WE’VE BEEN WALKING IN CIRCLES for over 20 minutes, down alley after alley in the labyrinth that is Osaka’s small gayborhood, Doyama-cho.
In my 11 months in Japan, I’ve gotten lost looking for this bar at least 10 times. The bright lights in the busy shopping arcade look more similar with every turn. I’ve dragged my coworker Amber with me, wooing her with the promise of a night of friendly gays and dancing without getting ass-grabbed.
Amber rolls her eyes as my lack of directional skills becomes evident. “This neon crab looks familiar,” I say, but she isn’t buying it. Luckily, Amber spots a lone gaijin head sticking out above the thick crowd of Japanese. I check him out from behind: Shoulder satchel. Tight fitting jeans. There’s only one reason a single male foreigner looking that good would be wandering around Doyama at 11PM on a Saturday night. I take a chance and run up to him.
- “Are you going to Frenzy?” I say in my manliest voice.
“Actually, yeah” he replies, alarmed. “Why?”
“We’re lost,” I say, my lisp returning. “Can you lead us there?”
He smiles, and we introduce ourselves and head off past the neon lights and tipsy businessmen.
Kyle lives in Nagoya, 140km from Osaka. He comes down once a month to spend an evening between the two foreign-friendly gay bars here.
“I can either take the long train ride, or sit at home refreshing my Grindr all night,” he says as we cut down a hallway off the street.
The door to Frenzy is painted like a gaudy rainbow. As it opens, a techno remake of an Adele song comes blaring out and a white man in his 40s yells “welcome” in Japanese. The bar is packed tonight, mostly with foreign men, leaning in to chat over the thumping music. As we walk through the door, curious eyes dart toward us, looking us up and down. Kyle immediately sees his friends, accepts our thanks, and disappears into the crowd.
“Bye,” I say to him. Amber is already making a beeline for the bar.
The shelves are lined with green liquor bottles, clear liquor bottles, and rubber penises roughly the size of liquor bottles. Through the haze of smoke, an electronic picture frame sits atop the neon bar, flashing shots of Lady Gaga from when she visited in 2009. The walls are brick and individually painted florescent pink, orange, green, and yellow. This is what I imagine the womb of a drag queen would feel like.
I order my drink, and the one I promised Amber in exchange for being my wing-woman, and scan the room. I recognize about half of the faces, either from previous nights out or from Grindr. This phone app has become a lifeline, not only for me, but for gay men throughout Osaka. Almost anyone in range meets up at the bar on the weekend. While there are other gay bars in town, Frenzy is the only one owned and operated by a foreigner. And the drinks are so big that dancing with a free hand becomes impossible.
“Well look who it is!” someone says as a hand grabs my ass. Ryuji, a sloppy makeout turned friend, is standing with a really handsome guy. I stop dancing and give him a playful kiss on the cheek. “This is my friend Hideo,” Ryu says with a wink.
Hideo is completely my type, and Ryu knows it. Tall and handsome, he has a chiseled face and is wearing a flip-brimmed blue NY hat. We shake hands, and I hold on just a little bit longer than I should.
- “I saw you before, no?” he says with a coy smile.
“Yeah, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked,” I say.
We’re practically ignoring Ryu, and our connection must be obvious. I get nervous though and tell Hideo, “I need to pee,” to keep from coming across as excited.
When I return, I don’t see Hideo or Ryu, but Amber is sitting at the bar, surrounded by a small group of adoring fans. We make eye contact and she shrugs, giving me an innocent smile. I squeeze in next to her and she introduces me to our six new friends. I give Amber a thankful poke and chat up the cute-looking guy to my left, but my eyes keep darting around the room hoping to find Hideo.
It’s been an hour, and I’m just finishing my first drink when we realize the bar has completely cleared out. There’s no sign of Hideo, and I’m sure he’s gone with everyone else to Explosion for the bi-monthly foreign club night called Global Kiss.
- “Want to go to Explosion?” I say to one of the Japanese guys with us.
“Oh yes, we plan go to there too!” he says.
We round up our new posse and wave sayonara to the bartender.
“Keep your eye out for a blue NY hat at this next bar,” I whisper to Amber as we head out the door.
“On it,” she replies.
It’s a short walk to the club, and much easier to find than Frenzy was. As we pass a small dark alley, we see the crowd from Frenzy drinking beneath a small neon sign, their sparkly outfits reflecting the pink light. We walk up and I can feel their eyes peeling me like a perfectly ripened mango. I look down, smiling faintly as we head past them down the dark set of stairs.
Explosion is a tiny, cave-like club painted in red from floor to ceiling. There is less than a foot of space between the ceiling and the heads of the crowd. Some of the taller guys have to duck down in spots. It’s a good crowd, perhaps 150 guys and 20 girls.
We elbow toward the back. On a tiny stage, two go-go dancers, a cowboy, and a sailor are bouncing around each other. Green lasers shoot out from behind them, momentarily obscuring their awkward dance. The heat is getting to me. It smells like a mixture of jock strap and Axe body spray. People bump into each other, struggling to dance to the techno.
Suddenly the lights turn out and the whole club erupts into shrieks and cheers. The lights fade on, and a 6-foot-tall vagina steps onstage. People crowd around the front row, sitting directly on the sticky floor. The vagina raises her hand, silencing the hoots and cries. She dances around the little stage, mouthing the words to an En Vogue song.
“No you’re never gonna get it, never ever gonna get it,” she sings. From the girlish screams of the guys on the front row, I suspect she’s probably right.
As the vagina rubs her foam lips on one fan’s face, I look over and see that blue NY hat squatting behind the front row. I nudge Amber and nod to where he’s sitting.
“Get it,” she mouths.
As the show finishes and the club lights come back on, our group decides to take some drinks out to the street for fresh air. As they begin hiking up the stairs, I break off to find Hideo. But he’s already found me.
- “Ah, there you are,” he says, and playfully grabs my arm.
“Oh yeah, sorry, I was busy watching a dancing vagina,” I say.
“Hey listen, I’m leaving,” he says, melting my heart with his missed prepositions. “But want hang out without vagina some time?”
“Yeah sure,” I say, trying to play it cool.
We hug, plan to hang out next Saturday, and he leaves around the corner. As soon as he’s out of sight, I run to Amber like a giddy schoolgirl. After that, my mind can’t stop wandering and the club starts to lose its appeal.
I finally drag Amber away from the crowd and we leave, stepping over one of our new friends passed out against a wall in front of the club. We collapse into a taxi reeking of cigarettes and sweat. Amber turns her head.
- “I think I owe you a drink,” she says. “We have to do this again!”
“Sure,” I say. “But not next week. I have a date.”