An Update on Fukuoka’s Gay Scene
This month Fukuoka Now showcases all that Fukuoka has to offer its gay and lesbian visitors and residents. We’ll give you the lowdown on the places not to be missed, whether you’re looking to party or just to chat. But first, we asked longtime resident Marie to give us a tour of the city’s lesbian scene, and the results were surprising.
Hide or Seek?
Recently I’d been hearing of a vast increase in the use of use of gay and lesbian websites in Japan, so I was eager to get out on the scene again after a lapse of around three years. When I first came to Japan fourteen years ago, before the internet era, there was no way to find a gay community other than getting out and trying your luck. I got lucky! After frequenting the same bar for a few months, a bar assistant greeted me outside the washroom with a spontaneous smacker on the lips! That’s how we formed our little lesbian community. It was tightly secretive and literally ‘word of mouth’. It wasn’t until ten years later, in 2004, that trying my luck online I made a friend who had struck buried treasure and found the hidden scene in Fukuoka. Thrilled and more than a little nervous, we set out to explore.
We were warmly accepted into the bars and soon introduced even to the ‘members only’ ones. Maybe it was because I was single at the time, but I was taken aback by the ferocity of the questions. Girls would start with “Do you have a girlfriend?” before working up to questions like neko? tachi? dochi? Asking literally “are you an attacker or receiver?”, it’s equivalent to ‘are you butch or femme’? Having only just changed my label (it’s necessary to label yourself in most personals), from ‘bi’ to ‘bian’ (bisexual to lesbian) I wasn’t prepared to pigeon-hole myself still further! Not being able to answer I was bombarded with further intricate options such as ‘reba?’ ‘reba-neko?’ ‘reba-tachi?’ ‘zubo-neko?’ ‘femu-tachi’? Explaining that I was just a regular vanillia ‘bian’ with no extra labels worked out in my favor: I attracted attention from all comers!
So returning to the scene recently, I was excited rather than nervous, even though I was heading out alone. I was eager to discover new bars. It’s rather like a game of hide-and-seek. I couldn’t wait for that feeling of triumph at tracking down a new spot: ‘Ha, ha, I’ve found you!’. With my old list of eight lesbian and mixed bars in hand, and a serious thirst, I set off to rediscover gay Fukuoka.
But it wasn’t going to be that easy. Finding the first three bars on the list closed up, and getting thirstier by the second, I phoned a friend. Who phoned several more. Soon the reality was clear: there was only one bar left for little ol’ lesbian me, and it had moved to Kego. It took a phone call to the owner from a taxi to find the place but at the end of my two-hour odyssey I found my treasure at a bar appropriately called “@home“.
The bar lives up to its name. I was greeted with big smiles by the couple who run the place, Hitomi and Kei, and the customers at the counter all made room for me. Not that it’s a small bar: there’s room at the counter for seven or eight and a rare, spacious and extremely relaxing box that can seat around twenty. I hadn’t been there five minutes before I was in full swing, exchanging chit chat with the owners and customers alike, and downing a well deserved draft beer. It was a fantastic atmosphere and I was almost disappointed that I didn’t get asked about my various labels and divisions.
Next, it was onto Sumiyoshi, the local ‘gay district’ where the thought of visiting some of the well-established bars set my heart racing again with nerves. We arrived at Bar Dramatic, known as a “mixed bar” – women welcomed. The serene exterior alone gave me the confidence to push open the door. There it was again, the feeling of stumbling upon a treasure trove. I was greeted by a warm, beaming smile from the mama Tomomi, who despite it being my first visit soon slipped into easy conversation. Several drinks and hours more chat followed as we enjoyed a real open-armed, open-minded welcome.
But despite having a great night, I was still shocked and disappointed. Had Fukuoka had gone back into the closet? I went home to sleep off the beers and recharge my phone. The lesbian scene had disappeared and I felt like crawling back into the closet too. I have a wonderful girlfriend, but what about those who don’t? How does someone in the lesbian community, especially a newcomer, go about finding a partner? There’s plenty of bars and information out there for men. What about those who are just coming out and who need support, friends, reassurance, fun with people they can relax with?
I was woken up by the sound of my mobile telling me I had mail. It was Kei from @Home informing me that an up-and-coming and out local singer, Hibikiko, would be performing soon. Another from a DJ, informing me about more upcoming events. Another from a Taiwanese lady who holds chat sessions on sexuality once a week at @Home. I was delighted. There is a network, and there’s a lot of people out there eager to keep it going.
