There are many ways to relax and spend your spare time in Japan: Going to an onsen, playing pachinko or – one of the activities I enjoy the most – visiting a love hotel.
It was on a warm day in May 2009, during my first trip to Japan, when some other foreigners and I where passing a hotel that was close to the business hotel we where staying at. It looked rather unsuspicious; a gray, unspectacular building, with prices displayed on a small sign at the entrance. Then however, a friend that was in a relationship with a Japanese woman made me aware of the offered rates. Among others they had renting periods of three hours to take a “rest”. “Why would anybody book a hotel for only three hours?” I thought. It took some years until I realized what kind of hotel that actually was and even longer to understand why they are so popular in Japan.
Love hotels (ラブホテル, rabuhoteru, or in short ラブホ, rabuho) are hotels that offer private time for couples to engage in sexual activity. So whenever Japanese people need some time away from their kids or parents, want to have an anonymous one night stand or want to add some variation to their love life, they are likely to visit a love hotel. The market’s size, estimated to be about $40 billion in revenue per year for about 25,000 ラブホ (that’s $1.6 million per hotel per year), is huge and they are very popular.
Despite being used by all ages, love hotels are particularly popular among younger people. Because of the high real estate prices, many young Japanese people live with their parents, even though they are already in full-time employments. However it is not common to take one’s partner to the parent’s place before being engaged or married. That’s where love hotels step into the scene and open the doors for physical togetherness.
The trend of going to love hotels stems back to the Edo era, when tea rooms where secretly used by prostitutes to engage with their customers. In the 1980s, fashion hotels (ファッションホテル, fasshon hoteru), whose interior design was made to fit the taste of younger people, and boutique-hotels (ブティックホテル, butikku hoteru), hotels with themed rooms, where introduced and the use of love hotels became more common among the general population.
Since then the once bad image of love hotels has faded. Their overall quality has increased so much that some foreigners even stay in love hotels accidentally. They are culturally accepted and from what I understood from my girlfriend, there is an active exchange among young people regarding quality, price and overall experience.
When I went to a love hotel for the first time, I was impressed how easy, smooth and discreet the process of getting a room actually was. The parking lots had covers for the number plates in order to stay anonymous. The reception was some kind of computer that was a selection and videos of the free rooms in the different categories and their prices. We went to the room without seeing anybody. We also didn’t hear any noises, neither in the hallway nor in our room. Once we decided to leave we just payed at a machine inside of our room and left. All without seeing a single person.
Some love hotels, especially in the Tokyo area, have receptions with real humans behind the front desk. However it is not possible for them to see you and vice versa. Payment can be done anonymously using cash or by credit card. Parking lots are usually not visible from the streets, number plate covers are a standard service and some hotels even hide their guest’s cars completely.
Through the windows, if there are any, one can see nothing but some kind stone wall or cover and it is not possible to look into the rooms from the outside.
I was very pleased with the first love hotel I went to. Its interior was esthetically appealing, it had a “living” area with a sofa, a kingsize bed and a large bathroom with a TV and a big Jacuzzi.
Regarding the goodies it was equipped just the way one would expect from a normal hotel. In the living are where some non-alcoholic drinks and fresh glasses. The bathroom offered fresh and sealed body soaps, shampoos, lotions, razors and so on. Bathrobes, slippers and sets of towels were prepared.
In addition to that there was a set of three condoms of different companies at the side of the bed. In one of the wardrobes was a small vending machine with more drinks, more condoms, snacks, lube and some toys.
This is also the standard that can be expected other love hotels. There are also themed rooms or hotels, for example in Disney, jungle, underwater, Jurassic Park or even Hello Kitty style. Some rooms offer extra toys, SM equipment, rotating beds, cages, costumes and much more. The possibilities are endless (some of the more expensive hotels even offer rooms with a pool)!
How to identify a love hotel
Now that you know what to expect and are eager to experience your first love hotel, you’re of course asking yourself “But how can I find them?”. Worry not, here’s the answer:
First of all, wherever there is a larger population in Japan, you can expect love hotels to be around. They can be found close to many train stations and in Shibuya, Tokyo, there is even an area often referred to as love hotel hill.
Many love hotel‘s appearance is different from normal hotel’s. With kitschy or themed looks, like the famous Meguro Emperor‘s on the right, they are easily recognizable. Other versions prefer a much more inconspicuous design where it is much more difficult to tell what kind of hotel you are looking at, especially for foreigners not capable of reading Japanese.
However, there is a 100% safe way to identify a love hotel: By looking at the prices displayed at the outside of the hotel. When there is a rate for “rest” as well as for “stay” and maybe an extra category “service time”, you found what you were looking for.
How to book a love hotel
Most love hotels cannot be reserved upfront and need to be booked upon arrival.
When we checked in there was only a front desk computer, without any human interaction. Just like on the image at the top we could see the different available rooms and their rates on the screen. Once we had selected and booked a room, its door would open. We would enter and the door behind us would lock. Upon leaving we had to pay at a machine inside of our room, the door would open again and we left back to our car.
You, however, may be be in a different situation when checking in and not be in the company of a Japanese partner and therefore need to take care of that yourself. So how does it work?
What all love hotels have in common is some selection of room, either using a computer interface or by talking to a human being. In either case, since love hotels are not tailored towards tourists, Japanese is definitely a plus. If you do not speak any Japanese, just select the right type of room and your preferred rate and you will most likely be good to go. At some checkins, you will receive a key to your room, at some you will not (I never did so far).
There will be two or three different prices: Rest for a couple of hours, stay for a whole night and sometimes also service time, a special rate for the periods that are not very frequented, such as in the morning or early afternoon.
Payment is done either upfront, at machines inside of the room or cash via tube mail which is then sent to the front desk, which in turn unlocks your door (although I’ve never actually seen this). Most of the time credit card payment is possible, but I would recommend bringing some cash anyway since you probably wouldn’t like to be stuck in your room in case your credit card doesn’t work.
When using love hotels, it is a good idea to bring your own condoms. They are available in the room but size and quality may be different from what you are used to.
Some ラブホ offer point programs, so that you can get special offers and discounts for frequent use. Maybe, if you are determined to try every room your local hotel has to offer, or just found a location you felt particularly satisfied with, you want to consider joining one.
If you are not smoking you should make sure to get a non-smoking room, since the smell can be a real mood killer.
If you need to get some private time or just want to get the thrill, try something new or just spend a night in a comfortable, not too expensive hotel room, my recommendation is to give love hotels a go.
Personally, after some weeks of being with a Japanese family, I enjoyed the privacy and change of scene love hotels offered always a lot. Suddenly my girlfriend and me had a whole apartment just for ourselves, without contact to anybody else. It was a feeling of freedom.