between a rock and a soft place - the culture of love hotels

It’s Sunday morning, 10:43am, and you don’t have any particular plan for the day.
So here is tj’s tip of the month:
Get yourself a folding chair, place yourself comfortably across from the entrance of one of Japan’s 30,000 love hotels, and just watch. Apart from a few surprises, your private program should include the following: an old man accompanied by a 15-year-old girl in school uniform rushing into the hotel to make use of the reasonable 2-hour ‘rest’ rate; a middle-aged couple from outside Tokyo parking their car in the parking lot, then running the five meters to the entrance, hiding their faces like criminals; a teenage couple entering the place as if it were a McDonald’s; and, as an encore, a newly-arrived foreign woman in her 40s with her luggage walks happily in, only to come out confused and ashamed three minutes later. So just by sitting around you have a perfect overview of Japanese culture right at its most interesting point.

In English-speaking countries, couples checking into a hotel for a clandestine purpose once gave false names at the front desk — Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example. In Japan, however, it is the hotels themselves that apparently use aliases. We can no longer call them ‘love hotels.’ Hotel owners nowadays prefer to avoid the decades-old accumulation of sleazy association that such a term evokes. Instead the smart businessman with his money invested in the pay-as-you-bang hospitality business would prefer us to use such gleaming new terms as ‘leisure hotel,’ ‘boutique hotel,’ ‘couples’ hotel,’ ‘fashion hotel,’ ‘theme hotel,’ etc.
But, to avoid any confusion in these articles, we will constantly resort to the old established term and hope no one gets offended.

This struggle with words wasn’t an issue back when the hotel for purposes other than just staying overnight was established in this country. The history of the love hotel has its roots in the late Edo era, when people talked about ‘otebiki-jaya’ or ‘deai-jaya,’ which was changed to ‘tsurekomi yado’ after WW2.

Those places — and this might give His Holiness Wojtyla some additional shivers — were mostly set up around temples and shrines, to offer pilgrims meditating on the transience of life some respite from their religious duties. Death and sex have, in this way, always walked hand-in-hand. Further study would also reveal the Japanese kami as a rather horny bunch of gods just like the Olympians of Greek legend. It was this point of view that produced such a natural attitude to sexuality in Japan (before westerners started importing some rather odd ideas), and which even today makes it so easy to interview a young lady (see below) about what she expects from a love hotel.

The ‘tsurekomi yado’ (or ‘tsurekomi ryokan’) was not a love hotel in its modern sense, but a place that just provided the space for professional ladies to earn a crust, a whorehouse if you want. The interior was sparse — tatami rooms with futons. The walls were thin, and the customers would only get their shoes back after handing the room fare to the owner. These houses were mostly run by families, which had some vacant rooms and saw this as a chance to make ends meet.

In 1958 such practical arrangements fell foul of a new law which prohibited prostitution, thus putting the squeeze on the owners. Some of the more adaptable came up with the idea of renting the vacant space to ordinary people — couples who were looking for the chance to spend a hot night away from prying parents, drying laundry, and frying soba. In a country where traditionally several generations of a family live together under one roof, and a host usually greets guests using formulas such as “please excuse our small and dirty hovel,” this became a runaway success, and soon the shrine visitor could — or had to — bring his own partner for the ‘after-prayer meeting.’ The surroundings of the sacred places quickly turned into private amusement zones. This explains also why you will hardly ever find a love hotel in the city standing all by itself, but instead all concentrated around one lively area, such as Kabukicho or Shibuya’s Maruyamacho. The first center of the booming love hotel culture, however, was Osaka, whose people enjoy the reputation of being especially open-minded. In contrast to the usual 2- or 3-hourly rates in the rest of Japan, Kansai area love hotels also provide a 1-hour bargain fares for day use . . .

