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Japan's 'love hotels' - places where anything goes

A shrinking population and tighter household budgets mean that operators of short-stay hotels for amorous couples need to provide new experiences and seek out a new generation of clients. Julian Ryall reports.

For decades a familiar sight in urban nightlife districts across Japan, close to railway stations or motorway junctions, "love hotels" have come a long way from their humble beginnings as "enshuku", or "one-yen dwellings," in the 1920s.    

These short-stay hotels were very bare-bones in the years immediately after Japan's defeat in World War Two.They became more extravagant as the nation's economic miracle took hold in the 1960s, but began to tone down their gaudiness in the less brash 1990s.

More recently, love hotels have evolved to offer a wider range of amenities in order to appeal to a broader and more discerning clientele. Hotel operators have been creating a cross-over sector for some of the higher-end properties. These have all of the facilities of a high-end conventional hotel, but with the option for guests to only stay for a couple of hours.

Yet, given the nation's inexorably declining birth rate, a growing number of older citizens, stagnant incomes and the vast improvements in the standards of housing for most Japanese, analysts suggest that the sun will one day set on these unique and unashamed institutions.

Japan Love Hotels (Getty Images/AFP/Y. Tsuno)

Love hotels have evolved to offer a wider range of amenities in order to appeal to a broader and more discerning clientele

Disappearing act

"Given the shrinking population and fewer young people having the money to spend on a love hotel for a couple of hours' fun, I do think that in the long run these places will become rarer and maybe even one day disappear," said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.

There are presently an estimated 25,000 love hotels across Japan, with the industry suggesting that they are visited 500 million times a year. That figure translates to 1.4 million couples, or fully 2 percent of the population, visiting a love hotel each day.

Today, virtually any whim can be met in a love hotel. Some incorporate "Hello Kitty" designs and characters, while others have been known to have a boxing ring as the bed. One in Osaka famously has a merry-go-round in the room, another has a roof that can open to enable the happy couple to lie in bed and admire the stars. Others are equipped with S&M equipment and mirrors.

Common to all, however, is a lobby area where the available rooms are pictured and the couple makes a selection. The rooms have a bathroom and shower, a large double bed, television and a vending machine that dispenses snacks, drinks and sex toys. A karaoke machine is generally a fixture, along with computer game consoles, and meals can be ordered in some establishments.

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Japan's rolling hotel

But it was not always this luxurious.

Back in the 1603-1868 Edo era, "professional ladies" would rent a room to entertain clients in the red light districts of cities, but couples caught onto the concept in the 1920s, largely because of the lack of space and privacy in the average Japanese home of the day, where several generations of one family would generally live under the same roof.

The majority of these properties were shut down during WWII, but demand began to pick up once again - and soared due to the wealth generated in Japan by the Korean War.

Entertainment districts

Inevitably, hotels began to cluster around the booming entertainment districts, although the term "love hotel" only appears to have emerged in the late 1960s, when properties went upmarket and upscale. Some affected the facades of castles, churches or cruise liners; others relied on blazing neon signs to win customers.

With competition fierce, operators began to install the extras - from revolving beds or water mattresses to jacuzzis.

"As with any service sector business, the owners of these hotels have to keep improving and upgrading their facilities if they want people to keep coming back," said Watanabe. "And that has led to the emergence of hotels that are a lot more respectable and are in more sought-after locations, such as spots alongside lakes or rivers or overlooking mountains.

"They have emerged as a challenge to traditional hotels and effectively entertainment spots in their own right, with 'onsen' hot springs and good meals," he added.

"I sometimes like to go to a hotel with my husband just because it allows me to relax and enjoy myself in a different environment and where I know we will be able to have time for ourselves," said Kyoko, a housewife from Yokohama who only wanted to be identified by her first name.

Japan Tokio- Sightseeing in Shibuya (picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/T. Skupin)

Always looking to expand their client base, hotels have tapped into the growing number of foreign tourists visiting Japan

'A nice change'

"He works and I work and then there are the children, so it is occasionally nice to be able to leave the kids with my parents and spend some time together, like we did before life got so busy," she said. "It really does make a nice change."

Always looking to expand their client base, hotels have also tapped into the growing number of foreign tourists visiting Japan, particularly in areas where demand for hotel rooms outstrips supply.

Buses of Chinese holidaymakers have been congregating in districts where love hotels are clustered, according to Friday magazine, with operators tweaking their services to accommodate a different type of clientele.

Many of the guests are families with young children, so operators have responded by installing twin beds and removing coin-operated dispensers that provide sex toys.

Some hotels have even begun to employ Chinese-speaking staff and are reducing room rates to attract more frequent tourist parties.

With rooms starting as low as 3,500 yen (26.22 euros, $31) a night, these properties are an attractive alternative to conventional hotels, where a lack of availability has meant that prices have soared more than 30 percent since 2011 and presently average 17,500 yen (130 euros, $150) a night.

But given the falling demand from local consumers, analysts suggest that more love hotels may make the shift to meeting the requirements of tourists rather than couples on a tryst.

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