It's easy to fall in love with Kyoto. Two and a half hours southwest of Tokyo on the shinkansen, it's a bustling city of 1.5 million yet somehow manages to retain its small-town feel, in no small part thanks to its storied Memoirs of a Geisha past in entertainment district Gion and its 20-plus notable temples. My fave-aside from the sublime Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and Toji's soaring five-story wooden pagoda-was the Shinto Fushimi Inari Shine, where over 10,000 vermillion torii (gates) create over 2.5 miles of tunnels snaking up the hillside; a simple motif repeated to immensely powerful effect. Visit at night for last-man-in-the-world type spookiness.
And if you're already in love when you to come to the city, you can also make it official here. Tucked away in the sprawling Myoshin-ji Temple complex, down quiet pebble paths past ornate stone walls hiding ancient shrubbery, the Shunko-in Temple (Temple of the Spring Ray) is a serene and peaceful retreat in the center of the city, and the first in the country to explicitly advertise let alone welcome same-sex wedding ceremonies. Perhaps it comes from the temple's history of preserving the multifaceted religious traditions of Japan when the Tokugawa shogunate sought to wipe them out-its key artifacts include the Jesuit Bell of Nanban-ji Temple from 1576 and the Kirishitan Lantern, a cross cleverly designed to be hidden within a typical Buddhist stone lantern-but the real acclaim goes to its vice-abbot, the Rev. Taka Kawakami.
Japanese-born and educated at Arizona State University, Kawakami-san (or Taka as he informally insisted) returned with his American-born wife to carry on his family's tradition of running the temple, infusing the expertly preserved 16th century structure with a modern sensibility and welcome attitude towards curious foreigners. On a drizzly, atmospheric fall afternoon while my father and I sipped our frothy bowls of bitter emerald matcha and nibbled sugary wagashi treats, Taka explained his goals to have the temple be a conduit for bringing Zen Buddhism into people's lives, teaching how to incorporate everyday mindfulness and compassion for greater happiness.
As a keen advocate for human rights-a paper on the subject even got him barred from traveling to China-he's a keen advocate for gay rights, hit home by having a gay roommate-turned-good friend in college. Religion should be about respect and unity. And what's more symbolic than that than two people's love? Although same-sex civil partnerships and marriage aren't legal in Japan (only in 2009 did it allow its nationals to marry same-sex partners in foreign countries), Taka's ceremonies are spiritual unions open to all regardless of faith. Services, which include chanting of the Heart Sutra (parajinaparamita), a sake-sharing ritual (san san kudo), exchanges of vows and rings, and a certificate, take place in Shunko-in's stunning main room surrounded by intricately colored, sumptuous screen paintings from the 18th-century master Kano.
Honeymoon afterwards at the Hoshinoya Kyoto in the Arashiyama section northwest of center, in the natural splendor of the woods next to the Monkey Park. A boat transfers you from the Togetsukyo Bridge up the Ooi River past waterfalls and woods to the magnificent ryokan, where a design sensibility and commitment to craftsmanship poses-and fulfills-the question of what would Japanese life have been like today if it had embraced its unique culture more on the way to modernization. Hand-pulled soba, bath sachets infused with sandalwood and herbs, wafting incense, and in-room calligraphy kits all but make you want to move in permanently. (Don't get me started on the custom furniture and beds.) Suffice to say the service is bar none.
Although if you'd rather ascribe to true minimalist zen, Taka and his wife rent out five simple rooms (¥4000-5000), some with tatami mats and paper walls, with three English-language meditation sessions (zazen) and temple tours are offered daily (¥1000 donation with stay, ¥2000 otherwise). Wry and chatty with a jovial smile, Taka makes Rinzai Zen accessible and practical, answering questions fully and not shying away from his own struggles with a meditation regimen; only once (at our request) during our two 15-minute meditation sessions did he use the "Stick of Compassion", a long Catholic school-like bamboo switch used for gently cracking monks on the shoulder when their composure lagged. I only wish I had taped the session to replay his wisdom later. Guess I'll just have to go back-once I have a potential hubby.
Fashion. Style. Design. Architecture. History. And more than 300 gay bars. Is it any wonder that Tokyo should rank as Asia's capital of gay tourism?
LGBT travelers are a demanding bunch, with a diverse array of interests. And Tokyo, more than any other destination in Asia, has the sophisticated offerings to satisfy these well-traveled globetrotters. During my recent visit on assignment for Passport Magazine, the largest gay travel magazine in North America, I found lots of reasons why gay travelers should include Tokyo in their vacation plans.
What specifically makes Tokyo such an ideal gay destination? Consider first the sheer number of gay bars. Most likely no other city on earth can boast that it has more than 300 places to share a drink or perhaps dance the night away. Square one for anyone looking to explore gay nightlife is the neighborhood called Shinjuku Ni-Chome, where the easily walkable streets are lined with dozens of gay and gay-friendly businesses, including stores, restaurants and, of course, bars and clubs.
