I'm excited to announce that Ramen Chemistry is going to Tokyo next month for a ramen and culture tour. Among other things, I will experience wonderful food, strange and magical toilets, and, best of all, a week-long holiday from having to understand literally anything that is spoken in my general vicinity. The blogging opportunity inherent in such a trip should be self-evident. To get ready, Ramen Chemistry will warm up with a few posts about things Japanese. Starting now with "love hotels."
Japan: Full of Surprises
To be sure, any American's first trip to Japan is something of a revelation. My first trip in 2003 was no exception. The most pedestrian places, supermarkets and convenient stores, were worlds of fascination. Strange sights, stranger sounds, an overabundance of cuteness. You get what I'm saying. But I'll tell you this: nothing--nothing--prepared me for the epic weirdness of that very curious and very ubiquitous Japanese phenomenon, the love hotel.
Allow me to set the stage. We were making our way from Tokyo to Kyoto, and had stopped in the Izu Peninsula to meet Hiroko's childhood friend. When we needed a hotel that night and didn't have a reservation, Hiroko thought a love hotel might be convenient and educational for her American boyfriend (who, by the way, had never previously left the United States). It was late enough to get a room. Love hotels, it turns out, won't rent you a room for the night until as late as 10 or 11 p.m. Before that, you can only rent the room for a couple-hour "rest." You don't make a reservation at a love hotel.
We found a place--Hotel 555--and pulled into an underground parking garage. There, we found a succession of parking stalls, a special one dedicated to each room in the hotel. Lots of the stalls were full when we arrived. But get this--covering the license plate of every parked car was a portable screen. And we paid for the room not by going to a check-in counter, but by inserting cash into a payment machine in our garage stall. The machine gave us access to the room; we never even got a key. This was new. This would be educational.
We entered our room through a door in the back of the stall, and found slippers waiting for us at the threshold. One does not wear shoes inside in Japan in domestic quarters--ever--even in a love hotel. The room was pretty unbelievable, at least to my naive American eyes. A garish pink cupid hung above the gigantic bed and a disco ball hung from the ceiling. And what amenities! Baskets of condoms, bottles of oils and lotions, a karaoke machine, video games and DVDs, blue and green underwater lights in a gigantic jacuzzi tub, a tv loaded with porno channels (with all the sensitive parts blurred out, per Japanese law), and, strangest of all, a small display refrigerator containing beer and Haagen Dazs for purchase. And dildos. Right there, next to the ice cream.
Multibillion Dollar Industry
Apparently there are 25,000 love hotels in Japan (another report says 37,000). It's a $40 billion industry. Love hotels are usually found around places like highway interchanges or city outskirts. They usually have funny non-Japanese names: Hotel Patio, Hotel L'Hermitage, Hotel Chapel Christmas, and my personal favorite, Hotel Seeds. The exteriors are often thematic (i.e., castle theme) but sometimes non-descript or windowless. But it doesn't take long to be able to identify a love hotel anywhere you go in Japan. The combination of name, signage, and location will almost always give it away.
Inside the love hotel, there's often a menu of room choices. The rooms might be distinguished by theme (a new take on Hello Kitty, for example), by decor, or by the presence of a special piece of sex furniture (what does that even mean, right?). There are pictures of the rooms, descriptions, and you pick the one you want. Here's a link to the room selections at one Hotel Seeds (yes, it's a chain).
But don't get the impression that these places are necessarily seedy. Never forget we are in Japan here. The Japanese are pretty fastidious and they highly value, even expect, good customer service and cleanliness. So love hotels are properly thought of as mainstream and respectable businesses. Customers are often young adults who happen to be much more likely to be living with their parents into their 20s than are their U.S. counterparts, and who require more privacy than they can get at home. On the other hand, it should be obvious to you that Hotel Seeds isn't the Mandarin Oriental.
A documentary called Love Hotel came out last year, set in Osaka's Angel Love Hotel. It's streaming on Netflix (so I just learned). It's now in Ramen Chemistry's list and set for immediate viewing.
The Pneumatic Tube
Love hotels operate based on a principle of total anonymity. During your stay, the odds are you will never see anyone face-to-face. Not a concierge, not a maid, nobody. If you need customer service you talk to somebody on the phone. This is why those cars had screens over their license plates.
Usually, you pay a machine, but sometimes even more elaborate and gratuitous schemes are used. I once saw a room where you pay upon departure using a pneumatic tube (think bank drive-throughs), that shuttles between your room and an office in another part of the hotel.
This level of anonymity pretty clearly sells in Japan. Undoubtedly it lowers the barrier to rent a room, easing customers past their inhibitions. I'm also guessing that a lot of people like the secrecy thing as a fun part of the overall experience.
After Hotel 555, I confess I made Hiroko take me to love hotels a few more times. It's a pretty extreme cultural novelty, and there was always some over-the-top or absurd detail that made the amusement alone worth the trip. The other thing, believe it or not, is that there aren't a whole lot of economy hotels on Japan's roadways. So if you're traveling, it's late, and you don't have reservations, you'll find that instead of a Comfort Inn at the highway exit, there's a love hotel.