The Rise of Love Hotels: Pleasure-Seekers to Penny-Pinchers

They always have funny names: 1H20, Aurora, Ariel. Hotel Full Full. Strategically they stand by highways, in the crux of congested roads. They can even be found behind the busy lanes, by rice fields. These buildings have the flimsy and proplike face of an amusement park ride. They bulge from highway systems and suburban neighborhoods. 

In daylight, most love hotels are skeletal and awkward. At night, they are lit up and their luminous swooping letters loom over the landscape. At the same time, remoteness is reinforced at night: Here is the dim sleepy alley outside, and here, squashing the darkness, is a sign that announces hourly rates and a winding trail washed in white light. The trail leads to a parking lot tucked deep inside the complex so that customers only exit their cars in the guaranteed seclusion of the love hotel. But peeking over highway barriers during the day, love hotels look empty even from the outside. As the rest of the world wakes up and buzzes, they seem to go to sleep. Sunlight is fair and uniform, bathing everything in a same glare, and love hotels lean into their surroundings. 

Next to grass patches, little homes, plain concrete buildings and stretches of road, Japan’s love hotels stand fantastic and strange—whether it is night or day, whether they are too bright or eerily empty-looking. The odd facades are not just for the pleasure of looking. They distinguish love hotels, where the first concern is not sleep, from lodgings for businesspeople or families. The hotels’ hush in the morning is especially uncanny when you consider who is inside: no one, or maybe a few solemn couples pulling on their socks after a romantic rendezvous. However, more and more they see guests who leave with a friend or family rather than a lover. Some love hotels are discarding their sexual label and joining Japan’s “mainstream” lodging industry. Or perhaps the customers of “mainstream” lodging are considering different options. 

Rentable rooms date back centuries, but the name “love hotel” came from Hotel Love in Osaka, the first of its kind, which was built in 1968 and whose sign spun. Love hotels usually charge hourly rates, as opposed to the nightly rates of regular hotels. They also provide “rest” periods of generally two to three hours for guests that do not want to stay overnight. At enshuku, their earliest rendition, ordinary couples and prostitutes alike could pay one yen for a few hours of lodging. Many of these hotels closed down during World War II, but, as workers poured into urban areas after the war, stay-by-hour lodgings marketed to couples flourished. In Rabu hoteru shinka ron (“The Evolution of Love Hotels”), Kim Ikkyon (Kobe Gakuin University) attributes the love-hotel boom in the 1950s and 1960s to housing patterns. Not only did couples live with extended family, but houses were comprised of few multipurpose rooms; a single room could be used for entertaining, dining, and sleeping. Children and adults shared rooms. It was difficult for couples to have sex at home.

If love hotels responded to the residential circumstances of couples, then the evolution of their design reflects changes in general fashions and law. The Osaka World Expo of 1970, the first of its kind held in Asia (its theme: “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”), displayed art from such nations as the Soviet Union, Switzerland and the United States, perhaps sparking an interest in foreign artistic styles and certainly a longing for foreign travel. This prompted proprietors, who noticed the new fondness for foreign design, to transform Japanese-style inns into eye-catching, Western-style structures. Love hotels, once hidden, became an amusement, an escape from home for both the Japanese family and the national architecture. The love hotel Meguro Emperor, which opened in 1973 in Meguro, Tokyo, looks like a European castle with battlements. Flanking the Emperor are dwarfish houses with the tiled roofs of old, and drab grey and water-stained apartments. It popularized fancy facades (and interiors) for love hotels. Without the planning regulations of American and European cities, they did not say they were for sex through advertising but through outspoken architecture. One countryside hotel near me looked like a haunted house. It had shadows and rust spraypainted on the walls, and boulders lining the roof.

The haunted-house hotel underwent renovations, perhaps to look less frivolous—white faux-brick, an orange sign with serif font. They kept the boulders. But, overall, especially in the city centers, these designs are not as popular anymore. The population of 20 to 29-year-olds, love hotels’ desired clientele, has decreased. More people are living by themselves, due to a declining birthrate and greying population. And more urban dwellers are postponing—or shunning—marriage. Increasingly proprietors are opting for simple square plans rather than faux castles, and they find themselves accommodating fewer couples. 

Inbound tourism also accounts for changes in facade and foreignness. With the Tokyo Olympics coming up (eventually), not to mention the Osaka-Kansai World Expo in 2025, travel to Japan is expected to increase. The Japanese government wants to welcome 40 million foreign tourists in 2020, and 60 million by 2030. To meet greater demand, the hotel industry has grown considerably as of late, with mid-scale hotels dominating the market. Even as the government finances hotel building in large cities, tourists turn to alternative accommodations like Airbnb, hostels and, paying no heed to long-standing prejudices, love hotels. In fact, government subsidies are also going to renovations for love hotels.

Love hotels have transformed from exotic escapes to tourist homes. Catering to foreign guests seems an expansive strategy, a push to make the spaces more global in design and audience—and perhaps less like the brothel-like lodges of the previous century. Kim Ikkyon notes a shift “from hotels that were places where a guy ‘took along’ a female companion, to places where couples made the decision, together, to stop by a hotel.” In 1994, she says, local “information magazines,” as opposed to adult publications, began to run features on love hotels, the most keen of which, in turn, started offering more amenities aimed at women. Some offer “ladies plans” with meals and spa.

