Ireland's groundbreaking marriage equality vote will be five years old this May - but have you seen one major ad campaign to attract the sought after LGBT tourist market to our shores?

Isn't there more to our attractions than castles, golf, and The Quiet Man

It turns out that there is one country that's streets ahead of us in terms of outreach to this lucrative global market. The surprise is that it's on the other side of the planet.

On your first visit to Japan, you'll find it features a very Irish combination of tradition and modernity, a place where the past and the future seem to coexist so seamlessly it will often remind you of home.

And if there's one Japanese city the exemplifies that creative exchange between tradition and modernity it's Osaka, located in the Kansai region. 

The Danjiri Matsuri festival passes through the town of Kishiwada

The Danjiri Matsuri festival passes through the town of Kishiwada

Osaka has been a big tourist draw for decades, but it has never been complacent about the fact. It is constantly finding new ways to market almost every aspect of what makes it unique – food, culture, high-tech, tradition, temples - in a successful charm campaign that truly should inspire our own Irish tourism marketers and hosts. 

Osaka's new focus on LGBT travelers has very sound reasons guiding it. It has long been known that LGBT travelers tend to travel more and spend more. They are much more likely to own a passport than the average U.S. citizen and they are much more likely to have a college degree and a much higher income.  

Despite all these well-known facts most LGBT travelers still feel that they are still underserved and underrepresented in the majority of the global travel market (sadly, this is still true in the too-slow-to-catch-on Irish market).

The fantastic jet age Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka. (Getty Images)

The fantastic jet age Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka. (Getty Images)

Osaka is well ahead of the game, however. Since they know that tourism can create much-needed employment and opportunities, is it any wonder the proactive tourism organization Visit Osaka is chasing the rainbow with a dedicated website of their own creation like Visit Gay Osaka?

Known as the fun city of Japan, Osaka is Tokyo with its hair down, the people here are famous for being a friendly and tolerant lot. (I just visited Osaka in late 2019, believe me, this reputation is well deserved). 

Now the city's tourist board is promoting its own strengths through a special outreach to the global LGBT tourism market. Wherever they travel, LGBT people want to feel welcome. They want to feel safe and they want to feel seen. By creating a dedicated Visit Gay Osaka webpage, the tourist board has begun ticking all of these boxes. 

Osaka illuminated by night lights

Osaka illuminated by night lights

Not only does the dynamic website lay out the welcome mat, it also highlights places to visit, where to eat, things to see and do, places where you'll be welcome to stay and lively gay tours to take. It's the full package and it exists to make potential LGBT visitors pull the lever on a first or repeat trip.

As of 2020, Tourism Ireland has only four LGBT listings on its website, each of them date-stamped 2015. Again, this is hard to understand. LGBTQ residents of the US spent $63.1 billion on travel in 2018 and these figures are only set to grow since LGBTQ travel is one of the fastest-growing markets in the worldwide travel industry.

But don't think that the welcome to LGBT travelers that Osaka displays is just a cynical money grab. The people who live here are deeply proud of their city and its reputation for friendliness, as I discovered in my first five minutes in the place. 

Night view of Shinsekai, Osaka. (Getty Images)

Night view of Shinsekai, Osaka. (Getty Images)

Having alighted at the wrong subway exit I was looking around like a lost soul when a young Osakan man stepped out of the crowd and immediately offered to help me.

He spoke to the station attendant, translated all the information for me and found me the correct exit for my hotel, insisting on escorting me personally all the way to the street to make sure I was exactly where I needed to be. He took time out of his own day to do all this. I was beyond impressed, I was stunned.

Looking at him, I wondered for a moment if the tourist board had sent him. No one is this sound except the Irish, I remember thinking. His level of kindness and helpfulness was familiar and I  immediately felt closer to the Japanese people, this city and country than I ever expected to. They're exactly like us, they want to help.

Osaka, I later discovered, is like the Galway of Japan. People here know that you're probably going or coming from the bigger smoke of Tokyo, but they also know you're going to be charmed by what you find in this unparalleled city of laughter, friendliness, culture and toe-curlingly fantastic food.

Night view of Dotonburi, Osaka.

Night view of Dotonburi, Osaka.

But I want to carefully explain why I find Japan so oddly familiar and compelling. Like us, Japan went from a pre-modern to a post-modern nation without first going through modernism, meaning that it's a heady mix of the past and the future that Irish people will intuitively understand and appreciate. 

On my first visit to Osaka, I took the Out Asia Travel tour of the city, which I highly recommend to all first time and returning LGBT travelers. Hosted by company head Shintaro, he took me first to the aptly named Hug, which was so cosy I felt like I was visiting a friend's house.

The bartender was a fascinating mix of drag queen (so I was told) and muscle god (so I could see). He had a dry sense of humor and a capacity for caustic humor that the Irish call messing.

