• SHARE

For 121/2 years, I lived within a 10-minute walk of Shinjuku Ni-chome. “Ni-chome,” as most habitues refer to it, is synonymous with gay, even though every neighborhood in Tokyo has an area called Ni-chome, which, roughly translated, means “Sector 2.” One should even be careful not to refer to an escapade in Shinjuku without knowing that everyone present will probably start placing mental bets on whether you were in Kabukicho (the red-light district), or Ni-chome — at a gay bar. Eyebrows will rise . . .

The intoxicating Mai-chan awaits the lucky ladies.

But there I was living pretty much in Ni-chome, which, of course, means I got to know it rather well — so well, in fact, that “Nongay Bars in Ni-chome” was my dream Jeopardy category. There were some real gems — like 69, a reggae classic; Birdland, a jazz dive; and Boogey Boy, a dance joint that rocked.

The latter is where I first partied with Tara, when she started working as a bartender at Kinsmen, a defunct mixed bar one floor below. I still bump into Tara — not just in the neighborhood, but at the funky little clubs in Tokyo. Ni-chome’s main attraction is undoubtedly its committed, free-spirited mizu-shobai community, with more than enough personality to fuel the party engine. Like a drag queen tap dancing in stilettos on a keg of gunpowder, it could go off at any minute.

With or without the glitter, Ni-chome’s collective goal is to have fun. “I loved being able to just be myself — to be natural, and enjoy. I felt comfortable,” remembers Tara. But that was a decade and lots of change ago. Eight years have already passed since she opened Kinswomyn, a lesbian bar for women only. Up till then, Tokyo’s lesbian scene had been stale in comparison to the mixed and men-only beats, both of which were pumping.

My guess is because going out was prohibitively expensive. By opening Kinswomyn, Tara, whether by luck or design, forged the way toward Modern Times. Other bars have started lowering their exorbitant cover charges, previously exacted like road tolls in a small town. The cost made women flee. Tara, on the other hand, charges no cover. Yet, even on a quiet night, a cozy, if not energetic, group of women will have gathered around Kinswomyn’s horseshoe-shaped bar, where every seat faces center.

And all eyes converge on . . . Mai-chan, not Tara. Mai-chan is a customer who literally jumped the counter — in true Ni-chome spirit. She is young and beautiful and very alive. Tara is shy and always has been.

Regulars tend to tuck in at either end of the horseshoe and Mai-chan gets to shimmy down the center aisle as she flips CDs (mostly hard house and disco and the mandatory Madonna).

It’s an up vibe, with the horseshoe often doubling as a stage. But even in a pair of sneakers, a keg of gunpowder can go off at any minute . . .

Only one thing puzzled me about Kinswomyn. Why only women? Why not mixed like all the other bars that Tara and I hang out in — and thoroughly enjoy? “I wanted to create something different,” says Tara. By disallowing men she has upped her own comfort factor and kick-started Tokyo’s lesbian scene.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.