Though there are many ways to have a sexual rendezvous, there are few so varied, convenient, and strange as the love hotels of Japan. From a high school classroom to a Hello Kitty-themed dungeon to the inevitable, and cliched, sexy nurse, the options are endless and often creepy. A certain American employee in Japan captured this surreal underworld in Love Hotels: The Hidden Fantasy Rooms of Japan.
The said employee discovered the establishments while teaching English in Japan. She was captivated by the unusual way they facilitated sex, offering everything you need to make the most of your time—there are vending machines with vibrators, sex swings, and handcuffs affixed to the walls. It’s a strange blend of kitsch and fantasy, and their locations are numerous.
“I was just taken by sheer number of hotels,” said the employee. “At the time in 2004 and 2005 there were 30,000 love hotels in Japan. Compare that to 7,000 Starbucks in the state of Texas.”
Though the hotels are ubiquitous (nowadays there are some 37,000 in all) and constantly busy, she says people rarely discuss them and blush when they do. Because of this, hotels strive for discretion—private waiting rooms protect you from prying eyes should you arrive early, and automated systems ensure there are no nosy desk clerks to betray your confidences.
Many hotels she visited featured an illuminated display of the rooms within. Those that are darkened are currently in use, to avoid embarrassing interruptions. Once you’ve selected your room, lighted arrows guide you to the door, and the promises within. Inside, a timer tracks you for an easy way to pay. Because cash is the preferred form of payment, the rooms feature those pneumatic tubes you’d see at drive-up banks. “I did hear a couple horror stories about Westerners not being able to figure all the machines out and getting locked in their room,” she said.
Business is especially brisk between quitting time and 10 pm, when things slow down and the rates are cheaper. She tried repeatedly to rent a room but was denied because she was flying solo. Spending the night requires bringing someone to play with, but she was allowed to photograph the rooms at her leisure.
There are many reasons these places exist. She says Japanese homes often are quite small, so it’s hard to find spaces to be intimate. They also facilitate the exploration of fantasies, which is why different hotels, or different rooms within a hotel, offer various themes—subway cars, Greek palaces, and pirate ships to name a few. And, of course, there will always be people looking for a little something-something on the side.
At first glance, her photos seem quirky and lighthearted. But a closer look reveals some dark, even disturbing, themes. One room resembles a prison cell. Another includes a potty chair in what appears to be a tank or cylinder. Others appear to be children’s rooms. She is not Japanese, so she avoided passing judgement, but concedes that was a struggle. “I wanted to be very careful, but there are some darker elements,” she said.
Others are not so diplomatic. Natsuo Kirino, a Japanese novelist who wrote the essay that opens Love Hotels, worries the themes and toys in these hotels “focus solely on men’s desires” and are heavily influenced by sex clubs that exploit women. Years ago, she writes, love hotels were places where people sought loving intimacy. She fears they’ve become places where sex is impersonal, even demeaning.
“The more you know about today’s love hotels, the more you have to shake your head,” Kirino wrote. “Pretty soon the initial smile on your face freezes.”