How to Stay at a Love Hotel in Japan
How To: Want a memorable pay-by-the-hour experience? Lisa Gay explains the ins and outs of a stay at the famous Japanese love nests.
07.17.09 | 11:20 AM ET
The situation: It’s midnight in Osaka, Japan, and you’ve just left a karaoke box where a few diehards are still raging against the machine. Not you. You’ve found that special someone who actually responded to your brilliant version of Take On Me. But before you head off into the neon sunstrip, you’ll have to know how to stay at a Japanese love hotel.
The backstory: In a country famous for schoolgirl-inspired porn and “chikan” subway gropers, the existence of love hotels might seem as natural as prayers to the local shrine. The Japanese, however, defy expectations and are the least sexually active people in the world, according to a 2005 survey by Durex condoms. University of Chicago researchers also found that only a quarter of Japanese described themselves as “sexually satisfied”—placing them dead last in a global survey.
But despite being an undersexed nation, there’s a good reason for the rise of love hotels. Japan’s 127 million residents are all crammed into an island the size of California, and Japanese apartments tend to have thin walls, so it’s not unusual to hear a few “bumps” in the night from neighbors. Add to this a preference for living with the folks instead of paying outrageously high rents for a cold box with a toilet, and you’ve got the conditions for a love hotel culture. And as you are paying the equivalent of 35 bucks a pop for an hour in these rooms, it might as well be an affair to remember.
The possibilities: Whether you’re looking for love straight out of a Jane Austen novel or a glittering Studio 54-esque romp, Japan’s got a theme to fulfill your erotic dreams—and others that are the stuff of nightmares. While many love hotels retain a faux-European romanticism that was big in the 80s, the zany creativity of others is enough to put Motel 6 and Super 8 to shame. If recycled “Sense and Sensibility” props aren’t your thing, pop down to Osaka’s Hotel Loire for 3-for-1 theme room #306—a doctor’s office, a subway car for would-be gropers and a black-lit underwater aquarium are all here. If that room is taken, you can always console yourself in the alien abduction room.
For some holiday warmth, check in at Namba’s Hotel Chapel Christmas where bad boys and girls get off being naughty in front of Santa. For true kinks, there is Kamen Kanibaru (Masked Carnival) and its S/M rooms. An adored Osaka mainstay was the S/M Hello Kitty theme room—it did once exist, but sadly, recently closed down. Check out Misty Keasler‘s photographs and grieve if you are a fan of neon pink, Hello Kitty and bondage.
Where to go: Love hotels are not shy about their trade, and with fleets of large billboards screaming out names like “Happy Mickey Cookie,” they are easy to spot. These hotels are found in every Japanese city, but brash, gaudy Osaka is the undisputed king of love hotels. The best districts in Osaka are Namba (not so coincidentally a famous pick-up place) and Ikuteramachi. Tokyo’s love hotels are more sedate, but a good collection is found on the aptly named “Love Hotel Hill” in Shibuya, just beyond the “109” department store and at infamous gaijin “foreigner” hangout Roppongi.
How to do it: For non-Japanese speakers, the lack of a front desk makes love hotels an easy check-in. The system works like—what else?—a vending machine. Open rooms are ordered from a screen in the lobby; simply press the button on the screen of the room that appeals to you most. There are two prices, one for “rest” (休憩) that usually charges by the hour, and another for “stay” (宿泊). You pay using the change machine in your room; press 会計 to see the damage to your wallet. Some older love hotels retain anonymous staff up front—in this case, just fork over the amount of cash listed on the screen before heading to your room.
While technically love hotels are reserved for couples, a non-existent front desk makes this rule difficult to police. Whether traveling solo, with a partner or in a group, you should be able to get a room. Word of mouth spreads quickly about some of these hot spots, so you may have to wait for that outrageous theme room you’ve been dying to try.
Love hotels are designed to minimize contact with the staff—in deference to the adulterous motives of some clients. Most of the time you won’t see anyone else in the building. That said, you can always call the front desk with any problems and pray that an English speaker answers.
Word of caution: Japan is still a relatively closed society, so be aware that some love hotels refuse to take foreign visitors. Others will insist that you speak Japanese. This seems more of a problem in Tokyo than anywhere else, however.
Love hotels make their money from hourly visitors, so they won’t give you the option to stay overnight until at least 9 p.m. Make sure you have evening plans to fill the gap—like working on your best karaoke rendition of “Take on Me.”