Although a worldwide phenomenon, the ‘Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ trade being part of the American motel market for decades with rooms often rented out by the hour, Japanese love hotels are a unique experience. The name ‘love hotel’ comes from an establishment in Osaka called Hotel Love which opened in 1968 and had a large rotating sign.
Firstly, love hotels are not brothels, and they are not seedy establishments either. In fact, many are extra high-tech, using touch screens and sometimes even a system of pneumatic tubes to deliver items to rooms, so the guests need never interact with the staff.
The popularity of love hotels has grown out of many of the unique cultural aspects of Japan. One is young adults often remain at home with their parents, even long after graduating college.
The other is the structure of housing, with paper-thin walls separating your room from that of your family or even the other apartments in the building, so privacy is at a premium. If a couple wants some truly alone time, they can retreat to a love hotel.
Many family living spaces don’t even include separate bedrooms, with the family sleeping on futons on the floor at night which are cleared away during the day to make room for other activities. The whole family can sleep together in this arrangement.
Many couples that visit love hotels are married and are looking for some space away from their children and cramped living arrangements.
Love hotels are designed for maximum privacy. Many don’t have windows, especially in the lobby, and some have multiple entrances for discretion. The room is selected from a panel, and payment is settled through an online transaction or with a staff member behind some sort of screen or even frosted glass.
This is usually the only interaction the couple will have with any of the hotel staff.
Rates vary; most offer an overnight stay rate or a ‘rest’ rate, access to a room for a few hours. Some are extremely simple and cheap, while others are garish or even themed with facades like medieval castles or emblazoned with heart motifs.
Many offer a range of rooms, which can simply vary in size and amenities or include heavily themed suits. Examples of these include fantasy, dungeons, or even outer space.
The history of love hotels in Japan is surprising long. There is evidence of teahouses and inns in the Edo period (the 17th century) with discreet entry systems, some even with secret tunnels. Love hotels became much more widely used in the 1960s, mainly due to more people owning a car in Japan.
Since the Businesses Affecting Public Morals Regulation Law was passed, love hotels tend to rebrand themselves, using other names such as ‘boutique hotel’ or ‘couples hotel’.
Other countries have similar establishments to love hotels. Some even have Japanese-inspired decor and styling.
Love hotels provide unique fodder for anime, with awkward encounters in the lobby and students being spotted leaving an establishment while wearing school uniforms. They also provide flashy background shots, often styled with neon signs and depicted in backstreets.
But this is often far from the reality of a private place for couples wishing to escape from their cramped living situations. They are also often used by travelers as they are cheap accommodation that doesn’t need pre-booking.
They are such a big part of Japan; there’s even a love hotel emoji!