some other liquors (I’m not really up on my shooters, sorry, so I don’t know what it could have been), and when they all arrived, I raised my glass and shouted happy birthday. The bartender reminded me of the woman’s name, and I shouted that, too. The vibe was quite good after that. It’s always nice when a gay bar feels more like a little party than an establishment. The birthday group sang along to a city pop song, which the bartender told me was from the 80’s, with a “gay people love old music.”

The woman eventually came up to talk to me. She had a face with high cheekbones and a smart bob. We chatted for a while in English. I wished her good things for her birthday, and she went back to her group. I had only just sort of turned around when a long-haired rather femme woman came up to me. In English, she asked me, “do you know who that is?” And I responded with the woman’s name and was like, yeah, and it’s her birthday. The woman shook her head. “That’s the lesbian boss, the lesbian boss of this area.”

“What do you mean, the lesbian boss?” I looked around. The woman clarified, “She’s the boss of the area! She owns several lesbian bars and yuri shops,” she pauses, “you know yuri?” And yes, reader, I work at Autostraddle. I nodded, “the like, lesbian manga comics,” and she was like “yeah.” I looked over, then, and I can see it, the way everyone was crowded around her and paying attention to what she said.

We chatted for a second, and she was super inquisitive. She asked me what I do. I explained. “You have to interview her!” She pointed at the boss of the lesbians. And reader, it was almost 3 a.m., and I’ve been ordered not to work for the week in order to actually have a vacation and time to recover, so I told her I have to go to the bathroom, but maybe. “Go collect yourself and get your notes ready, yeah” she said, which is hilarious. She was determined.

In the bathroom, I realized Lesbian Boss’s birthday was, indeed, a posted event. As in, there was a poster with multiple days, listing when she will be at which bars celebrating. I decided, well, I’m here, and went out to tell my new bud, yes.

But, sadly, the lesbian boss and her crew were departing. Something seized my new bud, though, who I learn is Ayumi, and she decided I’m not leaving her presence without interviewing someone. She introduced me to a woman who manages one of the comic shops the boss (who is unnamed because I didn’t get the chance to ask) owns, who was also going home, and then eventually wrangled me and the cute, besuited bar patron into going to a different lesbian bar in order to talk and also interview the bartender there. On the way, the suited woman realized where we’re going and stopped in her tracks. There’s a quick exchange in Japanese and she looks stressed.

I asked what’s going on. Ayumi translated. This bar is owned by the boss’s ex, and so we shouldn’t go, was what the woman in the suit explained. They talked for a moment more, and I got the explanation when we kept going that, well, the boss and the other owner say they aren’t exes, so it’s okay. We went down an alley (this neighborhood is all alleys). I looked up to see strings of lanterns in rainbow flag colors hanging above us. We got to a place with two doors and a woman waving to us from one of them. We went in the other door after saying hello. It was cozy as heck. Ayumi explained what we were doing there, and I ask everyone if it’s okay to record them in voice memos, use their names, all of that. They agreed.

The conversation quickly veered into a discussion of The L Word, though, when they asked to see the site and I opened up Autostraddle to the feature image of Bette and Tina that graced the Lesbian Love Languages quiz. Everyone said they loved The L Word. Everyone thinks Shane is hot, of course, and the woman next to me told me she likes Bette. We discussed how the lesbians on The L Word are as unrealistic for the US as they are for Japan.

They talked to me, too, about how lesbianism is talked about in Japan, how they aren’t really challenged on their sexual orientation or private lives, but that it is expected that it will be just that, kind of private. Everyone at the bar agreed that bisexual women are welcome in lesbian/gay women’s spaces, and they made various jokes about how lesbians love to drink. Thankfully, I think the bartender at this place was making my lemon sours kind of light, so I managed to hang. When I asked her what she likes about her job, she told me she likes drinking with a devilish twinkle in her eyes — oh, and that she met her girlfriend here. That sparked what appears to be a running joke about the bartender having five girlfriends, then ten. Ayumi told me about her startup where she’s hired people to translate “girls’ love” comics into English. We talked about “looking gay” — as in queer-coded haircuts and gender nonconforming dress — vs, someone like Ayumi, who talked about having a day job where one can’t really deviate from a more corporate-esque look. All in all, they concluded you can’t do much about older generations not being as accepting, and that being gay, for so many reasons, including finding a girlfriend, can be really hard sometimes.

The bar closed at 5 a.m. and we left, but not before Ayumi and I connected on Instagram. So, yes, I hope to follow up and find a journalist on the ground who can talk to the boss and interview her about her lesbian bar and yuri empire.

The previous week had been a trial — and a hard one. But I was glad, too, not to let it put me off putting myself out there. I found a lot of comfort in a sapphic space, even on the other side of the world, and I even found some friends. There’s something here about why lesbian bars are so important, and I think it’s in something Ayumi said to me, which was that she felt like we’d known each other for a long time. And I responded that I thought a good part of that was that we were gay, we had that in common. She agreed because no matter where you are in the world, if you can find a lesbian bar, you can find a little comfort, a little something like a home away from home.

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Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.


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