Unseen Japan

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Why do love hotels exist in Japan? And how have they evolved to change with the times? Krystle Suzuki examines the 400-year history of this cultural phenomenon. Pictured: The Grand Executive Room of the Hotel Grassino and Urban Resort in Shinjuku, Tokyo. (Picture: Hotel Grassino)

The Evolution of Japan's Love Hotels

Posted on October 18, 2018 in romance, relationships, society, culture, businessKrystle Suzuki

If you’re no stranger to the unique land and culture that is Japan, you may be familiar with the unusual concept of the love hotel. But are these establishments really just a "weird" idea brought about to satisfy some sort of kink? Or is there a deeper history behind them?

What Exactly Are Love Hotels?

Far from your average vacation spot retreat, love hotels are in a category of their own. Despite having the word "hotel" in their name, unlike upscale fancy resorts or cheap motor inns that offer a convenient place to stay on vacation, these particular establishments are designed with only one goal in mind...sex.

Sure, one could opt for a cheaper business-style hotel to get away to with their partner. But what's the fun in that? For a more romantic experience, these flashily designed, often obnoxiously themed locations have you covered in more ways than one.

Made for the sole purpose of satisfying your secret steamy encounter, these shady lodgings are not something to be talked about in public. Yet there is said to be approximately 37,000 love hotels across Japan visited by an estimated 2.5 million people a day, and most citizens of Japan are believed to have visited at least once.

Entry is discreet, with screens hiding faces at check-in. Some locations forgo check-in counters altogether for a more anonymous automated process, allowing couples to select and pay for a room with the touch of an on-screen button. The rooms themselves are often installed with lavish luxuries, such as huge beds, Jacuzzis, unusually large bathrooms and tubs, adult toys and lingerie to purchase for use, and entertainment such as karaoke machines, cosplay costumes, and slot machines. Additionally, love hotels are cheap: rooms can be rented for the night for a two-hour period euphemistically referred to as a "rest" (休憩) for as low as ¥4000 (around USD $40).

The menu at the Rusticana Love Hotel
The menu at the Rusticana hotel in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, where you can watch movies, perform karaoke, and even order costumes. (Source: YouTube)

To the average Westerner, the idea of an establishment for sex might give off a vibe of promiscuity and kink. However, traditional love hotels have a rather interesting background that has become an important part of Japanese history and culture.

The History of Love Hotels

The concept of facilities for romantic encounters stems back to the 1600s, when samurai who had their honor to uphold needed to be secretive about their personal activities. In the red light districts of that time, it was very common to find geisha houses, where the men would go to be entertained by beautiful and sophisticated women.

While putting up a front as simple tea houses, many of these locations often offered their services with a “happy end,” and soon became breeding grounds for sexual encounters and prostitution rings. Eventually such places came to be known as 出会茶屋 (deai cha-ya), or “Lovers’ Teahouses.” They became the secret meeting spots for lovers, and would later evolve into love hotels as we know them.

Drawing of a Lover's Teahouse (出合茶屋)
A drawing of the ebb and flow outside of a lover's teahouse in 1907 in Tokyo, from the graphic magazine Fuuzoku Gahou (風俗画報).

These establishments thrived for a while, though many were destroyed or shut down during WWII. Because of the sudden lack of lodging, people began to take to the streets, and soon it was commonplace for lovers to carry out their romantic affairs in the outdoors, usually in the grassy areas surrounding Osaka Castle.

Several years after the war, Japan began to recover from the damages, and workers started teeming in, causing the demand for the construction of new commercial and lodging facilities to spike. Though these facilities were built initially with the laborers in mind, it wasn’t long before couples caught on and began to use the facilities for their sexual encounters as well. However, unlike the workers who would stay there for longer periods of time, lovers would only use the rooms for a couple hours max. Wanting to profit from this, hotel owners began to incorporate new rates at an hourly basis. This gave rise to a new type of merchant lodges and Western-style inns called 円祝 (enshuku), or “one-yen rooms”, that would rent out rooms to individuals and families for a rate of 1 yen per hour.

Soon enough, inn owners began to take note of the kinds of activities going on in their establishments, and decided to capitalize on this new trend. Inns geared towards couples started to pop up all throughout the entertainment districts. These places eventually became known as tsurekomi (連れ込み)inns, which literally translates to “take along” inns, as they became places that men would bring along a woman for the night.

The number of these inns further increased in the late 1950s. In 1958, when the Anti-Prostitution law was passed, this forced even more changes in the way the Japanese handled their romantic affairs. While many had turned a blind eye to prostitution in the past and allowed it to continue in certain areas in the red light district (such as in brothels), this law now illegalized the act of vaginal intercourse for money. (Everything shy of that, however, was fair game.) Because of this, even the brothels had to make certain reforms, and many involved in this shady business opted to hold their services at these new facilities instead. As the success of love hotels grew, some even saw this as an opportunity for profit, and turned their own residences into similar businesses. By 1970, the first love hotels as we know them today made their appearance.

(JP) Link: Why Are There Love Hotels In Japan?

