They have names like Dolphin, Sunrise, Once More, Paradise, Las Vegas, Jungle, Amigo, Blue, Liberty Bell and one of my favorites Madonna. These places are situated, sometimes unobtrusively, sometimes ostentatiously, off of highways and among cherry trees, between jinja (shrines) and rice fields. They are not usually spoken of among the older generation. The younger generation regards them with a mixture of curiosity and naiveté and as destinations for more adventurous nights. These are the rabu hoteru (love hotels or, as they are increasingly being called, boutique hotels) of contemporary Japan and they are as much a part of the country as sashimi, kimonos and sliding paper screens.
Quite simply, love hotels are hotels designed exclusively for sex. In the West, we may think we know what that means with our $20 per night no-tell motels scattered about. But we can’t hold a candle to Japan in this regard. Love hotels are fast, cheap and out of control. A “rest” in one of these places on the outskirts of town is usually anywhere from one to two hours, running from 2400 to 3000 yen ($23 to $30) before six p.m. or so. Both in and out of the city, prices go up after
around six p.m. and back down again at one or two in the morning. An all night “stay” in Tokyo
Despite the variance in price, all love hotels have one thing in common the huge ofuro, a bathtub that is wider, deeper, rounder and much more comfortable than the narrow Western one. Some have windows so you can see the other person ready themselves, others have a TV and phone built into the wall with waterproof speakers. The better hotels include men’s and women’s yukata (a Japanese-style cotton robe), microwave, fully-stocked fridge and a washing machine and mini-dryer for underwear. They often come equipped with a karaoke machine, a king or queen-size bed, two condoms laid daintily on the pillow (in lieu of chocolates) and intricate lighting from spotlights to dimmers to heat lamps. Each room usually has a multi-phonic sound system that rivals the finest home stereo. There is almost always a full array of towels, a hairdryer, toothbrush and other amenities needed for your “rest.”
I’d heard about love hotels from a Japanese exchange student while in college. My interest piqued, the hotels were one of the first places I wanted to visit when I began my five-year tenure there as an English teacher. (Never mind the temples or the two-thousand-year-old ruins.) After procuring the necessary girlfriend, I went to the “Liberty Bell.” As I drove up to the hotel, I visibly deflated. Although kind of tucked away under a main road and tough to get to, it looked normal. Where was the gaudy neon and Disney design that supposedly peppers every love hotel? I learned later that the Japanese government was cracking down on these Vegas-like monstrosities. The newer love hotels were more “respectable” looking and could, if you didn’t know better, possibly pass for business hotels.
As soon as I stepped out of the car, however, my feelings changed. Everything is conducted in the name of utmost secrecy. In each individual parking space there is a handy piece of wood used to cover up your license plate. There are separate entrances and exits, as well as two sets of elevators one for up, the other for down. This is done, of course, to avoid any awkward meetings with others who are there for the same reason as you. The elevator takes you directly to your floor and doesn’t stop for anyone else. You don’t even have to deal with hotel clerks; in the lobby, there is a back-lit board on the wall. If a room is available, it’ll be lit up. You hit the number, take a keycard and follow the signs to your room. When you’re through “resting,” you swipe the key through the vending machine in the vestibule to your room and the price is displayed. You pay with cash or a credit card, the door opens and you make your escape. (“Escape” being the operative word: you are locked in, which I’m sure breaks most existing fire codes. There’s a phone next to the vending machine that connects you to someone downstairs in cases of emergencies.)
There are an estimated thirty-five thousand love hotels scattered over Japan, but even that number seems to be a little low it’s a multibillion dollar industry. Japanese people are willing to pay the price for privacy, a commodity that’s more and more difficult to come by in their,
or any, society. Although more people are leaving to work in larger cities, there is still a very large percentage of twenty and thirtysomething Japanese men and women who stay home until they are married. This is due to both the Confucian emphasis on filial piety and the modern problem of the astronomical living costs in the major cities. Add these variables to the fact that urban abodes are quite small, and that equals a desperate need for wanting to knock boots without Mom and Dad listening on the other side of the wall.
Love hotels help preserve the need for wa, or social harmony. My friend Grant, a former in-country rogue, explains that wa is an important element of Confucianism: “It’s about maintaining a set of relationships in harmony: husband-wife, parent-child, sibling-sibling, ruler-subject. What maintains peace and harmony, at least on the surface, is considered ‘good’ and ‘right.’ Japan seems to realize the negative effect that unrelieved sexual tension can have on the collective good of the country. Japan lacks moral constraints of Judeo-Christian beliefs, so their love hotels are a discreet acknowledgement of, and an outlet for, people’s need to have sex.”
Ask a young Japanese person about love hotels and they will probably ask, “Why don’t you have anything like that in the States?” Why, indeed?