Regardless, a sense of exoticism remains. One love hotel in my hometown, whose name I will not disclose per their request, may sit at the crossroads of two eras—one in which love hotels were fantasized about, sexualized and concealed, and one in which they are seen as multipurpose, as lodgings for thrifty travelers or guests without intimate company. Despite their prominence to actual guests and in the national consciousness, love hotels were seen as shady, as places of prostitution in previous years. Now they are a date spot or simply a place to spend the night; the glamor, notoriety and shame have subsided.

I talked to a staff member over the phone, curious: How has a suburban love hotel changed recently? Are they, too, not as sexy as they used to be? I browsed the website of the local branch and found that guests can rent “women’s” shampoo. The site reads, “Various uses. For couples, and for girls’ gatherings.” Despite the appeal to friend groups, the staff told me that the majority of their guests are male-female couples, “like Delivery Health, of course.” Delivery Health refers to call girl services, when sex workers show up to your door. 

They said that once you check into a room, you can go out and eat and come back. There is a two-hour stay option, and on weekdays, you can stay from six in the morning to nine at night—this is called free time or service time. “Because of this, perhaps, more than half of our guests stay for rest rather than overnight,” they added.

Although most guests stay only briefly, the rooms are inviting, even exciting. One villa at my love hotel contains a slot machine, water cooler, microwave and a big bathtub. The walls of another bedroom on the premises look like the inside of a cave. By the bed stands a wooden crucifix with cuffs on the crossbar—a stage set with domestic trimmings, and S&M gear. The light fixtures cast warped shadows on the walls. The bed remains satiny and sumptuous with one of those purely decorative pieces of fabric across the comforter. Instead of a crucifix, yet another room boasts an X-shaped structure with cuffs and a mirror under it, flanked by a plasticky orange couch and a water cooler. Even the smallest places have great love-making mirrors, rectangular or arched, that expand the space. All guests enjoy pillows with gold trim. It is customary for love hotels to boast an enormous bed (especially for Japanese standards) and a TV. Stuff of sex notwithstanding, you probably get more space at such love hotels and, at 7,000 yen (about 65 dollars) for an overnight stay, for much less than at the Hilton.

There is also room service. Guests can order a hamburger steak in demi glace, in addition to massagers (on the site, they look like vibrators, though they are called massagers) and DVDs.

I asked, “In marketing your establishment, do you distinguish between yourself and regular hotels?” They responded that, with the irregular “rest” hours, and with overnight check in starting at 10 p.m., they are for all intents and purposes a love hotel. The staff made this clear. “During disasters, we take in ordinary guests, but our business is as a love hotel, not a regular one. We’re meant to serve couples.” They told me that typically a male customer will enter a room and a call girl goes in afterwards. If guests wish, staff can cover up their car’s license plate in the parking lot. The employee I talked to also said the staff try not to limit interactions with the customer. They began many of their sentences with a growling, thoughtful noise, but they were agreeable and placid, even though they knew I did not intend to stay. 

I called another hotel, in a more rural spot than the first, and they also affirmed that they function for couples. The staff said, “If people arrive as family we typically do not accept them. For example, if someone comes with kids, they disturb the other customers.” They also mentioned that the guests and the staff do not see each other at all. Customers’ cars cannot be seen from the outside of the hotel. Although scholars and reporters have noted that love hotels are changing, the phenomenon is mostly confined to the city, crawling with tourists and guests who come by foot. However, this does not mean that the immaterial status of love hotels remains the same.

Sheepishly, I asked the first staff if they told others about where their work. Their reply, and general frankness, comforted and surprised me. “I tell people without hesitation that I work at a love hotel. The old-fashioned notion is negative, but our customers’ goals are different than those at a business hotel or an ordinary hotel,” they explained. “Some people worry about their working place so they just say they work at a hotel, since the job is essentially the same. For example, when you enroll your child into a daycare center or kindergarten, you have to disclose what your occupation is. Staff who resist the shame just say they work at a love hotel.”

The line between love hotels and regular hotels is ever blurry. Yes, apparently appearances are changing to appeal to wider audiences, as some love hotels resemble their nonsexual peers in appearance and offerings; but I saw that attitudes about love hotels and even sex work or sex-adjacent are also changing, further uniting the two. Just as the facade of fun and sex is stripped at some locations, the sexual label is still pretty absolute at others; but with the latter approach comes an understanding that accommodating couples is not a shameful trade. Both movements are notably modern: It seems developers, guests and/or workers in the industry are not as shy anymore.

Anticipating more foreign tourists, straying away from a purely sexy image, some love hotels will probably expand services and target demographics in the future. Kim anticipates diversification of functions for foreign guests, even relaxation spaces for elderly customers.

Not only could the country see further fusion of the hotel and sex industries, but also less secrecy about love hotels and even the larger sex industry. I thought about the chambers with stone walls, sex crosses and slot machines, then the casual air of the worker, laughing a little at the discrepancy. I did not expect the staff to be so normal and open. But I realized there should be no discrepancy. For many guests, especially those wanting big beds for a relatively small buck, there already is none.

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