The bare back of a man shines like a beacon in a dark empty street below an expressway in Tokyo’s Tamachi district. The brightly lit mural points the way inside to one of the only male strip shows in town catering to women.
With three friends called in for back-up, I found my way down a deserted hallway to a shabby back elevator bathed in blue light, making me feel like I was doing something I shouldn’t be.
It was a relief when the elevator door opened on a slightly brighter lobby and bar. But before our eyes could adjust, we had handed over 4,000 yen each and were ushered into a much darker room, lit only by reflections from a mirrorball.
Icon is an all-Hungarian male revue, or strip show, depending on how you want to look at it. However, the team of six men all take their dancing very seriously, whether clothed or not.
Owner Attila Kiss, who is also the show’s producer and lead dancer, told me later that in Hungary a strip routine can last as long as eight or nine minutes, with the men mostly walking around the stage striking poses. There is no leisurely strolling at Icon, and the routines don’t last much longer than four minutes.
The show starts to the strains of a dark choral piece, and then — bang — the men burst on stage for their first routine, in which the only thing they reveal are their faces from behind harlequin masks.
We soon saw much more. But not everything. Full-frontal male nudity is illegal in Japan, so the dancers must cleverly position hands, legs, towels and other props.
The second routine featured Rico, who did some aerial moves from a bar near the ceiling. Then, back on the ground, he fetched a lissome young woman from the audience. Wait a minute. No one told me about audience participation. I suddenly felt somewhat exposed sitting in the second row, with only 20 women in the room.
The “victim” — who seemed rather unwilling — had her wrists tied to the arms of the chair at the rear of the stage. Rico then danced a bit more, stripped down to his G-string, and began bumping and grinding between her legs.
After that, most of the routines included one or more women on the stage, some just dancing or watching, and others who were allowed to do some controlled touching and simulated activities.
My contribution to the show came during a hard-body salaryman routine, when the dancers began dressed like typical commuters, but ended up acting quite differently as they twirled their briefcases around wearing just their underwear. I was quite relieved to be put in a chair with my back to the audience, so I didn’t have to see my companions squawking as owner Attila pulled my hands all over his body and did some creative faux sexual moves involving my knees.
While I would like to believe Attila asked me up for my sex appeal, the truth is that the dancers have pickup seats, which are the same for every show. It is the front of the house that decides where people are seated, or if a woman wants to pay a little extra, she can be put in her favorite dancer’s seat — guaranteeing that he will take her onstage.
So what kind of men make a living by taking off their clothes?
Rico, 30, has been dancing at Icon for about three years. He was scouted in Hungary, where he had a similar show, and had also danced in Austria and Germany. David, 27, who has been with the show for seven months, was spotted in a Chippendales show and went on to win a spot from among 20 applicants.
But, why take off their clothes?
“It’s this kind of show,” David said. “It’s erotic entertainment for women.”
To do a good job, the two men said, you have to know your audience. “You have to know a woman’s mind,” said David. I wanted him to tell me the secret of how does that, but he only said, “I have no trick, I just feel.”
Rico explained that the success of each show depends on the crowd.
“You can see if some people are very relaxed and some people are ready to party. Or some other people . . . are feeling very scared, so you have to be very gentle. You cannot do the same moves” on both types of people, Rico said.
While the men are young and gorgeous, the rest typically are not. I was surprised to see that most of the women were well into middle age, with some looking like they might have grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.
I found it a little disconcerting to see a senior citizen onstage with Rico, but he is not bothered by it at all.
“If there are many [older women] and they are having fun then they are going to enjoy [a wilder routine]. If it’s only two of them and they are very shy and just looking [into their hands], then it’s not going to be fun,” he explained.
“But if she is sitting in my pick-up seat I have to dance with her, though I have to dance differently. The choreography is the same, but my moves are different, my ending is different, my face is different, the space [between us] is different.”
Asked what drew her to watch foreign men take off their clothes to music, one woman in a sensible gray skirt and blue cardigan, said simply that she is “a fan of dancing, all kinds of dancing, and not particularly the stripping part of the show.”
Well, whatever the truth in that, she turned out to be the exception. The rest of the women I spoke to got straight to the point — the sex appeal.
“I like men that are big. You can hold onto them,” said 26-year-old Eriko, smiling as she hugged the air. She left soon after to go home to her husband, whom she described as “a little fat.”
Eriko and friend Tomoko, 26, had seen Icon featured on television. It was their second time there and they were glowing with praise. So I asked them why the club wasn’t packed with women.
“Most Japanese don’t like macho men,” said Tomoko, who said that most of her friends, who prefer slender men, tease her.
When Attila comes out to meet me, his come-on attitude has evaporated and he is a soft-spoken, clear-eyed businessman.
The 30-year-old started the club last fall to fill the void left after the popular J-Mens chain — where he danced for three years — shut down in 2003. Attila originally had American dancers as well as Hungarians. Now the team is 100 percent Hungarian and Attila is much happier.
“I think Hungarian guys are a lot more calm,” he said. “They don’t have that kind of Hollywood ‘I’m a superstar’ attitude.”
Attila enjoys performing for Japanese women. “Western women are more demanding. They want to see it all,” the club-owner said. “Japanese women like it all to be a bit mysterious; they like to imagine things. They like to see just the image of something, see the shadow.
” ‘I can see? I cannot see? I don’t know.’ This is what they like.”
Still, dancing for Japanese women can be hard, as they don’t yell out as Western women often do. Polite clapping and some appreciative murmurs are sometimes all they get. But the show must go on.
Then again, occasionally the dancers can be on the receiving end of unwanted touching, but it’s usually the men — who are welcome at the club but aren’t invited onstage — they have to keep an eye on.
“We have lots of men coming with wives or girlfriends, or sometimes gay couples. It’s really interesting. And it’s always the men touching [motioning between his legs]. I don’t know why. The man wants to see more.”
Asked whether the dancers have relationships with regular customers outside of the club, Attila was flatly dismissive. “Dancers aren’t allowed to date customers,” he said. “Besides, they work six nights a week, and they wouldn’t want to see the women in what little private time they have. This is work.”