Ladies Night Out

Ladies Night Out

An evening in Tokyo’s underbelly reveals the bare essentials for a girl about town


Originally published on on June 2008

It’s Friday night, the lights of Roppongi are flashing, and at each street corner dubious-looking men are touting for business: the sex business. As a woman, I would normally put my head down and scurry past, but when I discover that many of my female friends have been to strip bars and S&M clubs here in Tokyo, my journalistic interest is aroused. These are highly educated, perfectly respectable women, on whom I have never seen a hint of leather bondage or a piercing out of place. But, are women really welcome—or even safe—in this environment, or is Tokyo’s underworld catering to men only?

My first stop is one that’s definitely for the girls: a male strip show at the enticingly named Key Icon, in a seemingly deserted location under a flyover near the Rainbow Bridge. Key Icon’s website promises me “the man of my dreams—a Latin lover, a Greek God, Handsome Hungarian or All-American.” In reality, the show consists of four Hungarians—not all of them handsome, with or without clothes. The audience is almost entirely female, tittering with giggles as the boys do their best to strut their stuff, gyrate on a small stage, and shed clothes faster than Pamela Andersen to upbeat tracks of ’80s pop and Justin Timberlake’s Sexyback. Although the boys are barely out of puberty, the performance is actually well choreographed, and the dancers deserve 8 out of 10 for effort—2 withheld for denying me the promised Greek God.

Did I mention the audience participation? A few of the women are led up onto the stage for an “innuendo dance” and the opportunity to touch some well-trained pecs—somewhat cringe-worthy once the boys have worked up a sweat. Invariably, the “birthday girl” or “hen,” who are the mainstay of this establishment, are in the firing line, so hide under the seat if that’s you.

The format is not quite Full Monty, with the boys’ modesty preserved by their grasp of the last remaining piece of clothing. I leave the show wondering if their moms back home in Hungary worry about them cleaning their socks or washing behind the ears. Still, Key Icon claims to be the only show of its kind in Tokyo—and Lord knows there’s not much for girls in this town.

To get in the right frame of mind for what’s to follow, I pay a call to the local S&M shop, C’est Bien just off Roppongi Dori. With its telltale high-heeled-shoe sign outside, it’s hard to miss. Unsure of what an S&M shop typically stocks, I assume the selection is pretty comprehensive, albeit on a small scale to fit its miniscule third-floor location. Whips, bondage gear (for both people and their intimate bits), outlandish outfits—gas mask or gimp outfit, anyone?—and a large array of magazines, videos and DVDs line the shelves. KY Jelly is sold on the approach to the till in the same way supermarkets offer gum or batteries. My only purchase—I feel obligated to buy something under the somewhat curious and confused gaze of the male shop assistant—is a pair of relatively safe leather cuffs with a red flower motif for ¥7,000. I pay and quickly take my leave.

Just off Gaien Higashi Dori in Roppongi’s center strip is a small side street leading to one of Tokyo’s best-known and upscale strip bars—or gentlemen’s clubs, as they prefer. They might be right about the terminology: the girls really don’t have many layers of clothing to strip, although they stubbornly refuse to remove their sky-high platform shoes. The décor is sumptuous, with red velvet and tiered seating in front of two circular stage areas, where a negligee-dressed stripper is performing. One of the dancers looks like a life-sized Barbie doll, though she speaks five languages. She tells me the girls are mainly from Eastern Europe, Russia and Israel, but with stage names more suited to a blue movie, it is hard to guess their origin.


Although I am the only female in the audience, this club (which has requested we not print their name) makes a point of welcoming women, and it is, apparently, common to see both couples seeking to spice up their love life, as well as females in small groups. With a bottle of Moët et Chandon at ¥30,000, the customer base is clearly affluent. There is an even split of Western and Japanese men, and at one point a 60-something Japanese man is sprawled across the stage with a dancer straddling and mock servicing him, all under the eagle eye of the bouncer, leaning in to ensure liberties are not being taken.

But the girls don’t give the impression of needing to be rescued, and in many cases they are earning more than the men watching. The top bracket of strippers can make US$10,000 per week—or, sometimes, in a single night. One of the girls tells me that with all the drinking and late nights, most have a system of a few months on, followed by a few weeks of rest at a spa.