Whilst I was there I spoke to some locals about the changes they've seen to LGBT life in Japan, as well as all the progress that has been made. As we left after some strong Irish and Japanese whiskeys, the quiet patron who hadn't spoken at all all night presented me with an origami sea bird he had just crafted (it's sitting on my desk as I write this). That's the kind of thing that makes a good evening an unforgettable one.

Later Shintaro took me to the fun bar Grand Slam, where karaoke is king. If you're like me you have maybe thought about a karaoke night with your friends once or twice but never actually followed through. At Grand Slam, the mikes hit the bar before you can protest and non-participation simply isn't an option. 

The Grand Slam Bar in Osaka

The Grand Slam Bar in Osaka

It helped that the barman named Masa is not only another muscle god but also a gifted vocalist, so the bar was set high for my own efforts. If you think karaoke is just what tipsy people do when they've run out of options you have not been to an Osakan gay bar. This place is like The Voice on steroids.

Looking through the wide selection I eventually picked David Bowie's 'China Girl' because it suits my lower range. A few lines in I was delighted when the barman raised his eyebrows in surprise at how well I was doing. 

In fact, to tell you the truth, this turned out to be one of the great nights of my life in terms of company, carry on and companionship. Like the Irish, the Japanese set great store on hospitality and craic, and when they let their hair down Osakan's really hold nothing back. 

Frenz Frenzy Bar, popular with Lady Gaga, in Osaka.

Frenz Frenzy Bar, popular with Lady Gaga, in Osaka.

Here's a discovery I made. When you're having fun in Osaka, you'll want to be nowhere else on earth. Just ask Lady Gaga, who spent her own memorable karaoke night singing in the nearby Frenz Frenzy bar singing her heart out after her Osaka tour stop.

To take the temperature of the city itself, I took the well-named Deep Experience Tour, in this case, the Namba Eating and Drinking one. Guided by the delightful and deeply knowledgeable host Ashley, I was introduced to the night markets, restaurants, temples and back street haunts of real Osaka and directed away from the tourist traps.

With tours that focus on Culture, History, Nightlife, Nature, Entertainment, Amusement, Sports, Food and Drink and many other attractions, Deep Experience pairs you with a discerning English speaking guide who can tailor the tour to your particular interests even as its unfolding. 

I expected good food and an absorbing history lesson, I did not expect to have as much fun as I did on the night, however. In Japan, the farm to table process passes through far less hands so things that are inconceivable in the U.S. Like eating raw chicken is a reality in Japan. I could not overcome my incredulity to try it but Ashley convinced me to try dishes that took me outside my repertoire and we had a huge laugh doing it.

Deep Experience knows you want to take the real temperature of the city and it does a particularly fine job of helping you. I can't recommend them highly enough.

To get around and to save a ton on museum entry fees I recommend the Osaka Amazing Pass, which lets you into about 40 attractions and allows you unlimited access to the subways and buses for two days.

One card grants you access to a host of museums and tourist spots and is well worth the price if you're planning on hitting the main spots over two days.

This being Osaka and Japan, the locals would like visitors to understand they are in a city and nation with very long-lived and proud traditions that they would like to help you understand. To that end, the tourism bureau brought me to visit YOLO Hotel Museum, the astonishing state of the art budget accommodation for younger first-time visitors to the city.

A spotless, brand new room illustrated by a local artist at the YOLO Hotel Museum

A spotless, brand new room illustrated by a local artist at the YOLO Hotel Museum

Featuring spotless and brand new rooms and dormitories, each of which features their own interior design by local artists, the plan is to give guests a deeper understanding of the traditions, culture, and history of the country and city they are visiting – which is why the word museum is attached to the moniker.

English, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean are spoken here (alongside Japanese) and it's a short walk from local landmarks like the fantastic jet age Tsutenkaku Tower and Dotonbori. 

The well known Tokyu Hotel Group has two superior hotels in Osaka, the Tokyu Rei Hotel and the recently opened Osaka Excel Hotel Tokyu. Both offer comfortable rooms, all amenities including laundry, and ideal locations near to the main subway lines.

Osaka Excel Hotel Tokyu

Osaka Excel Hotel Tokyu

The message I took away from my recent trip is that Osaka is offering the world a masterclass in how to respect its own traditions whilst building bridges to the world. 

It is also offering an unqualified welcome to key demographics like the LGBT one that can be overlooked where they are not deliberately ignored in other nations.

By rolling out the welcome mat  Osaka tourism is stepping confidently into the new century and LGBT travelers will thank them with their feet. Ireland should take note. It's time our own famous cead mile failte met the LGBT market.

You can book an Osaka stay now by visiting HERE. Find out about LGBT Osaka by visiting HERE. Low-cost flights from La Guardia can be booked HERE. Happy travels.

Ist tile july 2019