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4 Oct 2001

sawasdee samurai, sayonara silom

Dan Madigan compares and contrasts his experiences on the gay scenes of Tokyo and Koriyama with Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Sushi or green curry? Hairy daddies or cute burnished boys? One a vibrant hi-tech society and the other a tropical haven, Japan and Thailand offer two completely different experiences for the gay traveler. The congested but endlessly seductive city of Bangkok with an indisputably out, loud and proud gay scene may be the first place on anyone's list - the Babylon Sauna alone is worth the price of a return flight from anywhere in the world - but although Tokyo may seem rather more subdued in comparison, there is certainly no less going on. Those sexual samurai are just a little bit harder to find, that's all.

As there is a distinct difference between the way the Japanese and Thai cultures regard homosexuality, the openness of their respective gay scenes also reflects attitudes to sex and pleasure in general. In Bangkok, gay culture permeates almost every level of society and is accepted as much as any aspect of Thailand's thriving sex industry. In Tokyo, the sex industry is no less extensive, but it's all behind closed doors, and thus it can seem like you're entering a secret world. This makes you feel rather illicit at times and is rather strange if you're used to more openness.

One thing you can't complain about in Japan is the variety of bars catering to all sorts of different body types and tastes. It is easy to see Bangkok bars as formulaic in respect to this, and - dare I say it - tacky. But I had heard that Japan's wide variety of choice was really only available for the Japanese themselves, with foreigners often not welcome in some of the more specialized bars, and when you can walk into any bar in Bangkok and find a hot welcome, this is slightly disconcerting, not to mention racist. Deciding to put this to the test, I nervously ventured up the stairs to Ku Su O, a bear karaoke bar in Shinjuku, and despite finding the broad-shouldered, bearded hunks a bit intimidating (until I heard them sing, anyway) I was made extremely welcome without knowing a word of Japanese. Conversely, another white guy and I were turned away from one of the Tokyo saunas, despite being noticeably less drunk than any of the locals who we watched stumble, as furtively as they could, through the hallowed doors. I guess it's just best to try and find out for yourself.

Of course, apart from the great disparity in prices between Japan and Thailand, another problem with Tokyo is that it doesn't have any specifically gay hotels. Nothing like Bangkok's Malaysia Hotel anyway, where a large clean double room for a night costs less than two cups of coffee in the more fashionable parts of Tokyo. While we're on the subject, the cheapest place I did find for coffee in Tokyo (apart from a few free cups the morning after), was the a place called Monsoon (http://members.xcom.com/barmonsoon), which plays loud dance music and on weekend afternoons is full of young, cute guys. Considering a plain cup of good old filter coffee is anything up to 1,000 yen (about US$9) in a "straight" coffee house, you'll be pleased to know that nursing a hangover in Monsoon will set you back a mere 500 yen, and that includes a refill and a chat with the very friendly staff.
But the plus side to business hotels in Tokyo is that once you have paid for your room you can do anything you like in it and no-one is going to bother you. Your friend for the night is not going to have to leave his ID card at reception, for instance. I for one would also gladly forego the Malaysia's 24-hour room service for the excellent porn available in Japanese hotels - some hot Yakuza action is so much better background to an orgy than fuzzy MTV, don't you think?

Despite the recent crackdown on underage drinking, most would agree that Bangkok's gay nightlife is still second-to-none in Asia - the Silom area alone houses almost 50 gay establishments, compared to around 10 in Shinjuku - something else to bear in mind is that no one you meet in a bar in Tokyo is going to ask you to pay for sex. There are specific places to go for that. You can also assume in Tokyo that your sex partner will know all about safe sex, something that most tend to be pretty blas about in Thailand. Or worse. My traveling companion was convinced that I should be less rude to a certain few ladyboys unless I wanted to be stabbed with a syringe full of HIV-infected blood. Horrific scare stories aside, that's not to say that Tokyo doesn't have its fair share of bitches, it's just they're not looking to make any money from you so will generally stay out of your face.

