Japan may be a tiny island easily traversed by solo travellers. But cracking into the local culture and grasping a deep understanding of the notoriously shy Japanese people is, well, a challenge.
Enter Joe, our handsome new Japan guide. Joe is not only a joy to be around, he’s also a great conversationalist, whip-smart, and takes great pride in showing off his country. He’s as happy slurping up a bowl of ramen with you as he is taking you on a night tour of Tokyo’s gay bars.
Joe introduces himself, as well as our all-gay Japan: Kyoto to Tokyo tour below.
Please briefly introduce yourself.
My name is Joe. I speak Japanese and English. I can be quiet but I do enjoy meeting new people and chatting. I like taking photos, watching movies, traveling, and helping others. I especially enjoy travel and experiencing different cultures.
I hear you had a very international childhood. Where have you lived?
In my childhood, I lived in UAE (Dubai), North Yemen, the Philippines, and Japan. I have lived in different cities within those countries.
Why did you choose a career in tour guiding? What do you love about it?
I actually have a lot of roles at work, tour guiding is just one of them. I love it because I like interacting with people. It’s interesting to hear about their cultures and hear their stories about being gay in the countries they’re from. Also, guiding helps me practice my English since I don’t get to use it as much as I’d like in Japan.
If you weren’t in the travel industry, what else would you do?
I would have chosen a career in web design/digital arts because I like designing. I find myself getting absorbed in designing things.
Let’s talk about Out Adventures’ big gay Japan tour. What activities do you love most that are featured on it?
I love the itinerary but I find the activities in Kyoto more interesting. Fushimi Inari and Arashiyama bamboo forest are beautiful places.
In your experience, what do visitors often love most about Japan and Japanese people?
A lot of visitors love Japan for its cleanliness, food, and the politeness of the people.
Why do you think Japan is so famous for its hospitality? Why are Japanese people so welcoming to visitors?
To be honest, I am not sure. But I think it’s because we are taught the importance of politeness, goodness, kindness and compassion in school.
Japanese food is one of my favourites. What are a few dishes you think visitors need to try while in Japan?
Visitors should definitely try gyudon (beef bowl), because it’s inexpensive but high-quality. I would also recommend yakinikiu, and Japanese curry rice.
Is there anything about Japanese culture you think is misunderstood?
Japanese people are generally polite, but not overly friendly to visitors because of the language barrier. Visitors might feel ignored by locals. But that’s only because Japanese people are shy and sometimes struggle with the language barrier.
Can you explain what Japan’s gay culture/scene is like? Is Japan a gay-welcoming country?
There are over 300 gay bars in one small district in Shinjuku, and it’s considered the world’s highest concentration of bars. Whether you are into bears, leather, lesbians, foreigners, older/younger guys, there are places for everyone.
I would say Japan is a gay-welcoming country. Even if a man wears women’s clothes in public (even outside of the gay district), people won’t attack or say anything to them.
People can be who they want to be.
If you feel comfortable sharing, what was your experience like growing up as a gay Japanese man?
I was attracted to men when I was 10-years-old. Back then, I didn’t know the word “gay” but I knew it was something I should not tell everyone about it. I didn’t think there was something wrong with me, but I just knew I shouldn’t talk about it to others. In high school, I found out there were other people like me, and the internet helped me explore more about it. I haven’t come out to my parents, but if they ever ask me, I would tell them. My mother used to asked me when I was going to get married, but around the time I hit my late 20’s, she stopped asking. She probably knows that I’m gay.
I hear gay bars are much smaller than we’re used to in North America. Can you tell me a bit about these bars and what the experience is like?
Typical gay bars have an owner and bartenders (mostly attractive), and they are trained to entertain customers. Customers can be shy at first, but they will help them feel comfortable. They talk, tell jokes, if the bar has karaoke, they sing karaoke with you.
If you become a regular customer, you get to be friends with other customers, and have a little community.
Usually in the summer (or anytime of the year), some bars organize a little trip to a beach, or to an onsen (hot spring). Some bars organize outdoor activities like playing tennis, volleyball… etc.
Any final advice for anyone interested in visiting Japan?
Get a pocket wi-fi. It makes a huge difference! Public wi-fi is slowly expanding, but not everywhere. If you ever get lost, you can check the map on your phone. If you want to communicate with the locals, you could use your phone to translate.
Interested in joining Joe in Japan?
We run annual gay tours through The Land of the Rising Sun every fall, focusing on three key destinations: Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. Beyond the highlights Joe already mentioned, we’ll also admire Mt Fuji from the deck of a Japanese pirate ship, bow to friendly deer at a conservation park, discover the fascinating history of the samurai and shop the colourful streets of Harajuku.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.
The photo of Fushimi Inari is courtesy of Out Asia Travel. The photo of Arashiyama bamboo forest is courtesy of Robert Sharp. Photos of Joe are courtesy of Joe. The photo of gyudon is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.