The paradox is, with the increase of gay and lesbian networking websites websites and especially with mobile phone access, people are chatting online rather than chatting in person. Long distance relationships – where a couple meet on a website and only actually see each other once a month or so – seem to be common. Well, that’s alright for some. But I say hats off to all those trying to keep the real-world scene alive. Are you coming out or are you staying home to chat? Come on girls, there’s so much fun to be had!
Out and About
Next we asked frequent Fukuoka visitor Malcolm, an historian who lives in Wellington, New Zealand to share some of his experiences of the gay scene.
Something for the guys
When I first visited Fukuoka in the mid-1990s I had no clue as to how to find its gay bars, or indeed any other gay venue, and to be honest I didn’t really try. It was a quick visit, and maybe it was enough to savor the sight of the many beautiful men I passed on the street; to be finally schooled out of the notion (these were my first-ever days in Japan) that Japanese men were mostly bespectacled and mostly not handsome. On later visits to Fukuoka, thanks in part to some familiarity by then with bars in Tokyo, I knew a little better what to expect. And thanks in part to a 2003 story in Fukuoka Now by intrepid Irish reporter Colin, I knew where to look.
As Colin explained in 2003, and it is equally true in 2009, gay bars in Fukuoka -indeed throughout Japan- are discreet, almost domestic places and can accordingly be hard to find. They don’t cluster around Nakasu, Fukuoka’s main sakariba (entertainment district) but in two under-stated neighborhoods, Haruyoshi and Sumiyoshi. The bars are near-invisible in day time, when they’re closed, and not much easier to find at night, when only a modest neon sign, no more than the size of car license plate in most instances, will advertise their whereabouts. And there’s not much from the outside to tell you that they’re gay – maybe the neon will be pink or lavender, but maybe not. Combine all this with the idiosyncratic address system in Japanese cities – yes, I know it’s logical, but it’s a challenge to the outsider! – and it’s an achievement to find any gay bar, let alone one in particular.
Nor is it always plain sailing once you’ve found the bar. For one thing it doesn’t seem possible – the experienced can advise further – to enter a bar and walk out again immediately. These bars are not large, usually seating no more than a dozen patrons. That quick from-the-entrance scan beloved of gay men world-wide, and the equally quick exit when the talent doesn’t come up to scratch – how does that play when entering the bar puts you in pole position at the bar, as it were? So be prepared for many bars and many beers (around ¥1,200 a time) on that first night. Best put it down to research expenses.
On my most recent visit I called in first on Love and Hate, in Haruyoshi. A number of the bars have quirky English names and these are rather more likely to have a master (bar owner) with some English, at least so my not-very-scientific survey shows. The master at Love and Hate certainly had enough to tell me that his bar was for young men – not a category I fall into and seemingly the common category not just of the bar’s customers but also of their desires. He went on to explain the coding in the free monthly bar guide ‘Season’, in particular, the panel of numbers – 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 plus – in which some would be highlighted. Yes, it was not just Love and Hate which was age specific (20s and 30s, I learned from the guide) but all of them, though some were less “exclusive” than others. I moved on to Forward (20s to 50s; that looked promising) in Sumiyoshi: it’s the closest in a line of eight on a lane off Sumiyoshi Dori. Its Master is what gay men from elsewhere would recognize as a “bear” – stocky and bearded – but welcoming enough to someone like me, who didn’t fit the prescription.
The time taken over the drink I had there was enough to bring in another customer, who gave the master a gift brought on a recent trip – to Seoul I think – and drank from his own whiskey bottle, stored on a shelf above the bar. These are common customs in Japanese bars, as many readers will know, and highlight the way in which gay Japanese bars are more like straight Japanese bars than they are like non-Japanese gay bars. Got that?! But then, another custom I found common in the bars I visited may be more gay/Japanese-specific: you’ll often very quickly be asked about your ‘endowments’, and one in particular. You don’t need too much spoken language to get the point across, so even if you don’t speak enough Japanese to reply, be prepared, although with statistics, not an exhibition, as it were.
I visited Kuma, further down the lane, a couple of nights later. The “turnover” of bars and owners is slow compared with Western cities and the master was the same as on an earlier visit. Indeed he told me he’d had the bar for seven years. He’s from Kumamoto, a city south of Fukuoka, but lived for years in Tokyo and elsewhere, working as a restaurant manager. Finally deciding he wanted to be his own boss, he came back to Kyushu and set up on his own. He does it all himself, the provisioning, the bar-tending, he lives nearby and gets around by bicycle – no car. “What do you do when you go away?” I asked, thinking he might never go away. “I just lock the door”, he said, “and open it again when I get back, a month later”. “And where do you go?” “All over – to Hawaii more than a dozen times, to New York, to the South Pacific.” Suffice it to say, business must be doing OK.