The Telephone Bar (www.telephonepub.com) is one of the most popular on Bangkok's Silom Soi 4 and you'll meet some nastiest (and most fun) local queens. It's not so good for cruising as some of the clientele can be a bit pushy, but it is excellent for people-watching, with moderately priced drinks and good service. Opposite Telephone is Balcony (www.balconypub.com), which from our vantage point seemed just as packed with both local and foreign manmeat. The main attraction on Silom Soi 2, DJ Station, is always bursting at the seams so if you like sweaty spectaculars, this is the place for you. The Henry Club, opposite, is a pretty tame go-go bar full of spoilt, sullen youths, to be avoided at all costs.

The scene in Tokyo is centered in the garish district of Shinjuku, although garish in Japan is pretty monochrome by Thai standards. GB (B1F, Shinjuku Plaza Bldg., 2-12-3 Shinjuku Ni-chome. Tel: 03 3352-8972) is probably the most popular bar for foreigners and the Japanese men that like them. It's extremely small and completely dominated by a square bar that offers excellent cruising opportunities - perfect for arranging group sex sessions, in fact. The bar staff and clientele are extremely friendly and generally very drunk.

Opposite is Dragon, a small but extremely busy dance club that caters to a mixed crowd, hosting theme parties and leather nights. On the weekend nights I visited it was just packed with bare-chested men, both foreign and Japanese, sweating profusely to English techno along with a scattering of fabulous drag queens. The prices seemed average, and the bar staff are both gorgeous and supremely honest. Slightly worse for wear, I twice handed over a 5,000 yen note thinking it was 500, which doesn't actually exist, and on both occasions it was returned along with a slightly concerned look. Now I've never been ripped off in Thailand myslef, but we've all heard the stories.
Another bar in the area is Kinsmen, one of the few bars in Shinjuku that welcomes women (along with Dragon), and we met a whole contingent of fabulous Japanese dykes from Sydney. Regular prices, big butch bar master, mainstream music and a good vibe. Arty Farty is just along from GB (2-17-4 Shinjuku Ni-chome. Tel: 03 3356-5388) and by Tokyo standards is reasonably large. It's busy with the same kind of crowd as GB with women welcome on Sundays, and serves a full range of drinks and a limited food menu. Arty Farty is open daily from 2 p.m. and this is the one place you might actually get a cozy seat

Opening at 6 p.m., a bit earlier than other bars, Advocates (7th Tenka Building, 1F, 2-18-1 Shinjuku, http://www.f-impression.com/ advocates) is a tiny open-air bar and cafe on a corner in Naka Street, situated roughly between the two biggest gay bookstores. The crowd here, if you can call three full tables and enough people to fill two square meters a crowd, was a mix of butch queer Japanese and masculine foreigners. A fashion-conscious yet kind of unassuming lot, but the place does have the best vantage point to watch the cute men walking up and down the street.

And seeing as I've suggested one place to avoid in Bangkok, it's only fair I show the same consideration to Tokyo. According to its multitude of flyers, Ace (2-14-6 B1F Shinjuku-ku) hosts drag shows and dance parties with a huge variety of performers and DJs, but I haven't seen it listed in any of the English-language gay guides to Tokyo and has a discriminatory door policy against foreigners, as well as a strangely anal lesbian on the door the night we chanced in. Make your own mind up by all means, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Rural retreats - well, almost
If you're going to travel out of the capitals, Chiang-Mai in Thailand is a good base, offering a relaxed scene as well as plenty of non-sexual activity. Japan offers very little to the gay traveler outside the major cities, but if you dig deep enough, you'll find that there is a strong sense of community that harks back to an older tradition that is alive and well in secluded pockets. The town of Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture is such a pocket.

While Chiang Mai is regarded as being able to provide a warmer welcome than its brasher southern rivals, and I found the locals extremely charming in a rough-hewn fashion, it was clear that the boys here were working for themselves, and I pretended not to notice that they seemed a lot younger even than the working boys in Bangkok.