日本にはなぜラブホテルがあるの?
ラブホテルは日本が生んだ文化——。そう語るのは、大学時代からラブホテルをテーマに選び社会学的なアプローチで研究してきた金益見さん。この特異な性愛空間の変遷について話してもらった。

The First Flashy Love Hotel

The term “love hotel” itself came about around the late 1960s when the old enshuku-style establishments became more upscale. Owners of these locations began to lavishly decorate buildings, both inside and out. One of the very first love hotels was the Meguro Emperor, an outlandishly themed hotel designed in the image of an old European castle like some sort of smutty Disneyland.

Meguro Emperor
The Meguro Emperor, a love hotel made to look like a European castle. Shuttered in 1986, the property re-opened its doors in 2007. (Source: Ameblo) .

The extravagant architecture was employed for a couple of reasons. One was to cater to the boom in foreign tourists by displaying a more Western image. The other important reason was for potential customers to be able to recognize a love hotel immediately, without it having to be openly advertised. Publicly discussing the operation of such establishments was taboo, and so the outer designs were made to serve as advertisements themselves. Because of the success of the Meguro Emperor, many similar establishments followed suit and began to copy their design.

The Rise and Fall of Extravagance

During the peak of this movement, it was commonplace to see even more bizarre and extravagant themes popping up. From space and jungle themes to exotic and unusual adult toys lining the rooms, love hotels were now more of an X-rated adult playground than a lodging at all.

Japanese YouTuber Raphael walks viewers through an S&M-themed love hotel.

By the 1980s, the bold, brash external features of these hotels began to tone down and the designs became more simplistic. This was mostly due to the establishment of the Entertainment Law, which now legally classified love hotels as “immovable sex-related establishments” and put them under the jurisdiction of the police. Because of this, many of the fancier locations shut down, and the newly established locations were built maintaining a level of discreetness, and avoiding all outrageous appearance.

While the exterior appearances may have been toned down, the amenities provided were improved and many locations started to include various forms of entertainment, such as karaoke machines, video games, cosplay services, and more. Yet amidst the changes the establishments faced, some locations just couldn’t keep up, and shut down completely. The Meguro Emperor, which started this whole movement, closed its doors in 1989.

Why Did These Changes Occur?

According to Kim Ikkyon, a professor who has studied love hotels academically and published the book ラブホテル進化論 (Love Hotel Evolution Theory), there were several reasons that lead to these changes. One of the first reasons she mentions was that the classic love hotel had changed "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.""

(JP) Link: Love Hotels Change With The Times

ラブホテルは時代を映す
かつては怪しい空間の代名詞だったラブホテル。やがてシンプルに洗練され、「ラブホ」の略称で情報誌に登場すると、若いカップルが気軽に利用できるほど「カジュアル」な場所に。ラブホテルの変遷を金益見さんが語る。

Because of this, owners wanted to make them more couple-friendly. And in the end, it was just cheaper on the hotel owners to adopt a more simplistic approach.

Love Hotels Today

Love hotels still exist in Japan, though you will be hard pressed to find one sporting a historical extravagant exterior. Internally, however, they remain more upscale as compared to average business hotels, still include the previously mentioned amenities and entertainment, and still boast outrageous themes and motifs, now seen through their décor rather than through external appearances.

Housing continues to be an issue in Japan in the sense that most residences are small, compact, have very thin walls, and are often shared by entire families. Naturally, this makes it difficult for singles to spend a romantic time with their lover at home, or for married couples with children to stay intimate. Because of this, love hotels still have their place, and are often used by young couples living in such conditions.

Love hotels are even increasing in popularity amongst foreign visitors who want to explore this unique aspect of "weird Japan", even if only as an experience. An amusing article on sirabee.com follows a European tourist as he takes his followers on a tour of some of the most outrageous love hotels, and offers his commentary and insights.

(JP) Link: "This is Insane!" Foreign Tourist Reacts to Japanese Love Hotels

「これはクレイジーだね」 日本のラブホテルへ入った外国人の反応
最先端の設備が整ったラブホテルに外国人が突撃する動画がYouTubeで話題になっている。日本ではあらゆる繁華街に存在する

It is apparent that their popularity is nowhere near where it was in its heyday. However, as the housing situation of Japan is unlikely to change anytime soon, and because sex is something that will never go completely out of style, it is likely that love hotels will continue to stay and evolve. Once emerging as a part of Japanese history, and adjusting with the flow of events over a period of time, love hotels have grown into an important part of the culture. As Kim Ikkyon states:

「文化とは、誰かが仕掛けたのではなく、人々の間に広くニーズがあって生まれるもの。やがてそれが花開き、少しずつ違う形へと進化していく。ラブホテルもまさにそうです。今あるラブホテルは、いろんな人の欲望やニーズが形になったものと言えます。だから面白い」

"Culture is not something that someone creates, but it is born from the wide range of needs amongst the people. It blossoms, and eventually evolves into a new form. The love hotel is exactly the same. Love hotels change in accordance with the current needs and desires of the people. That’s what makes them interesting."

Krys is a US based artist, writer, and translator who has spent most of her life immersed in Japanese culture. She now uses her knowledge and experiences to write engaging and informative articles for those who want to learn more about this unique beloved country.