Kuala Lumpur was more exotic. Even with only a few gay venues at that time it seemed more cruisy than Manila. There was far less commercial trade at Blue Boy in those days and it seemed to do a thriving trade most nights. One of my most memorable encounters was with a tall young Chinese named Andrew who I was delighted to see eyeing me. We chatted and ended up spending a couple of nights together. Quite amazing! Bali captured me with its extraordinary charm as I have written in PeterUK’s thread about the artist Walter Spies who lived on the island for many years.
But I digress. Of all the Asian countries, the one which held absolutely no fascination for me at that time was Japan. To this day I cannot pinpoint a reason. It was certainly nothing to do with World War II. I just had it in my head that Japan was too foreign, too complicated and probably too much trouble.
I think it was only after I had read James Clavell’s magnificent novel “Shogun” (a far better read than the weak made-for-TV movie with Richard Chamberlain) that something stirred. I became curious Soon after, my Chairman told me I should go to Tokyo as he felt we could do some business there. So after a trip to the USA I stopped over for three days in Tokyo rather than just make a plane change. I took the Limousine Bus to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, made a fool of myself when I tried to tip the bellboy who had brought up my luggage (so much for my knowledge then of Japanese customs), quickly unpacked, showered and tried to find Shinjuku-Ni-chome. It was only about a 20 minute walk from the hotel, I knew roughly where it was – but could I find it? I didn’t!
The Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa District
The next day I awoke – not just physically but to the charms of a city which was to play a major part in my life and career. Now, after spending two years working there and getting on for 100 visits before and since, it remains one of the cities I absolutely love and which I feel is almost my second home. That still surprises me!
Typical Torii Gate in front of a Tokyo Shrine
With the exception of Shinjuku Ni-chome, most people unfamiliar with the city assume that there is not much gay life available for foreigners. To a large extent that remains true despite there being a thriving gay scene in many areas. Like its sister establishment in Shinjuku, the 24 Kaikan Sauna about 10 minutes walk from the sprawling Ueno station welcomes foreigners.
The Unassuming Entrance to 24 Kaikan in Shinjuku-Ni-chome
Ueno is the second largest gay neighbourhood, more blue-collar than Shinjuku but with hundreds of bars. Try to enter one, though, and it will be made clear that unless you are with a Japanese friend or speak pretty good Japanese, you will not enjoy that same welcome. And the same is true of most of the other gay bars and venues spread throughout the city. Perhaps that’s what puts many off from stopping over. Now, though, we have the apps and there is still a goodly number of Japanese wanting to meet up with older westerners. Until quite recently, gaydar and fridae were the best sites for my liaisons. Now the Japanese, like their other Asian counterparts, are more into hornet, jack’d and the others.
Over the decades, Tokyo has changed massively, as has its gay life. During my first few years, there were many young Japanese who sought relationships with westerners – age almost literally no barrier. Despite the economic boom that was increasing incomes dramatically, the city had become so expensive that most young Japanese guys had either to live with their families well outside the centre or share with others what would amount to little more than a broom cupboard nearer the centre. Almost all westerners enjoyed expatriate terms (as I was to some years later). So a relationship with a westerner gave them access to a much larger condo near the centre, overseas vacations and generally the chance of sharing in all the perks available to the fortunate western “elite”. Not all were short term relationships. A good friend of mine whom I met when I worked there is now married to his Japanese partner of 32 years.
Tokyo is a mega-city almost too complex to explore in one thread. Perhaps I’ll start another series if readers wish. Like many capital cities, it’s best to think of it as a series of smaller towns or villages, each different from the other and each with bars and venues catering to different gay desires – if you can gain access. During my early visits there was one tiny bar in Ni-chome (even today many will seat no more than 12 customers with standing room for perhaps another 8) where videos would be shown of sexual couplings between guys of different ages. These had actually been made in the bar and on the bar top – not always after hours.
Rather than look more closely at Tokyo, part of the reason for this thread is to encourage some travellers not just to change planes at Narita, Haneda or Osaka’s Kansai International but instead to consider a stop-over for a few days to explore part of this fascinating country that offers so much for the tourist. Tokyo itself is fascinating, but it does require time to find bearings, work out the extremely efficient transport system, check the nightlife and the best places to shop. Instead, for a first glimpse of Japan, it is well worthwhile taking in some smaller cities and towns within reasonable distance of the main stop-over hubs. The first is perhaps the least obvious because it is the least known to outsiders – Nikko, just 130 kms from Tokyo and a glorious travel gem.
