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Martin Foreman

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Azure Love in Gion

May 2009: According to Google, there are one - maybe two - gay bars in Kyoto. According to those who live in the city, there are sixteen.

I was on my second visit to Kyoto and determined to find some gay life. Five years ago I'd spent a couple of evenings there with Ryo, whom I'd met on the internet. It was more a polite meeting of minds than a passionate coupling of bodies and I hadn't kept his contact details. Now I was back and determined to meet some other gay men. So I did what every stranger in a strange city does when looking for company - I went online.

Of course, I was looking in English; I can speak a few words of Japanese but I was far from mastering its complex script. I wasn't expecting a long list of watering holes, but I assumed that in a city of 1.5 million people and a popular tourist destination, there would be half a dozen or more to choose from.

According to Google, however, the ancient imperial capital was a gay desert. Only one bar came up more than once: Apple, reportedly popular with the young, muscled, bearded and gaijin - foreigners. Well, I scored one and a half points out of four so maybe they'd let me in.

Then I came across an extensive and sympathetic description of Azure. Both bars appeared to be close to each other on Kiyamachi Street at the edge of Gion, the heart of Kyoto's nightlife. Given that Japanese addresses are confusing, even for the natives, I wasn't guaranteed to find either, but I'd give it a shot.

Dinner had to come first. Pontocho, a long narrow street parallel to Kiyamachi has many gourmet restaurants specialising in traditional Japanese cuisine: sashimi, sushi, ramen, soba and udon noodles, okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), yakisoba (fried noodles), donburi (rice with various toppings) and so on.

There are disadvantages to eating in Pontocho. Few menus are in English and the waiters are more likely to smile than understand your questions. True traditionalists eat at low tables cross-legged on tatami mats - an experience that most gaijin find excrutiatingly painful. And don't expect to pay less than 4,000 Yen (30, $40) a head - and double that for an exquisite meal that you will linger over for hours. I compromised with a medium-priced menu of sashimi, salad and sake that put me in the best of moods.

Around 10.30 I headed for Kiyamachi Street. This was once the gay part of town but is now lined with hostess bars between 3,000 and 6,000 yen (20 - 40 / $30 - $60) brings you an hour with a beautiful young woman who smiles sympathetically as you drink and pour out your woes. And that's all you get. At the end of the evening you will be out on the street on your own or with work colleagues who are equally drunk and merry or maudlin. For a more intimate encounter, head for a massage parlour or a bar specialising in Filipina, Thai or other imported girls.

Point of information:
Japanese bars, whether gay or straight, are very different from the Western variety. Most are small and anonymous, with space for eight or so at the counter and an alcove where perhaps another half-dozen can squeeze in. The lighting is subdued, the decoration sometimes sumptuous but often tired and unimaginative. The range of drinks is usually limited.

The room you enter is less a public space than the Mama-san's home. This forbidding figure - usually male in a gay bar and sometimes referred to as Master - vets every visitor. If she, or he, doesn't like the way you look or you don't speak her language or if her other guests are disturbed by your presence, you will not be made welcome.

Half a dozen or more bars often share the same address, their names displayed on the side of the building or in the lobby. Make sure you are not only on the right floor but at the right door before you enter. On my first visit to Tokyo I spent an embarrassing half hour in a glacial atmosphere before the bartender understood that the gaijin-friendly bar I was looking for was on the floor above, as I describe in Drinking in Shinjuku.

Finally, a word to the novice, make sure you have plenty of cash. Drinks are not cheap - 1,000 yen or more (7, $10) and credit cards are seldom accepted.

I strolled up and down Kiyamachi wondering whether the "block" described on the internet referred to the distance between two main roads or between the main road and the first alley. Groups of young men smoked in the street, laughing and flirting with the young women who - with much smiling and bowing and many words of welcome - invited customers into their bars.

I could not find Apple but at last I spotted Azure on the third floor of the Itoh building above a flower shop. I walked up the stairs, silently rehearsing "Konbanwa" ("Good evening"), opened the door and, even before I had revealed myself, heard the loud greeting Iraisshamase.

I sat down. The Master - thirties, goateed, wearing a lip-ring and putting on weight - looked at me with more curiosity rather than welcome, then continued his conversation with the couple on my right. The skinny young bartender with the weak moustache offered me a hot towel and took my order of gintonic before turning his attention back to the single customer on my left. I thanked him, sipped my drink - less strong than I would have liked - and looked around.

As expected, a small, nondescript room with a small window looking out into dark building opposite and the night sky. A few bottles behind the bar. A narrow door leading to the toilet.

For ten minutes nobody spoke to me. I smiled politely when I heard laughter on my right and understood nothing of the desultory conversation on my left. Finally the barman asked if I spoke Japanese. Proudly I uttered the sentence I had been practising all week - "Watashi wa nihongo o hanashimasen" - I don't speak Japanese. A mistake. The fact that I could say the sentence implied, wrongly, I could indeed speak the language. The bartender said something to which I could only smile vacuously. Silence fell.

I tried to think of something to say, but a week spent on a home Berlitz course doesn't get you much further than the names of fruits, animals and relatives. I could tell the world, with perfect grammar, if imperfect accent, that "My father is eating a tangerine with the giraffe in the zoo," but it didn't seem appropriate as a conversation starter in a gay bar. If I racked my memory I could probably come up with "Where are you from?" but that seemed superfluous, so all I could do was sit there until someone with more English or more patience broke the ice.

