To the untrained eye, the love hotels in Japan are often viewed as a manifestation of the country's seedy underbelly. A place where nefarious and unsavory characters congregate after dark for a night of lustful adultery and/or hedonism. But is this really the case?
In spite of their reputation, the love hotels of Tokyo—and beyond—are part of the fabric of Japanese nightlife society. Some couples use them just to get some peace and quiet from their children, to avoid the questioning of invasive parents, or to alleviate their concerns about snoopy neighbours. And many tourists give them a go because, "When in Rome" and all that.
Another common, yet little known use for love hotels, is as an alternative to more expensive business accommodation options. They often can be value priced for the amenities offered, if one doesn't mind their lascivious side.
I spoke with four people—two men and two women—from around the world who have dipped their toes, as it were, into the world of Japanese love hotels.
What did they find? Were they surprised? Are the conventional wisdoms to be believed? And most importantly, is this an experience that they would recommend to others?
1. "Gabriel" – Male (Ireland)
On a two-week visit to Japan, Gabriel and his girlfriend stayed a night in the Hotel Balian, a Bali-themed love hotel in the Kinshicho district of Tokyo. What were his first impressions?
"On arrival, very much Bali-themed; beachy aesthetic, Balinese music playing, indoor water features, it was very over the top. We entered through the front door but soon discovered there were three different entrances you could use (for discreet comings and goings I imagine). We checked in, then had to wait until the room was ready in the area beside reception."
Was the check-in procedure similar to that of a normal hotel I wondered? Not quite it seems.
"There were lots of free amenities (sweets, drinks, etc.), and a few pairs of couples sitting around waiting for a room too. It wasn’t a great atmosphere," he admitted with a laugh, "it was very quiet between everyone. And just beside reception there is more free stuff to take up to room." The "free stuff" ranges from trivial pleasures like bath salts to lubrication and several other more salacious bedroom props.
So with check in out of the way, let's get into the meat of the experience. What was Gabriel's hotel room like?
"We got into our room, still over the top with the Bali theme. We had our own jacuzzi, 4-poster bed, sitting area, a big 60-inch TV, and so on. It all seemed clean, but it was a smoking room so I remember it smelt of smoke. The TV was fully loaded with free porn on the main menu—any category you wanted; it was mad."
I had heard love hotels were quite a clandestine experience, so I asked Gabriel if there were any disturbances from hotel staff, or anyone else for that matter?
"Not long after we got to the room, the doorbell rang, it was a hotel worker with a bottle of free champagne or prosecco in an ice bucket with fresh flowers. Of course we took it off him. I suppose that was a nice surprise."
Gabriel then shared some thoughts on the experience overall, "It definitely felt seedy, the Kinshicho area in general felt that way to me. And at first, the hotel, without a doubt, wasn’t a very welcoming or comfortable environment. But I would recommend it to a westerner like us to have the experience, and they aren't that expensive either. It was cool to have a hotel so heavily themed too. Even if the theme wasn't Japanese."
2. Oz, Male (Canada)
Oz, a Canadian YouTuber who goes by OzzyAwesome, has been creating a series of documentaries around Japanese love hotels. Over the years he has been to "a variety of hotels in Tokyo, Chiba, Hokkaido, Nagoya, and Osaka," but his favorite of the lot is Hotel Sara, in Kinshicho, Tokyo (he made a video of his experience too – also on YouTube).
So what has led to Oz spending so much time in Japanese love hotels?
"I think the best part of love hotels, and why they are so popular, is the convenience and discretion," he shared. "Unlike regular hotels which have a bellman and front desk staff, love hotels aim to look as if they are deserted. There is usually no one in the lobby. There is a touch screen panel with pictures of the rooms and buttons that you press to decide how long you want to stay."
Convenience is a buzz term in the world of Japanese love hotels, but how exactly does said convenience manifest itself?
"The [most] convenient part is you can do short stays of two hours, three hours or even stay all night," Oz told me, "and once you choose your room, you either pay for the room through a little window where only hands can be seen, making it very discreet. Or with newer hotels, you pay directly in the room when you are ready to check out."
With so many love hotel experiences under his belt, I imagined Oz would have some interesting stories to share about the bedrooms. I wasn't wrong.
"Each room has a different theme or design. Some are themed with characters like Hello Kitty or Santa Claus, while others look fancy and elegant like the Playboy Mansion. Themed rooms like the inside of a train, a classroom or pirate ship are also available for those looking for specific fetishes. The room I stayed in [at Hotel Sara] was a Candyland type of kawaii room filled with pink things and colorful toys and decorations of pigs and cupcakes. Inside the room, there is, of course, a bed and a TV. But love hotels have extra perks like free dessert, a jacuzzi bath with lights, free movies on demand, rental cosplay and sometimes even karaoke or video game systems."
Themes in love hotels appear to be a common fixture, but what about the "unusual" stuff? Oz reported quite a cocktail of props and trinkets, and their collective usages may require a great deal of imagination. "Probably the weirdest thing I found in my room was a refrigerator that sold adult toys and goods instead of drinks. Also, my room allowed free rental of glow-in-the-dark rubber duckies and massage boots," he said.
So what (if anything) is Oz's take away from these experiences?