Spending a night out on the town in Tokyo is a memorable and, for Westerners, very unique experience. Rather than a megaclub or oversized bar, the ambiance here tends more toward smaller, relaxed venues where it's easy to speak with bar tenders and other patrons - indeed, it's a wonderful introduction to the city and a great way to meet other people and share travel and nightlife tips.
One of the first stops for many visitors is Advocates, a corner bar that opens onto the street, making it easy to find. A good mix of foreigners and locals come here, and on weekends and holidays, you'll likely see lots of happy revelers enjoying a cocktail outside. Also good is Dragon Men, another bar that, weather permitting, opens onto the street and makes for great people watching.
It's also fun to explore the smaller bars that sit on the second and third floors of many buildings. Some have the reputation of not being "friendly" to foreigners, but the truth is that they are - it's just that some staff members don't speak English. I went with local friends and business contacts to Mezzo Forte, a pleasant bar mostly frequented by locals, where the owner and I couldn't communicate directly. But he was still very pleasant, shaking my hand and smiling frequently. At bars like these, you may notice half-empty bottles on the shelves behind the bar, with names written on them. These belong to patrons who visit regularly, who buy entire bottles and leave them, labeled with their name, to finish in future visits.
For dancing, Arty Farty and the Annex are good choices in the neighborhood. Arch is the most famous gay dance club, located in the Shinjuku district. Various theme parties take place here, so it's always a good idea to check and see what's going on.
Culture, History and ShoppingTokyo expertly blends the historic with the new, making for interesting and wonderful experiences at every turn. Whether you're wandering through Asakusa, which served as the city's downtown area in the 17th through the 19th centuries, or strolling the streets of modern Shinjuku, you'll find lots to do, from museums and historic sites to art galleries and shopping. You can connect with Japan's ancient history at places like the Tokyo National Museum, or dive into the modern world of Japanese animation in the Akihabara district, which is also a great place to shop for electronics.
For shopping and culture, consider the neighborhood called Roppongi, where you can browse fashions at Tokyo Midtown, an upscale mall that is also home to the Suntory Museum of Art - which itself is part of Art Triangle Roppongi, a group of three noteworthy cultural institutions that also includes the stunningly modern National Art Center and the Mori Art Museum, which sits on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper called Roppongi Hills. When you're done there, head to the top of Roppongi Hills to enjoy the view from Tokyo City View, the building's observation deck. Don't miss the rooftop Sky Deck. Good views are also enjoyed at Tokyo Tower, a city landmark that dates to 1958. And in 2012, the dramatic new Tokyo Sky Tree will provide even more views, from more than 2,000 feet in the air.
The Sky Tree is just the latest high-profile example of Tokyo's leading role in architecture and design. Indeed, Japan's largest city is a style capital not just because of its rich artistic traditions and cutting-edge fashion. The city also attracts attention around the globe for its eye-catching design in architecture and transportation - from the centuries-old temples and shrines to the decidedly futuristic bullet trains and skyscrapers, this is the kind of city that travelers love to photogragh. Check out the twin symmetrical towers of Tokyo City Hall, the sleek lines of Mori Tower, the fashion-filled Omotesando building and the Asahi building, which is topped with a gigantic gold sculpture. Tokyo is the best place to witness how Japanese technology and design can make even the everyday aspects of life better. From the high-tech toilets manufactured by Toto to the taxis with doors that automatically close, it's like a glimpse at a future that for most of the world has not yet arrived - a truly exciting place to be.
Travelers looking for the most efficient way to take in all that Tokyo has to offer - including the vibrant gay nightlife - should contact Magnet Tours, a gay-owned and -operated company founded in 2009 that offers tours of major historic and cultural sites, as well as gay bar-hopping tours (they offer similar tours in Kyoto and Osaka as well). Magnet Tours also offers customized services based on the individual interests of the traveler. For mainstream excursions around the city and around the country, Sunrise Tours JTB, one of Japan's leading gay-friendly tour companies, also has plenty to offer.
In a city as dynamic as Tokyo, there is always something new to discover, whether it's fast-forward fashion and architecture, or fascinating cultural institutions - and with so much gay nightlife, it will take many visits to see just a few of the fun options that await.
Magnet Tours, 2F Sereno Nishishinbashi, 2-11-14 Nishishinbashi. Tel. +81-3-3500-4819. www.magnettours.jp
Sunrise Tours JTB, 156 West 56th Street, New York NY 10019. Tel. in U.S. (800) 235-3523 or +81-3-5796-5454 in Japan. www.jtb-sunrisetours.jp
Accommodations and Tour Operators
The below hotels and tour operator have demonstrated themselves to be LGBT traveler friendly.