When You’re Bi In Japan

Richard Branson could do with spending a few weeks in Japan. When the trains in Hiroshima were 8 minutes late in February, it made the national evening news. You can set your watch by Japanese public transport – and I’m not talking about the hour hand. Planning any journey through this country is wonderfully easy.

Japan is also one of the safest places I have ever travelled. Imagine being able to fall asleep with your wallet on the train seat next to you. And still have it there when you wake up. Or be a woman walking the back streets alone, long after dark, free from fear. As someone who makes a habit of travelling by myself, it’s an incredibly refreshing place to be. Japan allows you to relax and focus on the country and its culture, rather than stress over who might be trying to pick your pockets.

And Japan was worth my full attention. It’s enigmatic, contradictory and absurd. Elegant temple¬†roofs drown in a sea of ferro-concrete. Air pollution can make your eyes water, but the streets are immaculate. And ‘Engrish’ signs are everywhere, their phrasing confusing those who think they’ve spoken English all their lives. A sign requesting cleanliness in an internet cafe read: “We are always trying to keep the store clean. If you find out a point with mind, please tell it anything”.

In many ways its an insular culture. Foreign cell phones do not work on the Japanese network. International banking machines are only available in a couple of places, and the tellers at major banks don’t recognise British pounds. Foreigners (or ‘gaijin’) are still stared at even in large cities. Yet a walk through any department store reveals fascination with all things western. In some places it borders on obsession. Go to any Hip-Hop club and you’ll be confronted by scores of the ethnically confused. It’s fascinating to see the degree to which western culture is being absorbed.

The place of sex and sexuality within Japanese culture are equally intriguing. Though it would take years to understand it, and I had three weeks.

Heterosexual sex is very visible in printed form. Porn is easily obtainable, and read in public. Not what you really want the guy you’re sitting next to on the train to be doing, but at least he kept his hands to himself. In the family-oriented entertainment districts, large signs for brothels scream “Super Cock Pit” (yes, seriously). Some even offer photographic ‘menus’ of the services available.

Yet couples do not express affection in public. Romantic and sexual relationships are kept for behind closed doors. Out one night for dinner at the local Planet Hollywood (apologies for any unintended advertising), a wedding party occupied an adjoining table. The staff soon had everyone encouraging the couple to kiss. Even buoyed by a roomful of cheers the bride chickened out, flushing deeply at the outrageous idea of being seen kissing her husband in public.

Relationships and preferences outside the norm are even less visible, and LGBT culture is extremely new. Spending time in Fukuoka (the largest city in Kyushu, Japan’s southern most island) gave me some interesting insights. There are apparently two main ‘gay’ districts in the city, Sumiyoshi and Haruyoshi, but comparisons to Manchester’s Village are redundant. Gay and lesbian bars in Japan are about discretion. There are no rainbow flags or thumping music. Locals claim to not know where the bars are. Without a special ‘Gay Scene’ edition of the local gaijin magazine (Fukuoka Now) I wouldn’t have know these districts exist.

And not so long ago they didn’t. The first ‘women-only’ bar, Oshiri-na, opened less than four years ago. Not surprising then that Fukuoka’s first gay and lesbian mixed event happened earlier this year.

I interviewed the owner of another lesbian bar, Doez Dose, long after midnight – and a few superbly mixed cocktails. It was a surreal experience. I’ve never had any journalistic experience or ambition, but my interpreter introduced me as international media (“I’m writing for a British magazine…”). The fact the place played 80s glam rock and screened Tom and Jerry cartoons only contributed to the twilight-zone feeling of the night.

Maki-san opened Doez Dose in May of 2001, avoiding the more traditional areas and locating the bar in central Fukuoka. It’s open to all sexual preferences, and men are welcome. Possibly a reflection the non-confrontational aspect of Japanese society, she has had no objections from the surrounding businesses. But she says ‘they think that maybe she’s crazy’ to open a lesbian bar in town. Her philosophy of integration is a successful one though; the number of regulars continues to increase. This is deserved praise for an elegant, relaxed night spot which gives you space to be yourself.

My evening at Doez Dose made a nice change. I don’t usually have a problem being myself, and as a foreigner the Japanese expect you to be different anyway. But Japan is not a place you will find the anonymity associated with large cities. Fukuoka has just over 2000 registered gaijin in a city of 1.3 million. If you stay for any length of time, you soon discover that socially you are living in a small village. While there is certainly greater acceptance (most people are simply happy to meet someone new who speaks English), don’t expect a queer support network.

Love hotels are one of the more curious, yet common, attractions of Japanese culture. Respectable establishments literally rented by the hour. Far from sleazy, they are often more luxurious than up-market tourist hotels. But the rumours of jacuzzis and champagne sadly remained unsubstantiated for the duration of my trip. While heterosexual couples can attend without society blinking an eyelid, few love hotels will admit same sex couples. As a gaijin on my own, even a quick peek was out of the question.