Referring to Hotel Sara specifically he said, "The room was clean, comfortable and very pink. I felt like I was in a Kyari Pamyu Pamyu music video or possibly one of those weird Japanese game shows. The bed was big, the jacuzzi was so relaxing and the free movies and food made me feel as if I was a celebrity. I really enjoyed the short stay. I'd definitely recommend it to couples who are looking to experience a fun and colorful night in Japan."
With such a wealth of experience in the love hotel department, Oz wanted to leave you with a final tip: "One thing to keep in mind with the newer hotels is once you enter, they lock you in until you are ready to check out. So you should make sure to bring everything you need (snacks, drinks, etc.) because there is no [going] in and out allowed."
3. Siih, Female (USA)
Siih, from the US, also has had her share of experiences with the love hotels of Tokyo and beyond.
"I've stayed in quite a few actually, from upscale to super grunge, mainly in the Roppongi/Azabu area. I believe most often I stayed at Iroha in Azabu," she told me.
Siih also echoed the conventional wisdom that check-in is a seamless and convenient experience. "It's so quick and easy. Usually you don't even have to talk to anyone, just pick your room from a selection, like how one orders ramen or curry at most shops."
So what kind of rooms has Siih come across?
"Usually the rooms are quite nice, spacious. There's a big bed, bathrobes, slippers, big TV that almost always has karaoke. The bathrooms are the best, the tubs are always huge with lights and jacuzzi settings and sometimes a TV in there too. You have all your necessary amenities: toothbrushes with toothpaste, hair brush, hair tie, cotton swabs, mouth wash, face wash. A lot of them will offer adult toys and cosplay upon request but I never partook of those. I've had some pretty good food there too. I even had champagne and wine a few times."
She then went on to recount her favorite love hotel experience of all. "My favorite one I ever stayed in was huge. It had two large beds, a huge comfy couch space, and a separate tatami and table space. It was up quite high with a great view of the city. And there was an enclosed patio with a hot tub outside. It was so relaxing, sitting in the hot water in the rain looking out at everything."
Usually love hotels throw up a surprise or two, so I asked Siih if she had encountered anything unexpected over the years. "I did stay in a pretty funny love hotel in Shizuoka, around Izu, called hotel Christmas. As you would imagine everything was Christmas [themed], even in July. The lobby had a huge Christmas tree. In the room you could order a ‘present,’ it was kinda like Russian roulette," she told me.
Like the others, Siih had mostly fond memories from her love hotel experiences. "Other than the super grunge hotel I stayed in once, I usually felt great. It sounds silly but you can feel pretty luxurious in some of them. I would go again just to relax honestly and soak in the big tub. Karaoke is also a relaxing pastime for me," she admitted.
In light of that, I asked Siih if she would recommend her experiences to other people. "Yes I often do. Why not?" she said with a chuckle. "It's a waste to use them just for 'hanky panky.' If you can get over the slight smoky smell most of them have, it's better than a regular hotel, and the price usually isn't too shabby either. Don't be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone with love hotels or anything else in life."
4. Nostalgia, Female (USA)
Nostalgia and her husband stayed at Hotel Luna in Tokyo's neighboring prefecture, Chiba. A now-closed love hotel, it had modelled itself on the style of ancient Japan and traditional ryokan inns.
"The whole [check-in] process was very anonymous and impersonal," she told me. "There was a digital machine that let you check in and out, paid by cash, and the door automatically locks after entry and doesn’t open again until you pay (to prevent people leaving without payment)."
Nostalgia did however admit that the "impersonal" nature of it didn't really detract from her experience. "If anything, it feels like a secret, cozy getaway without the disruption or embarrassment that you might feel from hotel staff at an average resort. There was an actual phone there to reach a human staff member if you ran into trouble, but we neither saw nor heard anyone else during the entire visit."
Thematically consistent with the rest of the love hotels we've encountered so far, there was a lot creativity and variety in the hotel's room stylings. However, Nostalgia ultimately—not necessarily by choice—opted for a room where the eccentricity was a little toned-down.
"Our room was an average-priced one, unfortunately, since the higher-end ones that we wanted to stay in were fully booked at the time of our visit. We had our eyes on either the jungle-themed or ocean-themed rooms," she shared with a laugh. "However, we found nothing otherwise lacking with our own room. It was clean, cozy, and the rock bath outdoors was lovely and relaxing."
While the room may not have been excessively over the top, the complimentary bedroom props told a slightly different story, "There were fun amenities, such as all-inclusive AV's on demand, an electric riding chair, a vibrator device, a bathmat and slippery soap, as well as the signature bath seats for getting those hard-to-reach places. There were also normal amenities, such as fridge, microwave, and personal care items," she said.
Nostalgia offers her last piece of advice with same candor with which she shared her love hotel experience. "The experience made me feel excited and hushed. I was able to enjoy time alone with my husband on our little getaway without stress or worry of noise. The anonymity of the experience was the only thing that both pleased and upset me. For those committing adultery, it would only be too easy, and the society surrounding this idea doesn’t sit too well with my own personal beliefs. Although the culture in Japan runs deep due to its history in these aspects, that’s a discussion for another time and place."
David is a Northern Irish freelance writer and English teacher living in Tokyo. He loves living in Japan, reading about Japan, writing about Japan and eating Japanese food. He also spends a lot of time exercising, playing rugby and risking a litany of muscle-related injuries in yoga class.