I was in luck. Taki, alone on my left, spoke good English and was willing to talk. In his early thirties, he worked for Panasonic and lived with his boyfriend in nearby Osaka. In Kyoto to visit friends, he had missed the last train home. It wasn't a problem. The night was young, there were places to go and no doubt people to meet.

He had learnt his English in Vancouver and polished it in four years spent working in Helsinki. A lonely time, when he hadn't found a boyfriend. He had been glad to come back to Japan, and then surprised to find he missed Finland. So he went back every year on holiday, even taken the boyfriend. He'd like to work there again, but the boyf couldn't speak English and wouldn't be able to get a job.

In return I told him about my life in London and Bangkok and my Thai partner. I was visiting Japan for the third time, entranced once again by the marriage of the civilised and the exotic. I wanted to sample gay nightlife in Kyoto, but Azure was the only place I could find. Did Taki know Apple? No, he knew only one other bar, but he turned to the bartender and asked how many places there were in Kyoto?

Sixteen, the young man said confidently, pulling out a copy of Baddi ("Buddy"), the Bible-thick monthly listings and ads magazine. G-Men is similarly big, but seems to be more obsessed with fat, moustachioed middle-aged men in suits whose sex life flourishes only in deserted offices late at night. They reveal how widespread gay life is in Japan, or to be more accurate, how many places there are where Japanese men can meet other men before returning home to their parents or wives and children since relatively few identify as gay, even to themselves.

Sixteen bars was too many to visit in one night. How about one more? Taki asked. Very different from Azure, he assured me. Bigger, with music, more Western. Sure, I said.

First, a detour. I had promised the Other Half, who wanted to brush up on his limited Japanese reading skills, that I would buy him pornomanga. So Taki took me to a shop where I picked up a book with drawings of suitably hunky and raffish young men. I wasn't sure that they were the OH's type - he prefers older Europeans, but hey, the primary goal was to practise language, not self-abuse.

Back to the heart of Gion. Narrow streets and bright lights. Mid-week was quiet with only a few salarymen on the streets. Taxis hovered, waiting to take drunken men home and horny couples to "love hotels". A plethora of neon signs with discreet names in Japanese. We were going to "Love", Taki said, but he couldn't remember where it was.

A telephone call gave a set of instructions and we walked on. No luck. He called again. It appeared we were standing outside our destination. Sure enough, in the lobby, a small sign said "Laughs", a member-only club. We had arrived.

The lift took us down to the basement, the door opening directly into the bar. It was indeed slightly bigger than Azure, there was music playing and a film of jazz musicians screened silently onto the far wall, but a Western feel? Not to this Westerner. Behind the bar stood the Master - younger, taller, slimmer than his Azure counterpart - and his assistant, older, shorter, trendier in striped long-sleeved t-shirt and cap . To one side sat a small group of Japanese customers.

Taki was recognised and made welcome - as was I as his guest. We sat in a corner and talked until Taki recognised a friend. Both play in a gay - closeted gay - orchestra in Osaka, Taki playing clarinet reasonably well, his friend outstanding on the saxophone. The last time they performed, they had an audience of a thousand.

Taki tells me the friend's name but I soon forget it. I'm more interested in Tomo, the twenty-something with the cute smile sitting between us. And there are a couple of others on the other side of the bar that I wouldn't mind getting to know. The older I get the more I attracted I become to East Asians. I like the narrow eyes, the high cheekbones, the smooth faces and slim bodies, the suggestion of intelligence and tranquillity, of hidden depths, of mysteries that I will never quite uncover.

In comparison with Orientals, I find Occidentals big, loud and gross. Too tall, too fat and unrestrained. Sure, intelligence, but seldom tranquillity. And as for mystery? I've spent too much time among Brits and Americans for them to surprise or intrigue me.

I know, I'm imposing stereotypes, but stereotypes are valid as long as we recognise their limitations. Besides, having lived in Thailand for four years and with a Thai for even longer, I know that the Orient eventually gives up its mystery. I love the OH at least partly there is no longer a mystery, because he is so dependable and predictable.

Although Taki asks who in the bar I'm interested in, I don't tell him. If it were four in the afternoon it would be different, but it's after one in the morning, I've been a tourist all day and I'm suddenly tired and without the energy to get to know others. Tomorrow is another full day visiting temples and meeting a Kyoto native I used to know in London. Plus the fact I'm a married man and although the OH allows me the occasional fling, I've got to the age where a good night's sleep is as a seductive as handsome young man.

Besides, I have long since learnt that the best time to leave any party is when you are enjoying yourself. Wait until the end and you feel let down. So, I tell Taki I am going and can see the relief in his eyes; he has done his duty as a host and now he can relax with old friends in his own language rather than make the effort of speaking English with a stranger.

I pay - 4,100 yen for two beers and a gin and tonic, only later realising how expensive an evening it has been. Taki and the Mama-san walk me to the lift and Taki accompanies me into the street where we exchange effusive goodbyes. I walk away, noticing that the lights are still bright and there are still few passersby on the street. I show the taxi-driver the card from my hotel and on the way back he practises his English, talking about Japanese food. I'm beginning to feel hungry again.

see also: Drinking in Shinjuku; Japanese gay films


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