At the time I was in Fukuoka, rehearsals had begun for a gaijin-run production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There was plenty of enthusiasm and support for the show, but costuming proved difficult. Westerners often have problems finding Japanese clothes which fit. As one gaijin girl remarked: ‘It’s a bitch trying to find clothes in a country genetically engineered for hotpants’. Outfitting a 6’2″ Frank’n’furter in full trannie gear required creative thinking and plenty of home sewing – think ‘Blue Peter does Rocky Horror’. Even worse, in Japan the largest womens shoe size readily available is (approx) UK size 3. Had it not been for international friends, Frank would have gone barefoot.

One night out on the town, a fellow drinker announced her boyfriend was moving to Tokyo for six months, and she felt the separation may be difficult to survive. Naturally we embarked on a girlie trip to the sex shop at 2am. There was certainly an impressive collection of fetish and S&M gear. But the vibrator significantly smaller than those at home, most were in the shape of butterflies, dolphins, women and even a scorpion. Not a realistic one amongst them. In keeping with the Japanese trend for technology one vibrator had it’s own camera and CCTV adaptor. But, like ginsu knives, there was even more…

Japan seems to have a fetish with all things cute. Winnie the Pooh and Snoopy are very big. ‘Hello Kitty’ is everywhere. Even in the somber setting of Hiroshima, the only badge I could find to commemorate my visit had a cute pink Hello Kitty pictured in front of the A-bomb dome. And sure enough, on sale in the adult shop in Fukuoka, Hello Kitty vibrators. That definitely rates as my most bizarre souvineer.

Originally I’d never had any desire to see Japan, but the opportunity came up to visit a good friend from university who I hadn’t seen in forever. The plan was to catch up, get drunk and share all the gossip from the intervening years. In this we were very successful. But in the meantime, Japan got under my skin, and I decided to make the most of what has probably been ‘once in a lifetime’ trip. Though in all I spent just over a week playing tourist outside of Fukuoka, and missed many of the ‘unmissable’ sights.

Situated on the Pacific Rim of Fire, Japan is a land of volcanoes and thermal activity. This is especially true in the area surrounding Beppu in Kyushu. Here most of the traditional Japanese baths (onsen) are sourced from natural hot springs. Etiquette requires that you wash and rinse thoroughly before entering the main bath – they are for relaxing not cleaning. Pools are communal, but tend to be single-sexed. They are also usually a nude affair. While being naked in public is not a big concern for me (communal showers at Glastonbury festival fixed that), the atmosphere of ‘let’s look at the gaijin’ did make me feel like my breasts were representing the western world.

It was at the baths that I encountered a totally unexpected cultural difference. Though I am very fond of my tattoo, it is not something I often think about, and with it’s discreet location it never impacts on my daily life. In Japan, tattoos are considered anti-social and are associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Though they are gradually becoming more acceptable, most Japanese are uncomfortable in the presence of a tattooed person. Being naked in public makes it difficult to hide body art. Fortunately my host had a roll of waterproof strapping tape in her car which covered me perfectly. Still, someone must have wondered how I managed to sprain my arse.

Japan is famous for it’s gardens. But don’t expect to see them without making a special detour. Modern houses have little outside living space, which usually contains only a few heavily topiaried trees. Though cities have several parks, this term seems to mean ‘a space without buildings’. Many are just large concrete squares. When you do find a traditional garden, it’s worth the entrance fee. I was too early to see the sakura (cherry blossoms), but did arrive in time to see the earlier flowering plum trees. To be honest I can’t tell the difference, and the gardens looked magic with the extra touch of pink.

There are many castle sites in Japan, but few retain the original buildings. Many were destroyed during World War II, and a significant number fell victim to lack of forethought. The castles were large wooden structures built on the highest point of land in a country prone to thunder storms. There must have been some incredible bonfires. Himeji is a grand exception, it’s five storied feudal castle dates from 1609. As I climbed the main tower’s steep, narrow staircases in loaned house slippers (in the uppermost chamber you can stamp your map to prove you made it) I wondered about how the feudal lord would have been brought his tea from the basement kitchens. Japanese servants must have been very sure footed.

Hiroshima is a startling place. I only had an hour to spend inside the Peace Museum before it closed for the day. This meant I didn’t get to see all the displays, but it was enough. It’s emotionally heavy going – blood stained school uniforms, and burned tricycles. Spending any length of time there makes it difficult to comply with Japanese etiquette and not blow your nose in public. It’s an important stop if you want to appreciate Hiroshima and the Peace Park.