I stayed at the Lotus Hotel, spitting distance from the Adam's Apple Go-Go bar, and it was pure delight. Not large, but clean, welcoming and surprisingly luxurious, like you are staying in the guest bedroom of a colonial mansion. All the reception and chamber staff go out of their way to help out, and the owner Mohammed is a darkly mysterious yet sociable character who exudes enough testosterone to floor a camel (you can e-mail him directly for info/reservations at mohamad@loxinfo.co.th) The hotel has a bijou open-air bamboo hut bar where you can have a drink before heading across the road. The Lotus can arrange for you to be picked up at the hotel for sightseeing trips, or you can, as I did, hire the hotel's 4-wheel drive and a big Thai driver for the day at very reasonable rates. That particular driver was also available for hire of an evening, so don't be afraid to ask at the front desk if you want the double-deal.
The Adam's Apple go-go bar, all part of the Lotus complex, is a stylish establishment with nightly shows that emphasize fun rather than sleaze, and I found the boys gave us perhaps the best natured and warmest welcome that we got in Thailand. There are two saunas in Chiang Mai and we were advised by locals that the House of Male (e-mail: awaller@loxinfo.co.th) was the more popular of the two. Built in the traditional northern Thai style, this is a classy joint, small but perfectly formed, like the staff, with a tiny
gym leading onto an outdoor swimming pool and open-air veranda area on the second floor where you can watch the poolside goings-on. As we swigged Elephant beer on the veranda, shivering in our robes, a middle-aged Japanese guy masturbated furiously across from us while two of the staff sat either side of him, flicking rather disinterestedly through glossy magazines. That kind of summed up Chiang Mai for me, really, and will remain in my mind for as long as I try to forget the cigarette burns all over the back and butt of one of the go-go boys. Nasty.

Back in the Japanese countryside, you're not likely to spot many rainbow flags in the smaller cities, but if you get talking in the Tokyo bars you'll soon realize that many Japanese patrons are just there for the weekend, and all will be willing to tell you about the gay goings-on in their area, and probably take you to bed you as well.

In Koriyama, much the same as most of Japan it seems, you can often find a handsome salaryman who'll get drunk enough to let you get him off in one of the myriad of straight expat-style bars, including one called DownTown (Elite1 bld, 2F, 1-6-15 Ekimae). Brazilian owner Alain will often grab a whistle and start really getting down at the head of a conga line to the strains of the Macarena, a veritable Mardi Gras in yellow trousers all by himself. It's rumored that he's also rather handy with the camcorder and baby oil to boot, upstairs after the bar has closed.

The best local gay place is Copain (Tel: 024 921-7456), a starkly decorated bar staffed by the lovely master Yamaguchi and another gorgeous, masculine hunk of Japanese manmeat. Very friendly, very reasonable (beers about 700 yen), and not a queen in sight - all suits, S/As and a particularly cuddly bear.

Popstar is another karaoke joint that attracts an altogether younger crowd, owned by an old queen who likes to suck the fingers of the customers. I was informed that this was the best place to pick up, as most of the customers (a mixed crowd of trendy S/As, queens and the same suits from Copain) are scebbae (sleazy). True to form, after not a few hours of rather dreary Japanese love songs belted out by Koriyama's resident divas, shirts began to be removed in the small, confined bar and the next few hours were a blur of booze, nipple-biting, poppers and Japanese sweat.

The Best Ever
While Japan is probably the last place most would think of for a gay sex tour, and Thailand is the first, each have their unique merits and both offer a bewildering array of sensual experiences, sexual and otherwise. But for me, for all the bawdy heat and willing boys of Bangkok and the straining sexual tension of Tokyo, it was my experience in the foothills of Mount Adatara where I said Sawasdee to my samurai that makes Japan come out on top. I may already have been biased, as my best one in Thailand was a Japanese guy I met in Phuket, but I found God in that forest that night. He took the form of a ski-patrol warden from the nearby resort. His battle-hard body and unforgettable musk - he'd come straight from working the slopes rather than fighting for his Shogun warlord - mean for me it's Sawasdee Samurai and Sayonara Silom.

Editor's note: Word of caution. Due to governmental crackdown on "vices", things are still somewhat unstable in Bangkok with various establishments changing their practices, opening hours, etc. It is recommended that you keep up with the news and/or check with specific establishments you intend to visit before travelling.

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