While Japan’s major cities, such as Tokyo and Osaka, have more neighborhoods and places where the LGBTQ community frequents, it is important to understand the country delivers a warm welcome to LGBTQ travelers and there is much to explore beyond the obvious. I participated in an LGBTQ tour to Japan run by IGLTA member Out Asia Travel.
Coastal Towns and Mountain Villages
Our group visited the Tohuku Region, which seven years after its devastating tsunami and earthquake, wants to show the world that they are open to tourism. Our adventure began in the beautiful coastal city of Matsushima, famous for its bay full of small islands with pine trees, which helped protect the city from the waters of the tsunami. The shops and teahouse on the seafront survived and maintain their simple, authentic architecture. Ceramics are popular here. We also saw the Natori district, where on March 11, 2011, almost 30,000 people lost their lives. Imagine Copacabana in Rio all in sand, without buildings, trees or streets. With much effort the Tohoku government is undertaking a huge engineering work to protect and rebuild Natori.
We traveled on to the Takamiya Hotel Lucent for the evening. The hotel has lovely rooms that obey the Japanese tatami mat tradition and include kimonos, which you are encouraged to wear throughout the hotel. The hotel serves delicious kaiseki-style dinner, a meticulously prepared multi-course dining experience with elaborate presentation. The Japanese take their gastronomy very seriously; it’s impressively diverse, full of details and always decorative. The hotel is located is one of the main ski resort areas in the country, but any time of year is perfect to experience its thermal waters and abundant saunas. We slept peacefully, savoring the mountain air.
Our next stay, at Active Urabandai resort, gave us a rainbow welcome filled with excitement and joy. The rooms were also traditional tatami style. From there we visited Goshikinuma, the five colorful marshes. It is a group of picturesque lakes and ponds on a prominent plain in Bandai-Asahi National Park. From nature we went to visit one of the most spectacular castles in Japan: Aizuwakamatsu Castle is located in the center of the city of the same name in Fukushima province and is also known as the city of samurai.
From Nature to the Great Tokyo
In Tokyo, we were greeted at the Keio Plaza, one of the most luxurious hotels in Tokyo and one of the first buildings in the 45-story range. It faces the beautiful towers of Tokyo City Hall, with the signs and logos promoting the Olympics 2020. This hotel has 15 restaurants and modern rooms full of technological surprises, including a cell phone at your disposal. It was an easy walk to the gay neighborhood (or an inexpensive taxi ride).
The gay area, Shinjuku, is said to have more than 300 LGBTQ bars. There are mostly very small spaces, so it’s worth visiting several different bars and restaurants in the area. One with more space is the well-known Eagle, which now has a club/disco.
Also worth visiting is Asakusa, the famous neighborhood of the Senso-Ji Temple, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple.
Off to Osaka
The super train Shinkansen (good to buy food and drink on board) delivered us to the beautiful station in Osaka. Our hotel, Accor’s Swiss Hotel Nankai Osaka, is a huge complex with subway station, shopping galleries, and multi-cuisine floors.
For a truly great, immersive experience, don a kimono—which are found in rental shops. We had special treatment from the attendants at the beautiful Wasobi Kimonos shop. Stroll the streets and to extend the moment, take a boat ride through the city canals, and then explore the Osaka nightlife, which also has many forms of LGBTQ bars.
And finally, take time to see Shitennō-ji Temple, which was built in 593. It’s the first Buddhist temple and the oldest temple officially administered in Japan. In the air the smell of incense was strong, softening the day and relaxing the soul. It was without a doubt a spiritual visit, offering strength and peace.
5 Travel Tips for Japan
- Japan Rail Pass is an effective way to get to know many cities and has a variety of options.
- Baggage delivery services between cities are worth it if you have a lot of luggage to maneuver through metros and the country's giant train stations. Drop off the bag the day before your trip and it's about US$20 per bag.
- Exchange money at major hotels or exchange machines. For small amounts the exchange rates are good.
- Know that talking loudly in public is not welcome. Be polite always.
- Collect travel stamps around Japan to create a personal diary. You can find stamps everywhere from bus stops to temples in diverse sizes and colors.
Clovis Casemiro, IGLTA’s Membership Coordinator for Brazil, traveled to Japan on a landmark LGBTQ group trip organized by IGLTA Asia Ambassador Shintaro Koizumi of Out Asia Travel. It was the first government-funded LGBTQ familiarization tour in Japan.