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Nothing outside Tokyo's 24 Kaikan hotel hints at what goes on behind its grey concrete walls. Tucked in off a back-street near the Shinjuku business and shopping district, the seven-story building could be an apartment block for retired civil servants. A steady stream of customers in the salary-man's uniform of dark suit, sensible shoes and winter overcoat files quietly through its innocuous doors.
Only in the lobby, cheerily adorned with scenes from a sex movie that depict a portly company president being diligently serviced by a young apprentice, does it become clear that this is one of Asia's biggest gay landmarks. Wander around and watch the sights or lie back and wait for someone who fancies you, instructs one guide, which blissfully advises customers to expect "some mind-blowing tableaus".
Amid the satyric excess, bilingual signs posted throughout telegraph the only constantly visible rule: "Gentlemen who chew gum" will be evicted from the premises. It is, in many ways, very Japanese: discreet, compartmentalised; fastidiously careful about order and details.
Live and let live as long as the outward appearance of things is maintained. Roughly businesses, including the 24 Kaikan, are squeezed into Ni-chome's couple of blocks, from sex shops to watering holes that cater to a staggering array of tastes — known in Japan as kei speciality.
Bars for overweight men, transvestites, spankers, the hirsute, the young, men over 70, older men who want to be with younger men; with names such as Popeye, Tarzan, Duke, Brutus and Bambi. One establishment specialises in guys who look like pin-up idols; another reportedly caters to clientele from the countryside. But, roughly half a century since it emerged as a refuge for homosexuals in what was formerly a red-light district, the block is in decline.