Inspired by the motorization of Japan in the ‘60s, another prototype of the love hotel were the simple and functional motels that sprang up near highway interchanges. Then came the time when more and more people started to visit exotic, foreign countries, and soon a simple, cockroach-ridden tatami room in a ‘love hotel’ with a dasai (corny) Japanese name were not satisfying anymore. Especially the female half of Japan demanded to relive their honeymoon at such venues as the “Hotel Paris,” with its romantic, French interior, just like the cute little place near Versailles that left such an impression on their connubial memories. These were actually the avant-garde of western-style hotels in Japan, and such hotels as the “Hotel Chanel” even gave fashion labels some much-needed free advertisement.

How the love hotel developed during the ‘70s and ‘80s, with gimmicks such as rotating beds, transparent bath tubs, or mirrors on the ceiling, is easy to imagine, so let’s skip the ins-and-outs of the process and have a look at a typical modern love hotel room. While a clean place where one could get down to some serious lovemaking was enough to attract couples before, nowadays it has to have a little more. A giant, flat TV screen with DVD, an indoor laser show, and a selection of video games, is more likely to hit the mark. And as these demands escalate, so does the cut-throat contest, which lets only the best survive.

Running a love hotel is no longer a family affair and is anything but a small-scale business. To build a perfectly equipped hotel today costs the owner a crippling ¥500,000,000 (minimum). A 1985 law, which prohibits normal hotels from providing condoms, accorded different status to love hotels, making it harder to get bank loans. This, combined with contractual problems over the continued use of the same site, mean that most traditional city center love hotels have to fight to earn their monthly survival target of ¥500,000 (minimum) per room. In view of this there is now a trend towards fewer and bigger ‘amusement center’-style hotels built outside towns.

The main attractions here are the total atmosphere, the comfort, the space, and the latest technology installed to entertain not only inside the rooms. If you are one of those who have queued up for hours to purchase a model of PlayStation 2, just to be told it’s sold out, why not go to the next love hotel and try it out. An up-to-date place will surely have it in every room. The fun starts when you check in with the robot staff. These droids don’t take your shoes, and there’s no need to hide your face like 10 years ago. Instead, after inserting your member’s card, the computerized concierge greets you with a friendly “hi, long time no see, what’s new?” reminding you to ‘come’ more often. As you leave — senses on overload from the multi-media phenomenon you’ve just experienced — you might well ask yourself, with the same degree of metaphysical yearning as the early temple visitors, ‘What did I come here for? What is it all about?’

To find some answers to these and other questions, tj decided to track the beast to its lair by meeting a guide and user of love hotels and a designer. We hope that Takako Imafuku’s insights and Yuji Nishioka’s inspirations cast some light on a shady world where even hotels prefer to go by another name.

Takako Imafuku
Working for Elf K.K., a company specializing in production and editing of guidebooks and maps (Pia Map, etc.) since 1994, she has just published her first book “Tokyo ii Mise, ii LoveHo,” a guidebook recommending ‘date spots’ for couples. The guide includes basic information on restaurants, bars, coffee shops, love hotels, etc. with descriptions, categorization (“first date spot,” “advanced date spot,” “quiet place,” etc.) and maps to each place. The book is a good information source, and the personal anecdotes and comments written from a female point of view make it especially attractive for females looking for nice, romantic places. After a wide selection of wining and dining venues, the second half of the book introduces 46 love hotels (here referred to as “boutique hotels”) in the Tokyo area. Two pioneering women-only sex shops are also featured. Leaving judgement of the bars and restaurants to its readers, tj took on the more onerous task of selecting the best love hotels in town as featured on these pages.
“Tokyo ii Mise, ii LoveHo” is available in every fine book shop, for a reasonable ¥750.

tj: Are the facts in the book, especially those about the hotels, all based on your personal on-the-spot studies?
imafuku: No, not all of them. I’m not such an extensive love hotel goer. I got a lot of info through the internet, where I found some pages made by young love hotel fans and couples who organize tours together with other couples. But, of course I had my own experiences to throw in as well.

tj: How are love hotels and their clientele changing. What are the latest trends?
ti: The average age of people using love hotels is getting younger, bringing with it the trend for more entertainment. The latest fashion seems to be providing party rooms for a bigger number of people.