I recalled to Kuma that I had visited his bar some years back and he replied immediately “oh yes, you went to visit a brother living in China didn’t you?” – which was exactly the case. Not bad after five years and more than reason to go back again.
Quite a lot of foreigners make it to his bar, he said, but most of those who do are not Westerners – they’re more likely to be Korean or Chinese, often in Fukuoka on business. You might have heard people remark on Japanese bars being less than enthusiastic about outsiders. But provided the bar’s not too full, don’t let that put you off. Indeed, quite the contrary: I say enjoy your novelty value while you’ve got it! Many of the other patrons may not have been that close to a Westerner, so you’ll satisfy some of their curiosity. And maybe you won’t have met regular Japanese men – for that’s what they are, when it comes down to it – in such relaxed circumstances. What better way to get closer to the heart of life in Fukuoka, in Japan? And if you get a date too, consider it just – and I hope tasty – deserts.
Lingo and Resources
Hakata Community Center (haco)
Founded for gay men in Fukuoka, its purpose is to inform and
prevent sexual infection/disease and HIV. Friendly and helpful staff, but unfortunately they cannot speak English. Library with information and leaflets on gay scene in other cities.
1F Everlife, 4-4-21 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku. Tel: 092-404-5119
Published by haco and LAF (Love Act Fukuoka), this is Fukuoka’s only free magazine with map and listings for most gay bars in Fukuoka City and Kitakyushu City. It is full of information such as events, gay profiles and more. Available at most gay bars.
English Websites (national)
Offers travel tips and message forums.
Long-running, very active messageboard.
Gay social networking site.
Gay Net Japan:
Oldest gay online community in Japan
Mei-san has been holding support group talks for sexual minority females for five years, providing information, counseling, and peer support. Mei-san speaks English and will be holding a session at Kyudai Nishijin Plaza on every first Sat.
Illustrations by Nick Tsouknidas, firstname.lastname@example.org
Gay Bar Guide
Hitomi and Kei who run this cozy bar will celebrate their fifth anniversary this April! The bubbly atmosphere makes it easy for newcomers. Some foreigners frequent the bar and the owners assure us there is always someone around who can speak English. Their advice for foreigners and first timers: “Just come in!”
4F Oak Bldg., 2-18-13 , Fukuoka, Chuo-ku, Kego,
20:00~26:00, Closed on Mon. (or Tue. if Mon. is a holiday)
¥1,000 with 1 drink and snack
A mixed bar now in its third year. Tomomi Mama offers a lively, yet relaxing atmosphere for anyone who has an understanding of sexual minorities. On Saturdays, you can see the beautiful Tomomi in drag. Sundays brings in a mainly lesbian crowd. Sometimes frequented by foreigners, Tomomi’s infectious laugh and smile is a must!
4-14-4, Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka
21:00~05:00, Closed on Mon. (or Tue. if Mon. is a Hol.)
Charge: ¥1,300, alcoholic drinks: all ¥700
Opened one year ago, it’s considered a mixed bar with three-quarters of customers being lesbians. Has a small international scene and welcomes foreigners. Lesbian-only events held every month. The mixed events are held with the aim of getting people to communicate more naturally away from the nightlife with camp-outs, barbecues, sport days, etc.
2F Zabouru Konyamachi Bldg, 3-1, Konya-machi, Kokura-kita-ku, Kitakyushu
20:00~04:00 (~05:00 on Fri. and Sat.)
Open every day
Charge: ¥1,000 Drinks alcoholic ¥700, soft drinks: ¥600
Now in it’s twelfth year. An exceptionally large bar for Hakata. The mama, Daisaku-san, is a big fan of sports. The bar is often frequented by foreigners who along with the other customers and staff make for a lively atmosphere. Events are often held, for example at Christmas, and there will be a party in June to celebrate the bar’s twelfth anniversary.
4-14-4, Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka,
Open daily 20:00~04:00
Charge ¥500, alcoholic drinks: ¥700 soft drink ¥600
Run by a very friendly mama, Kuma is a hangout for men in the thirties, forties and fifties and not for “bears” exclusively. It’s also one of the earliest to open bars in area, starting at 19:00, so a good option for your first drink. No karaoke, just a small counter and warm atmosphere for eight persons.
4-9-3 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka
Open daily: 19:00~02:00, closed: 3rd Tue. & Wed.
Charge: ¥1,200 (includes one drink)
Located almost directly opposite of Bar Dramatic and Dai Dai, Schimimencho is another popular bar and one of the most spacious and stylish in the city. Clientele are mostly in their 30’s and the bar’s good reputation draws many visitors from outside the city, so new faces are most welcome.
4-13-15 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka
Open daily: 20:00~03:00
Charge: ¥1, 300 (includes one drink)