The Evolution of the Japanese Love Hotel: The Good, the Bad, and the Naughty

Evolving from a seedy and shameful open secret to a socially acceptable part of Japanese society, the love hotel has transformed itself since inception. Shaking off its negative stigmas it now holds mass appeal in cities from Osaka to Tokyo, with the concept inspiring trendy copycats all over the world.  

Taking their iconic name from Osaka’s original "Love Hotel" (or "Hotel Love" depending on which way around you read the establishment’s revolving neon sign), modern love hotels originated in the late 1960s. Sure, the world had seen casual hourly room rentals before, where sex was the primary use, but these were generally associated with prostitution and lacked the pizzazz of the new Japanese boudoirs. Influenced and encouraged by societal pressures in Japan, the love hotel went on to establish itself as a new, dare we say it, more wholesome chapter for free love, swapping its original by-the-hour seediness for risqué couples’ playrooms.

Tokyo's Love Hotel Hill via Flickr

Tokyo's Love Hotel Hill via Flickr

Popularized in Japan, especially Osaka and Tokyo (but also big in South Korea and Thailand) love hotels were the answer to the problem of privacy in Japanese households. Homes were -- and generally still are -- small, walls were traditionally thin, and various generations occupied the same space, leading to a literal lack of room for intimacy. Love Hotels became an answer as a semi-acceptable place for couples -- for the most part -- to escape to.

Either rented by the hour -- known as the, ahem, "rest rate" -- or overnight should you be willing to check-in after 10 p.m., the hotels are so popular throughout Japan that a University of Michigan study by Mark D. West calculated that the Japanese make around half a billion trips to love hotels every year, which could equate to the fact that around half of all sex in Japan occurs in love hotels.

An Escape from the Home

The Meguro Emperor Love Hotel in Tokyo via Flickr

The Meguro Emperor Love Hotel in Tokyo via Flickr

Unlike the seedy, basic, “no-tell” hotels in the U.S., like New York’s questionable Liberty Inn Hotel (tagline, “Your rendezvous for romance”), the appeal of the Japanese love hotels became one of indulging fantasy and fetish. Both then and now, rooms feature anything from anime characters to dungeon themes, appealing to a broad range of tastes. Initially housed in garish, themed buildings (couple of hours in a sex castle, anyone?), as their popularity rapidly grew, they evolved to reflect their standing in society, and began opting for simple, understated exteriors, with subtle off-street entrances and other gestures towards privacy. 

Speaking to the Telegraph newspaper, Phil Cox, director of the documentary "Love Hotel" says, “All types of people visit... There are 37,000 love hotels across Japan and the numbers of people going each day are quite staggering -- around 2.5 million a day!” Given that such a high proportion of the population visits love hotels, it’s unsurprising that the numbers represent a cross section of Japanese society. They are visited by young and old, rich and poor, married couples and naturally, those pairs for whom the private entrances, frosted glass windows, and anonymous check-ins matter more than most. Aside from accommodating couples, love hotels also attract singles, with Kim Ikkyon pointing out to the Nippon Times that these days, when not playing the dominant role in choosing the room for their respective couple, it’s especially women who appreciate the chance to spend a few hours, or a night alone, for a relatively cheap fee.    

The Tourist Experience

Anonymous love hotel room selection via Flickr

Anonymous love hotel room selection via Flickr

Where there are perceived weird, alien experiences to be had in foreign countries, there are travelers and tourists looking to explore them. The love hotel, with its cheap, quirky appeal, is too good to pass up for many. Talking to Oyster.com, Sian Smith, a production manager from London told us about her stay in a love hotel on a trip to Busan, South Korea with her female friend. “We chose to stay in a love hotel on Haeundae Beach ultimately because it was really cheap and the rooms looked clean and massive," she said. "Also, we liked the novelty. And there was karaoke, which sealed the deal.” Asked about the quirks of the experience she said, “Aside from the complimentary lube that came with the room, it didn’t really feel weird at all. Most of the other people we saw wandering about in the hotel were couples, mostly young, but no one looked twice at us. And the staff certainly didn't seem bothered that we weren’t a couple.”