tj: How about the bedrooms in those party rooms?
ti: There are some with one big bedroom, but also others with two or three separate bedrooms. I haven’t experienced such a party, so I can only guess what kind of things they get up to in these kind of party rooms. Most of these parties are certainly not different from your normal house party. The hotel just provides a location more comfortable than your average living room.

tj: How do you think the love hotel business will change in the future. What do you think the next step will be?
ti: Many hotels now include restaurants, bars, or clubs in the basement. However, now we are also seeing the rise of ‘total amusement centers’ where you can spend hours just exploring the interior or watching robots. Personally I think separate trends will develop: on the one hand towards bigger and better, while on the other hand the trend will swing back to more basic hotels where you only go for one purpose. The style of hotels also depends on the area. In Shibuya, the average age of the kids on the street is around 15 so you find the theme park kind of hotels, while in other, quieter areas the hotels are simpler, to attract the over 40s.

tj: It seems that most hotels are mainly trying to attract females.
ti: Yes, I think the philosophy is to attract girls, because the guys will follow anyway. Besides this, I would feel strange if a guy took me to a place because it was ‘kirei’! Girls also seem to be easier to get to visit a place they like many times, and it’s these repeaters that count double.

tj: Where did the idea to make a book like this arise from?
ti: The company I’m working for mainly does maps, so we had the idea to make a guidebook based on maps. The company that published the book used to make a well-known ladies’ magazine, and they came up with the idea to focus on love hotels and dating spots for women. For foreigners a guidebook like this might look strange, but I think that the fact that most Japanese love guide books justifies this step.

tj: Did you start your love hotel expedition after that, or was it you who said “I have experience, let me do this”?
ti: It was in fact me who volunteered for the job, since besides me there are only men over 40 in my company. Most of the research started then, but I also got some information and inspiration from my adventures during the time when my boyfriend and I used to go out to Kabukicho almost every night. At that time it usually happened 3 or 4 times a week that we missed our last train, and the best and cheapest way to get a bed for the night was one of the hotels around. Other information
I got from various magazines that all deal with dating issues.

tj: Is there a difference between the so-called “love hotels,” “leisure hotels,” “boutique hotels,” city hotels,” or however you want to call them?
ti: When it came to giving the book a title, many places complained about the word we used. In general, there is a cheap, dirty feeling about the name “love hotel,” so most places don’t use it today, but prefer something like “leisure hotel” or “boutique hotel” (which already sounds a bit old.) But, in the end, they’re all the same, just different variations.

tj: What were the criteria you used to pick the places?
ti: There weren’t really strong criteria I stuck to, but most women seem to be concerned about standards like the size and atmosphere of the rooms, a clean bathroom, or provided amenity goods, so places that matched these were my first choice. After this there are points such as unique features and services, and, to tell the truth, the cooperation of the hotels themselves. In the book there are a variety of places, comfortable but not so interesting as well as lots of really good ones. Personally I prefer places that have that pinkish, forbidden smell, are not too modern, and don’t pretend to be anything else but a love hotel.

tj: Were the hotels mostly cooperative after you approached them and told them you wanted to include them in your guide?
ti: The places in the book were, of course, but there were others who wouldn’t even give me their phone number. There are many places that totally exclude the media, usually the yakuza kind of places. As a matter of fact, you find prostitution in these places, so there wouldn’t be any point putting them into the book anyway.

tj: As a Japanese yourself you probably don’t know, but have you ever heard of places that refuse to serve foreigners, for whatever reason?
ti: I haven’t encountered this of course, but I can imagine that there are certainly some older places that don’t want to deal with foreigners, because they fear problems of communication or trouble with foreigners who don’t know the rules of behavior in love hotels. Different from regular hotels, love hotels expect their guests to take off their shoes before entering the rooms. Some love hotel owners also complain of foreigners who didn’t understand the time system, and tried to pay in advance. But as far as I know, the hotels in my book have no problems with foreign guests, and I’ve never seen signs like “No foreigners!” or something. At most modern places the guests aren’t seen anyway, since check-in and check-out is done using cards and machines. In cases where there are people sitting at the front desk, they often can’t see the guests’ faces, but can only communicate through a little hole at the level to pass you the keys and receive payment. The latest trend, however, blurs the line between regular hotels and love hotels, and the front desk is not much different from a big city hotel.

