• Lizzie Hessek

Queer Casablanca

Updated: Aug 4


One Monday night in late March, Rachel and I were stumbling through the streets of Shinjuku-2-chome looking for a warm place to rest our feet. We enjoyed warm, spring weather earlier in the day, but the air in Tokyo was steadily getting colder as dusk got darker. I shivered in my trench coat.


As a side note, pretty much every Japanese lady wears a beige trench coat more or less identical to mine. Rachel lost me quite a few times in crowds because she couldn't pick me out from the thousands of woman with beige trench coats and a black bob.


We let the streets of Shinjuku-2-chome lead us to the black and white awning of a place called Bar Goldfinger. We were intrigued by the large sign on the wall that said, "Women only," and the small flyer on the door that indicated that we arrived for FTM night. By "intrigued" I mean we looked up "Tokyo lesbian" before heading to Japan, and Bar Goldfinger, it turns out, is the only queer bar that caters to women in all of Tokyo. There are over 300 bars for men in the approximately 5 blocks that surround Bar Goldfinger, but I suppose us dykes know it's quality over quantity some of the time....


The last time I went out to a dyke bar in a foreign country was when Emily Teel was visiting Rachel and me in Paris and we went to la Babydoll at les Bain Douches (remember that?!). We started the night with dinner, then we made the ill-fated decision to head directly to la Babydoll. It was around 11PM when we arrived, and we were the only people there for at least two hours. Remembering this incident, Rachel and I checked the internet to see when the bar opened.


I found that things in Japan have unexpected opening and closing hours. The dingy restaurants packed into a sketchy-looking alley might all close at a respectable 11PM, but you might still hear diners' laughter coming from the windows of a nice-looking restaurant at 6AM. This was part of the magic. It was as if everyone in Japan was saying, "Oh, we do what we want."


Bar Goldfinger had pretty standard opening hours for a bar - 6PM to 4AM - but they also advertised a happy hour from 6 to 8. This made us think that people would be there from 6 - 8. Upon walking in we realized, once again, we were wrong. There were 5 people in the bar. Holly, an awkward Brit teaching English in Kyushu. Shin, a quiet Japanese man sipping beer at the bar. Another quiet Japanese patron - so quiet that we did not get their name. Leslie, a German girl who fell in love with a Japanese girl in drag without realizing she was female, then moved to Japan to explore her sexuality. Mizuki, the bartender. And then there was us - the under-dressed, overly-excited Americans.


We walked in and Mizuki asked us how we knew about the bar. We told him, "The internet." He asked if we wanted the happy hour special - two drinks for 1000¥. That's $8.80, so we said, "Hai, arigato gozaimasu." I ordered a beer, Rachel ordered a wine. Mizuki gave us our drinks along with warm, damp towels to clean our hands and a bowl of popcorn. He explained that tonight was FTM night, so many people in the bar are in the process of transitioning. We assumed he told us this because he was worried we thought we were not, in fact, in a lesbian bar. He then bowed to us and went back behind the bar.


We sipped in a corner and took in the grandeur before us. Deep red damask carpets ran across the floors and crawled halfway up the walls where it collided with wood paneling. The wooden bars all had hooks to hang your coats and baskets to place your bags because Japan is goddamned civilized. There was a television on the wall playing what I assume were music videos, but the music wasn't matching up. It felt, in the best possible way, like a lesbian bar from 1992 trying to look like a lesbian bar from 1972 and I never, ever wanted to leave.


I finished my beer and went up to the bar for my second drink. Somehow, that first beer got me pretty tipsy, and I ended up talking to Holly, Shin, and Leslie who were sitting at the bar with Mizuki. Holly's parents were arriving from Britain the next day and she was up in Tokyo to meet them. She decided to come a day early to explore Tokyo on her own (and hit up the one dyke bar, naturally). She seemed lonely, cautious, and curious. Leslie arrived in Tokyo from the "part of Germany know one knows exists," a few months earlier and had managed to snag a barista job in Tokyo. She's been making friends and falling in love since she arrived. Shin seemed overwhelmed by the amount of English being tossed around. Mizuki seemed amused and told us he was going to put something on the TV for us. First, he would get me a drink. I couldn't decide between another beer or a shot of tequila. Somehow, through the intoxicating magic of Bar Goldfinger, I was convinced to put a shot of tequila inside of my beer.


Queer Martha advice: put a shot of tequila in your beer. It's kind of great.


Mizuki went over to the television and started playing Ellen Page's first installment of Gaycation, which takes place in Tokyo and features Bar Goldfinger. The whole bar - all 7 of us - gravitated toward the screen. In the show, Ellen discovers how difficult it is to come out in Japan. She tells us that there is still a great deal of shame and secrecy surrounding queerness in Japan. At this point, Bar Goldfinger began to feel a little different to drunk Lizzie and Rachel. There was something desperate and individualistic about the characters surrounding us, each having his or her own perspectives. Shin and Mizuki nodded their heads as the people on the TV told us that it is not illegal to be gay in Japan, it's just so damn shameful to break from the norm. As they were nodding their heads to the invocation of shame, Leslie the German stated bluntly that Ellen Page is being over-dramatic. The people in Japan are so warm and open, all you have to do is say you are gay and they will accept you! You just can't be afraid. You have to do it. Be who you are! Meanwhile, the Americans are trying to bridge the gap between these two world views by preaching some grand platitude such as, "Well, it is different for someone who has the culture in their blood, you know? I mean, that is part of the reason you left Germany, after all, you know? All cultures have their beautiful sides and their sides that need improving!" While all of this is happening, the Brit is still standing awkwardly to the side wondering whom she should sit next to.


This queer Casablanca, with everyone flocking to the one safe gin joint in town and feeling their understanding of the world crash into someone else's, was a beautiful thing to experience. As we were all discussing the power of culture to allow you to live the life you want, it suddenly started hailing outside. Tiny pellets of bright white ice popped up from the black pavement as fast as they flew down from the grey clouds. All of Bar Goldfinger rushed out to the street to stand in the storm and dance in the strange, unseasonable weather. I'm holding on to the memory of Holly, the lonely, awkward Brit, opening up her arms to the hail and twirling around in the middle of the street. She seemed so happy.


Later, when I was recounting this story to others who were also in Tokyo that night, no one else knew there was a hail storm that lasted 10 minutes around 10PM. No one saw else saw the hail. The storm was just for us to remember that it doesn't take much to see that the problems of [seven] little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I am trying really hard to incorporate a line from Casablanca, and that's the best I could do. It was also enough for us to think we should kickstart a revamp of Casablanca that takes place in a gay bar in Tokyo. Let me know if you want to contribute!


And don't forget - tequila in your beer is a solid choice.

#Travel #Tokyo #Japan #GayBar #QueerMarthaAdvice

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