In a perfectly lovely setting in the central hills. Nikko is a small town. Walking and using the local bus service it is easy to see its various treasures without spending more than one day. The various shrines and temples here form a single unit comprising more than 100 religious buildings, virtually all providing examples of architectural and artistic genius. To see some of the shrines you will need to walk quite a bit and some climbing of large steps. But hugely worthwhile.
The First Shogun’s Toshogu Shrine
As you can see from the photos, the detail of the carvings is quite staggering, almost impossible to do justice in photos. Indeed, Japanese call the main gate of the Toshogu Shrine “higurashi” meaning “all-day long” because it could take a day to visually explore all its tiny sculptures. Because of the culture of minimalism, some Japanese today regard this as architectural decadence. Most, and all visitors, consider the richly decorated scenes with lions, tigers, giraffes, foxes, badgers, tapirs, ducks, sages, princes, courtesans, children, peasants, unicorns, dragons, bamboo, flowers, pines twisting . . . and much more “one of the most dazzling architectural splendours in Asia.” On another building you will find the three wise monkeys incorporated into the carving.
You not only have to look up. On this shrine you also have to look at the paintings along the base with fish to one side of the gate and ducks on another.
Nikko dates back to 766 when a Buddhist monk founded the Shihonryui Temple here. The start of its real fame came during the Edo period established by the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1603, the start of 265 years of Japanese isolation. Ieyasu loved Nikko. In his will he gave instructions that a small shrine be built to his memory here. Small soon became large! His grandson and third Shogun, the Tokugawa Iemitsu, wished to serve his grandfather even after death. So his Mausoleum is also here.
The Extensive Structures at Shogun Iemitsu’s Mausoleum
The Shrine and Mausoleum of Ieyasu's grandson is as impressive but more spread out, a series of shrines, ceremonial gates and other buildings growing in magnificence as you climb up several series of steps.
The Imperial Family’s Summer Villa
Also in the town is the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, until the middle of the last century the summer home of the Emperor. With 106 rooms, this is one of the largest remaining wooden structures in Japan with a mix of Japanese and western architectural influences. The house and grounds are open to the public, although most of the furniture has now been removed from the interior.
Getting to Nikko from Tokyo is easy. There are several day tours you can book with guides to keep you informed of the detail of what you are seeing. Alternatively, at a saving of a good 40%, you can go it alone with a guide book. This requires either the help of a nice young Japanese (which is how I made it!) or from a hotel concierge - or even just reading maps. The easiest and fastest way is the shinkansen direct from Tokyo or Ueno stations. These are great as you can use your Japan Rail Pass (which must be purchased prior to arrival in Japan). If you don’t have a Pass, then forget the shinkansen because they are about 3 times more expensive than other trains. The Tobu Railway Line is popular and trains run sometimes every half hour., although take more than twice as long as the shinkansen and you cannot use the Japan Rail Pass. First you have to go to Asakusa subway station at the end of the Ginza Line. On some of the Limited Express trains from Asakusa you may have to change trains at Shimo-Imaichi for the final 8 minutes. But the change couldn’t be easier – the local train is just across the platform – and schedules are timed so there is little wait. I’d certainly opt again for the Tobu Line from Asakusa.
After our day in Nikko in glorious sunshine, my Japanese friend and I still had time to get back to the city, shower and go out for dinner. Had we been so inclined, we’d also have had time to visit a bar or two. But it was our last night and we had other ideas! My only advice when you consider Nikko is – on a Saturday or Sunday it will be mobbed with Japanese. Try to get there mid-week.
In an article printed in 1983 the New York Times said,
“Japan is rarely considered a place of jolting scenic vistas or human monuments. Yet the country does have spots that, at a glance, will make jaws drop. Perhaps nowhere in Japan are more such experiences offered than in Nikko.”
And as one TripAdvisor reviewer recently said of a visit to Nikko:
“So much to see, so much to learn, so much to be astounded by.”
I could not put it better.
The Shoguns Palanquins