Answerman What Is A "Love Hotel?"
by Justin Sevakis,
In romance manga and anime there is often a scene involving a 'love hotel'. Is it common in Japan to go to a love hotel with your lover, instead of going to a regular hotel? And is it considered like an ordinary place, or is it is viewed as awkward?
Love hotels are everywhere in Japan. These hotels are basically optimized for sex: they charge by the hour, room keys are dispensed via an electronic kiosk rather than a receptionist, and the rooms themselves vary from small and slightly fancy to ridiculous themed pleasure gardens. They have few or no windows, and any parking lots are behind a high fence to conceal the cars from view.
The love hotel is a favorite aspect of "crazy Japan" for foreigners, simply because they tend to be so over-the-top and silly. Some have ridiculous names like Banana & Donut, The Raging Tanuki's Enormous Ballsack (暴れ狸の鬼袋), Daytime Friend, Legend of the Innocent Beaver, and Santa's House. The buildings themselves are window-less fortresses, built up to look like castles, boats, spaceships, or even a mini-amusement park. (Not all of them are like this, of course, but these are the memorable ones.)
The inside of these establishments are often no less bizarre. Many have sex shops in the lobby. The are rooms are modeled to look like any number of unexpected things, like Japanese classrooms, a human-sized birdcage, the inside of a crane machine game, or even a fast food restaurant. I've seen rooms that look like you're trapped in a vortex of Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, with rainbows and unicorns floating in space painted on every surface. Some look like a jungle, others look like a Hello Kitty-obsessed child's bedroom. There's even one with a water slide.
While a lot of people would be embarrassed to be seen going into or coming out of a love hotel, they really aren't that big of a deal. Most Japanese homes are pretty small, and many people live with their families. You can imagine that any sort of intimacy would be pretty difficult in an environment like that. Unfortunately, because the whole point of a love hotel is to be away from prying eyes, they're also attractive for criminals to do bad and/or illegal things (sexual and otherwise). As a result love hotels are seen as somewhat seedy, and are often crime scenes in police TV dramas.
Love hotels for ordinary people (i.e. not prostitutes) began in the 1920s and 30s, when cheap hotels began offering rooms for rent for only a few hours rather than a whole night. Most were shut down during and after WWII, but in the boom years following the war, new hotels were built, and the practice started up again, particularly in neighborhoods with a lot of nightlife. In the late 60s and early 70s more Japanese started traveling overseas, and began to think that their own hotels were looking pretty dingy compared to those in other countries. In response, Japanese hotels started to renovate and step up the level of luxury they offered, and the ones specializing in hourly hook-ups were no exception.
But in the 70s the owner of a love hotel couldn't really advertise their sex dungeons openly. And so they started making the buildings more and more memorable looking from the outside, basically advertising themselves. And with all sorts of new gadgets and accessories coming out around this era, the owners tried to make the insides just as memorable, by providing customers with every crazy thing their heart could desire, from a vibrating bed to a fully working miniature merry-go-round. Some half-assed the decoration, while others clearly lost their minds.
Things calmed down a bit in the 80s, with advertising and discussion of love hotels becoming less taboo. Karaoke machines and video games were added to keep the rooms high-tech, but most love hotels didn't go so nuts anymore. The hotels started catering more to women (who were increasingly the ones choosing the place), and legal regulations made it harder for dedicated sex hotels to operate. In recent years the lines between a normal hotel and a love hotel have blurred even further. There are still plenty of crazy, wacky love hotels in Japan but they're not EVERYWHERE anymore.
With Japan's recent boom in tourism (and a lack of hotel rooms), some tourists have started using love hotels as regular hotels. With the right friends they can be absolutely hilarious, and you can bet that with no windows you'll probably get a good night's sleep, although who knows what you might hear through the walls. If you do attempt this, I really suggest bringing a black light.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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