Marital relations for the male clientele may turn somewhat frosty on the revelation and seldom reported fact that no holds are barred—literally. The no-touch policy of Western strip-joints applies only fleetingly on the main stage and is completely disregarded in the back rooms, where the private dances take place at a cost of ¥7,000 per song—the music is well mixed so that changes can slip by unnoticed. But it’s time to move on—I have seen ample bosom for one night.

Just south of the Nishi-Azabu crossing is Black Rose, a legendary S&M theme bar in its 12th year of operation. The small black-and-white sign seems innocuous enough (it’s just above a sign for a gardening shop), but as I enter I am met by acres of red velvet drapes.

A girl dressed in black leather shorts and a black leather halter top with metal studs leads me down a narrow corridor into the bar and show area. This place is so small you could barely swing a cat-o-nine tails. The bar is included in the show, with a hydraulic floor that narrowly avoids decapitating the bar staff/dancers.


Black Rose attracts men and women in equal measure—mainly couples—and the girls mingle with the guests, offering candle wax dripping (actually doesn’t hurt on the back of your hand) or the odd whipping upon request (gracefully declined). All in all, though, you could probably take even the most timid of guests here—if it’s good enough for Quentin Tarantino, who reportedly visits when in Tokyo, it’s good enough for me. The dancers are accomplished and could give High School Musical a run for its money.

When I get to Jail S&M and Fetish bar back in Roppongi, however, this diabolical dungeon makes the Black Rose look like Disneyland. To see the “torture chamber” bed in an alcove of white tiles, you first have to look past the metal cages and practically step over a Japanese man built like a sumo wrestler who has his legs tied and lifted in the air, and a dominatrix, dressed in black leather underwear and black netting, giving him an almighty thrashing. A glimpse of a sanitary pad in the man’s underwear suggests he is not entirely immune to pain, and turns the stomach. Next to him, a slight man is cowering under the blows from another leather-clad woman—a bit like Mad Max’s Aunty Entity, only worse. Red raw stripes are forming on his back, though the man’s whimpers are like a cat’s meow, half pain, half weird state of pleasure.

I need a get out of Jail card. This is hardcore, and I am not surprised to learn that the police have placed it under lockdown at the time of writing, and that it’s now only open as a bar without the “show.” A jolly member of staff assures me that Jail will soon be back to its normal antics.

I am sure my investigation barely “scratches the surface” of our city’s nighttime offerings—one friend has seen people stitching their bodies with needle and thread in one S&M club. Anyone wanting to go the whole hog can sign up for the Fetish Ball Japan in September at the Christon Café in Shibuya. Some strip clubs offer a lot more than dance opportunities in their back rooms, and it’s probably safe to say that some of the dancers in such venues probably don’t fare as well as those at Key Icon and other clubs I visited. But that’s another story.


So, can women go to these places? Sure we can—as with anything in Tokyo, there is a sense of safety and respect, which ensures women are not hit on or intimidated in the same way as in a comparable Western nightspot. But the question is: do we want to? Even though I suspect that girls would rather get some cocktails and dance the night away in a swanky bar than hang out in the twilight of Tokyo’s underbelly, it is sometimes helpful to beat men at their own game and challenge their turf. Certainly, places like the Black Rose really are harmless fun but, personally, I will be hauled up in the comfort of my sofa with a box set of Prison Break and a glass of wine next Friday.

Address Book

Key Icon

7F Studio Cube Bldg, 3-2-6 Kaigan, Minato-ku. Shows Mon-Sat 8pm and 9:30pm. Admission: ¥5,000 per person (includes the show and one drink). Tel: 03-5439-4474 (6pm-midnight). Nearest stn: Tamachi or Shibaura Futo (Yurikamome line).

C’Est Bien

3F, 4-8-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5413-6364 Open daily, hours vary. Nearest stn: Roppongi.

Black Rose

6F La Base Nishi-Azabu, 3-24-19 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3404-5556. No entrance fee. Open hours vary. Nearest stn: Hiroo.


2F, 4-8-12 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5772-5411. Open hours vary. Entrance: ¥10,000, including drinks. Nearest stn: Roppongi.

Also location at 4F, 3-9-5 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5414-1686. Open hours vary. Nearest stn: Roppongi.

2008 Fetish Ball Japan
Sep 20 at Christon Café. 2-10-7 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5728-2225. Nearest stn: Shibuya. For details in English, see,