Gay City News, January '05
The Allure of Contradictions
Japan offers travelers a mind-boggling mix of tradition and technology
To the American eye, Japan remains a country of contrasts, a theme made manifest most recently in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation." Bob Harris, laconically played by Bill Murray, and Charlotte, the lush Scarlet Johansson, sleep walk through a cinematic rendering of modern Japanese society. The pachinko parlors, the pulsing neon skyline and the tranquil shrines all exist in blazing point and counter point.
On a recent trip to Japan, I could not help but notice the glaring crosscurrents that seem to meld together and become the whole. Cities including Tokyo and Osaka gleam with chrome and glass, highlighting the work of the world's best architects, but the narrow streets are often lit with lanterns and more than once I caught glimpses of women mincing on wooden sandals hustling off to an assignation. Girls still wear school uniforms that are either the stuff of fantasy or the mark of proper English students, yet those same prim girls ride on the subway next to grown men reading sexually explicit comic books. At rush hour in Tokyo, these girls, the men and tourists are all jammed into the trains by white-gloved attendants, called "shovers."
The country is dotted with sacred shrines. The world's largest bronze Buddha resides in Nara, fittingly, under the world's largest wooden structure. Japan also has the world's largest indoor hotel swimming pool in the Rihga Royal in Osaka; the pool is just blocks from the Osaka Castle built in 1583. As you do laps, your mind can wander to all the wonders you have seen the day before. You have to be alert to all the striking inconsistencies in Japan-the juxtapositions make the voyage incredible.
The Japanese lavish incredible attention on the food they serve. When transferring in the new Kansai International Airport, a modern marvel built on landfill in the middle of Osaka Bay, open 24 hours a day, we stumbled upon a restaurant, Hanazato, in the Hotel Nikko Kansai Airport, that served us a divine lunch-bento boxes turned into nutritional jewel boxes filled with yummy trinkets. Amidst the sushi and tempura, exotic leaves were cooked to perfection and served with tiny pickled plums. The fish tasted as if it had been plucked from the sea surrounding the island and the service had a regal feel, an experience not uncommon in Japan.
Yet there is also a Japanese fascination with embarrassing American fast food. McDonald's, Starbucks and KFCs pepper the landscape. But even in these transplanted Yankee establishments, you find gracious service and meticulous attention rarely found stateside.
The entire country, looked at with leisure, presents one long seduction-from the visual allure of shrines to the heart-stopping neon to the glorious presentation of sumptuous meals. Perfect doll-like women scurry in traditional dress, while others are flawless in designer fashion or fabulous in punk concoctions. The men have spiked hair, Armani suits or somber faces that light up in laughter in the many mini- bars that dot Tokyo's main streets. The opportunities for people watching and often wordless flirting are nearly unmatched in the opinion of this widely traveled sensualist.
During one evening in Tokyo, hunting for gay nightlife, we headed out into the Roppongi district, first attending a show, dauntingly called "She-Man."" It turned out to be an incredibly savvy cabaret performance that chronicled the history of Japan from the emperors, through World War II and the bombings to the present day. I have no idea how this group pulled off a musical romp from deep to sassy but with smoke, a moving platform and dancing for days. Find it at kingyo.co.jp.
After the show we jumped, literally, across the street to Flat, a bar also on Minato-ku Street, emblematic of so many of the city's watering holes. The club might seat just ten but has a bar stocked with every top-drawer liquor in the world. The DJ was spinning vinyl and the crowd was young, hip and ever so cute. Afterward, we sauntered up the hill with thoughts of hailing a cab but were instead lured into finishing off the evening with karaoke-we had to, of course.
We found a wonderful bar, the Shidax Roppongi Club, where we had a private room. Each hour of rental comes with two drinks and so for a group of six, it turned out to be ten bucks each. They furnished us with tambourines, two powerful microphones, a 10,000-plus playlist and-get this-a dancing pole. We all sang, even those of us who began the most recalcitrant. By the night's end, we were hanging on a friend's leg as he sang "Dancing Queen," with the rest of us wailing in the background. As we stumbled out into the early morning finally ready for that cab back to the Capitol Tokyo Hotel, we ogled a still wildly pulsing nightlife.
Among the bars that served a distinctively gay cruise crowd, we were mostly disappointed by the offerings, except for an establishment named the Advocate. One women's' bar, highly touted on the Internet, called Kinswoman, we dubbed the Depressed Japanese Housewife Bar. Gay cultural life mirrors the paradoxes found in all of Japanese life-a conundrum of hiddenness and openness. Tokyo and Osaka, the nation's two largest cities, are full of gay bars, yet they are mostly confined to the Red Light districts in each, signaling that gay life is still thought of as outside the matrix. Yet the practice on the street is very different. Wander any street from city to shrines, and you find men and women flirting with words, body and eye contact. You are never left feeling that a chance encounter is impossible and the energy on the nation's streets makes walking in Japan a must.
You will find pachinko parlors, cavernous rooms filled with electronic gambling machines that emit whines, bells, whistles and the dull stares of most male crowds who seem to worship at these video palaces. There are also many ancient pristine shrines where twin Chinese dogs guard the entrances; one with an open mouth, the other with jaws clamped shut, representing the gamut of life, from birth to death, start to finish. Side by side, intense and quiet spirituality and noisy gambling reside harmoniously in Japanese culture.
My time in Japan was enhanced immeasurably by a stunning train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto on the famous bullet train, the Shinkansen. Along the route, rice fields glow a neon green, tended by women and men in big straw hats, the fields abutting houses with elaborate tiled roofs, sometimes protected at the peak by gargoyles. The route passes Mount Fuji, and once it begins to fade into the distance, the perspective dissolves into soft hues of gray that cannot help but evoke the most famous Japanese brush paintings. The next glance might offer a jarring look at a power plant puffing smoke into the gray sky.
Even a day trip to Kyoto will allow time to visit some of the most famous temples, including the majestic Floating Golden Pavilion, Rokuon-ji Temple, more commonly known as Kinkakuji, the stunning stone garden there and the Heian Shrine. We also made a pilgrimage to a mountaintop called Koyasan, reached only by a concatenation of train cable car, bus and walking and founded as a Buddhist enclave by the monk Kukai in 817. The entire town is a series of monasteries, temples, shrines and a long stretch of a cemetery. I had dismissed as hype the guide's promise that during a walk through the cemetery, " a cloud of mystery that will waft over you," but found myself very moved walking amongst the stone graves, moss covered, surrounded by mammoth cedar trees and embellished with stone icons and written prayers.
At the end of the walk, we reached a small wooden bridge, 37 steps across, where we were instructed to make a wish that we would hold until we walked off into Paradise, the name of a site that includes another temple lit by thousands of lanterns with monks in pumpkin orange robes and shaved heads, intoning throaty prayers for all humanity.
We also visited the Shojoshinin Temple in nearby Mount Koya, where we took off our shoes and knelt on tatami mats and were served a glorious vegetarian meal so diverse it rivaled any cuisine I have ever eaten. We did not have the chance spend the night in the monastery but reservations for overnight accommodations can be made here.
KEY RESOURCES FOR TRAVEL IN JAPAN
Japan Airlines has a website geared to gay and lesbian travelers at japanair.com/gaytravel.
For flexible tours and discounted fares through Japan Airlines, visit japanair.com.
The official Japanese tourist bureau can be accessed at japantravel info.com
Japan Rail offers an amazing train pass throughout the nation.
Click here for information.
Click here for other gay travel resources