Japanese Love Hotels
Simon Moran investigates ラブホテル
The words 'love' and 'hotel' combined in the English language conjure up romantic images of energetic weekends away, breakfast in bed, walks in the woods, dinner by candlelight with champagne - and whatever else springs to mind - by an open fire.
In Japan, however, the resultant image of the same combination of words - Love Hotel - is somewhat different.
The services offered by a 'love-hotel' result from necessity. With a population of around twice that of the UK in a similar land-size, 85% of which is mountainous, space is at a premium.
Also, until recently, most people lived with their families until marriage, often with three generations under one roof, separated by only paper screens. Without a private space for the most private of acts, the streets wouldn't be a decent place to walk.
The Japanese are nothing if not a practical people, and in a country where sex is accepted without much of the guilt associated with it in the West, to compete with the highly priced traditional inn, or ryokan, love-hotels began springing up in the 1950s offering an affordable love-nest for rent by the hour.
Originally aping the ryokan they aimed to replace, from the 1960s on love hotels appeared, catering - at least superficially - to modern, Western ideas of love and romance.
Many took an individual theme, whether a European-style hotel bedroom, a pleasure den with a rotating bed and ceiling mirror, or a movie such as the eternally popular Roman Holiday or Gone With the Wind, complete with duplicate bed and curtains.
As women gradually came to have more social and financial clout, hotels re-modelled themselves away from typically male themes such as outer space and cars. Porno channels on the TV were out and a 'come early, stay late' policy was in, complete with karaoke machines, jacuzzis and even swimming pools.
Some love-hotels boast sun-beds for those who like to top up their tan on the job, or adjoining 'swapping rooms' for those who prefer to bed hop. Some have CCTV feeds from all the rooms, offering a unique in-house video channel where you can watch others watching you doing what you're watching them do. A number of hotels provide 'party rooms' for groups and even S&M facilities for aficionados.
At others the fare is altogether more 'wholesome'. One hotel famously offered a free trip to Tokyo Disneyland to any couple who stayed in all of their 24 rooms within a six month period, and a free trip to Hong Kong if they did it twice.
To ensure their clients can fully relax, love-hotels are models of discretion. Customers never see the staff and anonymity is assured. Drivers enter underground car parks hidden from view and staff cover their number plates to foil any prying eyes.
An empty reception greets customers and a back-lit panel displays photographs of the available rooms. Pressing a button selects the chosen room, the light behind it goes out and lights on the floor act as a guide to the room. The open door closes behind you as you enter.
Inside, the room is fully automated. The TV, radio and lights can be controlled from the headboard of the bed and drinks, snacks and sex-toys can be ordered from room service, all of which can be paid for by credit card via an in-room cash machine.
Dotted along highways and huddled around nightspots, with neon signs flashing names like Cheaux Belle, Paradise and Casablanca, love-hotels are easily to spot and accessible to young couples with or without transport. A married couple wishing to add some spice to their love life, and a 'salaryman' (office worker), stumbling out of a bar with his favourite 'office-lady' (female office worker) after a night's team-building karaoke and drinking, have the perfect location for a furtive clinch. Such is the abundance of love-hotels that there is never the need for a 'Back to mine for a coffee, pet?' invite as, at the right moment, a love-hotel will come into view.
Patronage is by no means the exclusive domain of the young, married or inebriate, and many customers bring their own entertainment.
Yuki Nishikawa worked in a love hotel in Osaka for over a year and saw many a coming and going.
"People of all ages come. I once found a bag full of sex aids in reception, so I phoned up to the couple that had just checked in.
"I left the bag where it was and strained over the top of the dividing screen to see who would collect it. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a man in his eighties bounding eagerly out of the elevator."
A few well-publicized murders have taken place in love-hotels, they're frequently used as locations for porno film shoots, pay off locations for gangsters (the yakuza), and they play host to the ubiquitous sex industry.
The manager of Yuki's hotel paid 200,000 yen (c.USD1,800) a month to the local yakuza and every bedroom in the hotel had a flyer advertising 'chiropractic' services.
Most afternoons, single men would take a room and several minutes later, a woman in her forties, wearing doctor's whites, thick make-up, high heels and fish-net stockings would arrive, announcing she had a patient in the recently solo-occupied room.
She would leave an hour later with her coat over her arm, her make-up smudged and her hair slightly ruffled, paying the hotel a cut of the bone re-positioning fee.
Whatever activity you have planned, the amount you'll pay varies. Naturally, the more you pay the more you get, from the number of condoms beside the bed, to the quality of the shag on the floor.
Taking a room at 'rest' rates will cost 2,000-5,000 yen (c.USD18-45) for two hours, while an overnight stay rises to as much as 13,000 yen (c.USD115).
Though often cheaper than all but the cheapest business hotel, love-hotels do not operate as normal hotels, and once you have left, you have to pay again to get back in.
It is highly unlikely that groups of men wearing football shirts would find themselves let in, though at the end of a particularly dazzling, jinky solo-run, a love-hotel is the perfect place for your favourite celebration after you've scored.
Love hotels are a potential source of cheap accommodation during your stay in Japan. Most establishments will accept single guests of either sex though many draw the line at same sex couples. Ask at reception.