tj: How is the love hotel business doing in
general recently?
ti: Generally speaking, the number of love hotels is decreasing. For every new, big place that is built, two old ones disappear. This is partly due to the limited contracts commonly used in this business, which don’t allow love hotels to be passed onto the next generation. On the other hand, huge, spectacular hotels on the outskirts of big cities seem to be increasing, since here you have the space, and ground prices are reasonable. Just like Disneyland or Fujikyu Highlands, people don’t mind traveling there by car. However, it’s a tough business, where you always have to be up-to-date with the latest trends, and have a complete renewal at least every 3 years.

To experience one of the country’s state-of-the-art love hotels requires a little journey, since it’s located in Takasaki, about 100km north of Tokyo. But The Rock, the latest and most impressive example of the recent boom in theme park-style hotels, is well worth the trip, since it offers enough attractions to keep one entertained for not only an overnight stay. The theme, as well as the name are — as film fans will be able to guess — inspired by the Sean Connery blockbuster, and even those not so interested in Hollywood movies will know what to expect.

When the guests finally figure out that the door only opens after hand-scanning and enter the beat-up-looking building with mud brown walls and rusty iron doors, they are served by a variety of mobile devices, including a mechanical “warden” who comes down from the second floor to lead you in.

The way from the front desk to the rooms is an adventure in itself, including dark and cold corridors with haunted-house-like effects at every second corner, and an elevator with a glass roof from which black-light paintings inside the elevator shaft are visible, to name but a few. But once the guests enter one of the 20 rooms the horror mood changes. At first sight the rooms look simple, and — according to owner Atsushi Matsui — in fact most of the guests are somewhat disappointed when they discover that the ‘prison cell’ has more comfort than expected. But in the end it’s exactly this point that gives perfect relaxation and makes most of them come back. Besides enjoying the tasteful, modern interior design, attractions inside the rooms include the latest technology and various entertainment devices. Fridge and microwave ovens, TV games, karaoke, 32-inch high-vision TV screens and big jacuzzi baths are the standard features, and above this there are rooms with a 42-inch plasma display screen, a black-light virtual bath, dry/steam sauna, as well as various sound and light features.

Rates at The Rock range from
¥4,600~ for a 2-hour rest to a reasonable
¥7,600~ for an overnight stay. Various discount fares and special offers are available after 3am and at daytime on weekends.

The Rock is located on
National Route 17, near JR Takasaki Station, Joetsu Line (local or Shinkansen)

1095-3 Kami-Sanomachi, Takasaki,
Gunma Prefecture 027-325-6969

The management of The Rock is handled by Total Well Co., Ltd.

With a hotel like this, owner Matsui (Total Well) and designer Yuji Nishioka fulfill the growing need for total entertainment spaces instead of simple love hotels which don’t feature much more than a bed and a bathroom. Both Matsui and Nishioka pooled their inspiration for the hotel, with specialist designer Nishioka’s experience making The Rock a solid success. They decided to call their creation a “couples’ hotel” or “amusement theme hotel,” and in fact there is actually no reason why single guests, groups of more than two people, males-only or females-only, or even young families shouldn’t come and enjoy a stay here. The only problem might be that The Rock maintains the old love hotel tradition of refusing to hold reservations, so it’s recommended to avoid the rush periods on evenings and weekends.

Yuji Nishioka, whose own company is based in Osaka, left his first traces as an interior designer in shops, restaurants, discotheques and clubs. It was this experience creating entertaining and thrilling interiors that soon earned him work to design love hotels. Nishioka has designed about 100 such hotels nationwide to date, and with The Rock in February 1999, he delivered his masterpiece. Located in an area with virtually no rivals, the hotel is well received by young and old — according to owner Matsui the oldest guest so far was in his ‘70s and came in a wheelchair — from Takasaki and the surrounding area, but people from Tokyo and other cities also frequent The Rock.