A Change of Approach

In 1985, the Japanese government bowed to social pressure and sought to separately regulate love hotels from regular hotels. Believe it or not, legal definition cited “rotating beds, mirrored ceilings, and sex toys” as part of a love hotel’s defining qualities. The same University of Michigan study by Mark D. West argues that it was this regulation that led to the growth and in turn, evolution of love hotels to their current state of acceptability. In avoiding new penalties imposed on love hotels, the latest breed of "couples hotels" simply cleaned themselves up, removing the seedier accoutrements of the historic sex hotels and conforming -- at least on the outside -- to look like regular hotels. In the following decades, the new love hotels shook off their unwanted stigmas, achieving a new respectable status -- becoming incredibly profitable businesses in the process.

The Kraken's Lair at Hotel Pelirocco

The Kraken's Lair at Hotel Pelirocco

Throwing out the rotating beds, mirrored ceilings, and sex toys, you can now expect to find an increased level of service on offer -- not that you ever actually see the staff. Hot tubs, huge TVs, imaginative decor, high-tech karaoke systems, and even viewable CCTV feeds from the other rooms can all be part of the experience, as hotels strive to provide the most comprehensive offerings to stand out from the competition. And yes, you can still find the basic sex toys and movies on the down-low.

The Love Hotel Influence

While the Japanese love hotel phenomenon hasn’t thrived to the same extent in other parts of the world, it has been an influencer. Brighton's Pelirocco Hotel, with its themed rock ‘n’ roll rooms -- and Kraken’s Lair complete with an eight-foot bed, pole dancing area, and mirrored ceiling -- has more than a passing resemblance to the type of love hotel you’ll find down a Shibuya side street. And at hip hotel chain, Mama Shelter, in a nod to the more erotic side of hotel stays, the ‘Sexy Mama’ package will add a “caressing feather duster, a vibrating ring, two massage oil cartons, a lubricant, two erotic dices, and three condoms” to your room.

Erotic Room Furniture at Hotel Amour

Erotic Room Furniture at Hotel Amour

Even the hipsters have got in on the trend with Parisian graffiti artist Andre Emmanuel turning a former by-the-hour establishment in Paris’s red light district of Pigalle into a stylishly seedy homage to the love hotel. The fashion favorite Hotel Amour may no longer be a by-the-hour sort of place but its theme reflects a fact that everyone knows and accepts -- that sex and hotels go hand in hand, wherever they are.

The Day Use Trend

The terrace room at Hotel Indigo, London

The terrace room at Hotel Indigo, London

Aside from steamy afternoon encounters in erotic, sex-inspired rooms, the hotel industry has seen a new by-the-hour trend develop that isn’t necessarily about sex at all. The "day use" trend, on offer at London’s stylish Indigo Hotel and New York's boutique Sohotel, is about the "hot desking," remote culture that connects us, keeps us on the move, and perpetuates the idea that renting a room for a couple of hours in London or New York -- for something other than sex -- isn’t out of the ordinary. Speaking to Oyster.com about her views on the rise of "day use" hotels, Pavia Rosati, founder of travel site Fathomaway.com, explained, “We’re living in a time when hotels around the world are trying to become homes-away-from-home. Lobbies have given way to “living rooms”; the check-in desk has been reduced to a keyless app. So it makes sense that hotels want to let customers use hotels as they would use their homes, and that includes short-term stays. For a layover, for a respite, and, yes, for an afternoon quickie.”

Visitors to Japan are always going to be interested in indulging their curiosity when it comes to love hotels, but beyond the kinks and quirks viewed through the eyes of tourists, they clearly play an important role in the society in which they exist. However, while their popularity remains, it’s worth stating that their numbers have decreased. Declining in line with a drop in the population of Japanese in their twenties -- 18 million in 2010 down to 13 million in 2013 -- love hotels have lost a noticeable slice of an important demographic for their business, writes Robin Harding in the Financial Times. For other countries, the day use trend is at the start of its trajectory. In this writer’s opinion, it seems to fit the pace of life perfectly and given time, the idea of holing up in a hotel for a few hours for work, rest, or play (or all three?) might become a more common choice.

Would you engage with the day use trend? Have you stayed in a love hotel? Let us know in the comments!      

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