Close by Hiroshima is Miyajima Island. The main attraction here is the floating torii (shrine gate) which is officially designated as one of Japan’s three most scenic views. At high tide the torii appears to float in the harbour before the Itsukushima Shrine. While this makes a good photo, I found the rest of the island more engrossing. It looks the way you want Japan to be. It has hidden temples and multi-storied pagodas, and it’s covered in trees which haven’t been topiaried to within an inch of their lives. The Daisho-in Buddhist temple is particularly beautiful, with many overlapping shrines on a wooded hillside. As with any sacred space, check first before taking photos.

Kyoto is Japan’s cultural capital, and home of the traditional geisha. I went to Nara instead. This smaller city – which is slightly less inundated with tourists – has an extensive collection of cultural features and temples. Most of these are within Nara Park, a large area which actually consists of trees and grass. The main tourist draw card is the Todai-ji Temple, containing the largest wooded structure in the world. To be honest the size isn’t that impressive – you find yourself thinking that surely there are larger wooden buildings somewhere. But once inside, the muting of sound and the shear magnitude of the sitting Buddha command respect.

Nara Park is full of native deer. They were thought to be messengers from the gods, and so are regarded as sacred. Centuries of pampering have made them insolent and difficult to eat lunch around. The only message the deer seem to be offering today, is that if you don’t have food the gods aren’t interested.

I spent a full day checking out both Nara Park and the temples to the west of the
Bi In Japan, cont. from page 7

city. By chance, I also attended a Shinto festival that night. The fabulous woman who ran the inn I was staying at spoke no English, which equalled my ability in Japanese. Despite this she managed to explain that I should be at a certain temple at 7pm that night. I followed the human tide up the hill to stand beneath one of the many intricate wooden buildings in the park. At 7pm, priests began running along the upper balcony with large bundles of burning wood, loosely attached to long poles. For the next thirty minutes they appeared to do their best to tempt fate and burn down an historic temple. Then it was over and the crowd dispersed. Sadly I never learn the significance of the ceremony, but I will always remember the experience of being the only gaijin face amongst thousands of enraptured Japanese.

I arrived in Tokyo late in the day, and spent the afternoon in the Tokyo tower drinking coffee and watching the sun set. If possible, it’s worth spending twilight at such a vantage point. In daylight the city looks like an upturned box of lego. After dark a tide of neon washes over, and it’s a completely different place. Afterwards I wandered through Tokyo’s Ginza district. Here Yon-chome crossing rivals Times square. As I stood beneath the flashing signs for Panasonic and Sony, a wildlife documentary played on massive outdoor television screens. After contemplating six foot tall squirrels for a while, I decided it was time for tea.

Ueno park in Tokyo contains the National Science Museum, the Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, as well as the obligatory shrines, temples and pagodas. I spent my last day in Japan wandering through arrangements of samurai artifacts and traditional art. Fortunately for my poor linguistic skills, most displays came with English explanations. The park brought together elements of Japanese culture which I had only experience in a fragmented way before then. It was a great way to finish the trip.

I was travelling through Japan in late February. This means a couple of things. Firstly it’s cold. In some places I was snowed on. And the temples are not heated. The museums I visited were fascinating in their own right. But as a bonus they are also warm, and were a great place to defrost my toes if I’d been outside too long. Another trick was to find a drinks machine. In Japan these have both hot and cold cans available. While the coffee itself was never great, I did appreciate the feeling returning to my fingers. Secondly, even in winter it’s hay fever season. Antihistamines are not available over the counter, and doctors are expensive and not usually fluent in English. If you have ever suffered hay fever do not even think about visiting Japan without enough Claratyne or Zirtec to last your entire trip.

The Lonely Planet guidebook was invaluable while I was travelling, but was not the only resource I used. By chance, I found a book called ‘Hokkaido Highway Blues’ by Will Ferguson just before I left England, and took it with me to read on the plane. This turned out to be one of the most insightful sources of information on Japan and it’s culture I had. It’s includes the stuff even Lonely Planet doesn’t mention.

As a last piece of advice, if you’re considering travelling through Japan, get a JR rail pass. They can halve your transport costs. But you can only buy them from outside the country before you go.

There are several aspects of Japanese culture I will never understand. I figure you shouldn’t have to specify you want your cappacino without ice cubes. And no matter how obsessed you are with gadgets, an electrically heated public toilet seat is not pleasant. Japan is also incredibly expensive. Even spending most nights on a friend’s floor (or ‘futon’ as the Japanese call it) my three week stay cost over a thousand pounds, not including transport. But it was worth every yen. Contemplating the Zen-ness of bonsai. Being humbled in Hiroshima’s A-bomb museum. Praying in the forest-cloaked temples of Miyajima Island. And each day having some absurdity make me rethink concepts of ‘normal’. It was a magic journey.

This article was written with the help of Nic Moore (translator) and the resources of Fukuoka Now (vol.49 Jan 2003).