As a newly built hotel of the “leisure hotel” category, The Rock stands out from Nishioka’s bread-and-butter work of hotel renovation (see photos on the left). As a result of the fast progress of technology, combined with the fickleness of a clientele who quickly loose interest in familiar things, hotel owners are forced to update and change the images of their hotels once every two or three years to stay in the game. In this race it’s obviously a clever move to increase the number of day guests rather than just securing overnight stays. Compared with the average 2.2 bookings per day per room at an old-style city love hotel, a theme park such as The Rock registers up to 4 bookings, which means an average of up to 3 visits during day time, mostly for 4-6 hours.
But even with such a successful hotel, Matsui knows that the writing is on the wall for The Rock, and is already working on his next exciting concept. tj


1 P&A Plaza Hotel
Sun tanning and fitness equipment. Cave-like bathroom for 5-8 people in room 902. 2 hours ¥4,700-¥13,000, overnight ¥9,100-¥25,000.
In the Shibuya love hotel area, near Bunkamura.
2 Dixy Inn
American antique-style hotel, with US oldies to choose from the music box. Jacuzzi in all rooms, room 101 is good for parties. 3 hours ¥5,600-¥9,900, overnight ¥8,800-¥14,900.
Behind On Air West, near Shinsen Station.


1 P&A Plaza Hotel

3 Hotel Chez Moi
Fluorescent wall paintings appear when turning off the light, making you feel like you’re walking on the sea floor (room 201) or floating in space (room 203). Also “Body-sonic” installed in the beds for musical accompaniment and rhythmical help. 3 hours ¥4,200-5,200, overnight ¥6,800-¥10,000.
Behind Kabukicho, near Shin-Okubo. 3209-2414

2 Dixy Inn

4 Hotel J-Girl
Fascinating view of the illuminated Sunshine/ Amlux buildings from room 1003. Varying themes (log house, chalk walls, etc.) from room to room. All rooms have jacuzzi, karaoke, video, etc. 3 hours from ¥4,900, overnight from ¥8,000.
North-west of Ikebukuro Station, right next to the Yamanote tracks. 5951-6833
5 Hotel En
Quiet, hidden-away hotel, which gives birthday presents in the form of panty-stockings to female guests. 3 hours ¥4,500-6,200,
overnight ¥7,500-9,500.
Off Gekijo Dori, west of Ikebukuro Station.
6 Hotel Lala 33
Rooms designed using bricks, wood, and other natural material, giving you the illusion of being in a mountain lodge. Satellite TV and video with large screens, karaoke, body-sonic, etc. in all rooms.
3 hours ¥4,200-6,000, overnight ¥7,200-10,000.
North-west of Ikebukuro Station, right next to the Yamanote tracks. 3590-6933


3 Hotel Chez Moi

7 Hotel New Akasaka
Luxurious Japanese-style rooms, with large mirrors hidden behind the fusuma creating a Yoshiwara-like atmosphere. Recommended for tourists. 2 hours ¥7000-12,000, overnight ¥11,000-20,000.
South-west of Chiyoda Line Akasaka Station.

8 Hotel Charme Meguro
Log-house style, European style, Japanese style, and other themes varying from room to room. The disco-interior of room 401 is recommended for karaoke lovers. 2 hours ¥6,000-¥10,000, overnight ¥8,000-¥15,000.
North-west of JR Meguro Station, near the Yamanote tracks. 3491-4810


4 Hotel J-Girl

9 Hotel Sekishu
The relaxed atmosphere takes you to a remote onsen resort while being in the middle of Tokyo. Rock bath in all (Japanese style) rooms, with snack service for overnight guests. 3 hours ¥5,000-¥5,900, overnight ¥6,900-¥8,100.
In front of Uguisudani Station North Exit. 3874-8826

10 Cinema In Cast
Guess what is the theme of this one. With posters of film scenes and portraits on the walls, and a wide selection of videos. Two-floor room 802 offers a selection of over 300 movies to watch on a 100inch screen. 2 hours ¥5,000-¥7,000, overnight ¥9,000-¥26,000.
In front of Otsuka Station North Exit. 3940-9911

10 Cinema In Cast

Tokyo Journal

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