In any town bigger than a hamlet, you are sure to find a patch of gaudy hotels styled after rococo palaces, Grecian temples, even rocket ships. Some sport a miniature Statue of Liberty on the roof, others lurid neon signs.
These are, of course, Ja pan’s ubiquitous love hotels, where couples engage in passions of the flesh.
Some Westerners may find such enterprises morally offensive, but in the past few decades they have become a natural part of the urban landscape, growing into a market difficult to ignore.
Following are questions and answers about love hotels:
What exactly is a love hotel?
It is an establishment specifically offering rooms for couples to have sex. It usually offers two charges: a “rest” rate charged by the hour, often starting at around ¥3,000, and an overnight “stay” rate, typically available between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., that can run from ¥6,000 to ¥30,000 — the price of a regular hotel.
Many love hotels keep interaction between staff and guests to a minimum, and in many cases, rooms are selected by pressing a button in the lobby on a machine that provides a picture of how the room is appointed and its rate. Payment can also be made by machine, thus making discretion the order of the day.
Rural love hotels even feature drive-up entries so customers can avoid the lobby altogether.
Love hotels are also called leisure hotels, boutique hotels, amusement hotels and fashion hotels, to water down their carnal image.
How many are there and how big is the industry?
Experts say there are about 20,000 to 25,000 love hotels, but because many are in the same legal category as nonluxury business hotels, their number is difficult to pinpoint.
Sogo Unicom Co., which publishes the love-hotel trade publication Leisure Hotel, says annual sales total ¥2 trillion to ¥3 trillion.
A successful love hotel rakes in ¥800,000 a month per room, while the average is about ¥400,000 a month per room in urban areas. A survey of 187 owners of love hotels compiled by Sogo Unicom in April showed that on average, 2.4 couples use a room per day.
Is there more than one category of love hotel?
Legally, there are two types: out-and-out love hotels and those that fall under the heading of business hotels.
Under the Adult Entertainment Businesses Law, establishments are registered as love hotels if they offer accommodations, including short-stay “rests,” for one person or, in the case of couples, a man and a woman.
Such inns lack lobby space and restaurants and provide “facilities or equipment expressly intended for sexual arousal of fellow guests of the opposite sex.” The law does not address same-sex visitors.
The National Police Agency explains in its guidelines that the “facilities and equipment” may include “mirrors positioned above or beside beds” or “glass-walled bathing rooms, SM equipment or video cameras able to film reclining individuals.”
Concerned that love hotels were damaging the nation’s moral fiber, the government revised the Adult Entertainment Businesses law in 1985, forbidding hotels built after that time from having an explicitly sexual tone.
Ceiling mirrors and vibrating beds were phased out. But the love hotel itself wouldn’t go away so easily. Operators simply toned down the decor and registered new facilities as “business hotels” under the Hotel Business Law.
Although the newer hotels still primarily cater to couples and offer rest and stay rates, open-counter reception areas and restaurants on the premises keep them from running afoul of the law. By last year, the older, more garish variety had dropped to about 4,000 nationwide, according to Sogo Unicom.
When did love hotels emerge?
The term “love hotel” itself entered common usage in the early 1970s. But the concept of per-hour rooms started in the 1930s as a way to boost business, said Shoichi Inoue, a professor of architecture at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto.
At the time, unmarried couples bent on having sex often had to find a discreet place outdoors or in establishments more akin to brothels — often a combination of restaurant and hotel, according to Inoue, author of “Ai no Kukan” (“Space for Love”).
In fact, Inoue said, a field in front of the Imperial Palace was well-known as a place couples went to engage in sex around 1950.
“But in the late 1960s to 1970s, people became wealthier and started having sex in venues normally used by prostitutes,” Inoue said, noting the increased presence of streetlights made sex outdoors less of an option.
Are single stays OK?
It depends on the owner.
Yukari Suzuki writes in her book “The Power of Love Hotels” that many owners refuse to allow a man to check in alone due to suspicions he will call in a prostitute.
Many hotels reject male-only couples for fear that they may be voyeurs, or even robbers, posing as homosexuals, the book says. Operators claim the policy is not explicitly homophobic in its own right. But many proprietors can be heard expressing disdain toward gay couples.
Three, meanwhile, is considered a crowd. When Suzuki visited love hotels accompanied by two other people, she was either turned down or charged twice the regular rate, the book said.
It seems like a profitable business. Is it?
Yes. The profit margin of love hotels runs between 40 percent and 50 percent.
But the initial investment to construct a love hotel can run from ¥300 million to ¥500 million, plus large outlays every eight to 10 years for renovation to remain successful, said Hiroshi Kanae, editor in chief of Leisure Hotel.
“The key word is unique,” Kanae said, hinting that the otherworldliness of love hotels is aimed at providing couples with a sense of exoticism. “The hotels need to offer users a sense of amusement.”
Before the 1985 legal revision, many love hotels had revolving beds, mirrors in the ceiling and glass-walled bathrooms. In other words, a room decorated specifically for sexual arousal.
After the law was changed, however, love hotel interiors became plain and simple. “In the past 10 years, some started to have Japanese-style (tatami-mat) rooms apparently because young people don’t live in such rooms any more and they became a novelty,” Kanae said.
Many love hotels now even have TVs in the bathrooms, tanning machines, karaoke systems, hot stone baths and sex toy vending machines.