The story of love hotels

December 24th, 2011By Category: Culture

One of my favorite J-pop groups, Kome Kome Club, wrote a tune a number of years ago called “Funk Fujiyama.” The lyrics gently poked fun of many of the stereotypes and ideas that visitors to Japan at that time had.

Twenty years later, I find the tune — with its references to Utamaro, Yoshiwara, Ocha, sake, Hiroshima, Kyoto, harakiri, sushi and geisha — interesting for a number of reasons. First, while at the time it did sum up all that visiting tourists knew about Japan, in retrospect, it also indicates how much more sophisticated the outside world has become. Foreign interests in Japan are no longer limited to the exotic or stereotypical. Otaku fever has taken over, and visitors are more savvy than ever.

I am deeply envious of today’s college/post-college generation. Many became interested in manga and anime in high school and go on to take Japanese courses in college. By the time they come here, many are ready to ace level 2 of the JLPT. They may have even already excelled at a traditional Japanese art as well.

Despite all this, no matter how much exposure many have had, the one thing that seems to amuse visitors to Japan the most, is the existence of the love hotel. Indeed, with their big bright lights and outlandish facades, they’re hard to miss. I live near one that’s a replica of the QEII.

Love Hotel “architecture” definitely represents a type of nipponesque quirk at its most ludicrous and imaginative. In addition, the love hotel demands such a dignity that the one time I heard someone refer to one as a “motel,” I practically shuttered.

Love hotels are not “cheap” hotels – at their best, they’re works of art. Even at their most mediocre, there’s something fun and alluring about them. Although some have outlandish themes, the insides of many are not so different from a great deal of standard business hotels, give or take a few extra amenities. The fact that the rooms are often more spacious make them a true bargain since their prices are usually the same or cheaper.

This being Japan, they’re also clean.

After reading some comments under my Christmas story, I couldn’t help but wonder a bit about the history of these oddities which to me, more so than temples and the disappearing clay roof houses, are a vital part of virtually any Japanese landscape.

As for their history, it has been argued that the Japanese in times past had very open attitudes toward sex. However, in the 1600s, the shogunate required that certain types of establishments limit their operations to a district in Kyoto which is said to have been the prototype of the Yoshiwara red-light district. The idea was to enable samurai to observe a strict code of public behavior, while at the same time remaining discrete. The districts were also advantageous to the Tokugawa authorities, who were able to collect ample tax revenues from them.

This is where things get interesting. Originally, men would go to meet geisha (some who also offered additional services) at tea houses, but they were soon replaced by special meeting places as well as sobaya (yes, soba shops … imagine that).

During the Meiji Restoration, in an effort to modernize, some of Japan’s sexual openness was eaten away at by an ideology called “ryosai kenbo” (good wives, wise mothers). But by the mid-1920s, American-style hotels began to emerge in Kanagawa. There were also places called “enshuku” (one yen dwellings), which rented rooms for one yen per person per hour. Unlike ordinary hotels, they had exotic rooms with Western furnishings, double beds and locking doors. “Enshuku” and bathhouses became spots for an outside the home rendezvous until the late 1960s.

It was during the 1970s that the first “love hotels” we know today began to appear. One of the first was a Disneyland-like facility called “The Meguro Emperor.” Others followed, copying themes from Western fairytales. Soon, hotels began opening around Tokyo with names like Casablanca, Sky Love, Venus, Paradiso, Aphrodite, and the less discretely named Hotel Eros.  

During the height of the bubble era, establishments such as these benefited from corporations that had “entertainment budgets” which allowed employees to splurge at restaurants, bars and hostess and nightclubs – all which were tax deductible expenses. At the same time, a societal ideal arose where the male was expected to work hard and bring home the paycheck to his wife, but what he did outside the house with his fellow colleagues was part social obligation, and part men being men.

Today, things have changed.

The atmosphere is very different. Mizushobai (night-time bar industry) no longer flourishes like it once did. Companies no longer fund the after hours antics of their employees and the “pocket money” of most salarymen doesn’t allow for it. Though young people can be seen walking and holding hands — once an uncommon sight in Japan– the atmosphere has become much more restrained.

There’s also another strange phenomena: while there are more divorces, and people are marrying later, romantic love seems to have entered the picture. Men are beginning to wear engagement rings, and overt behavior once tolerable in the past, seems to be falling by the wayside, though of course, pleasure is available for those who wish to pay for it.

As for the love hotels, they still stand, each and every one waiting for customers, each and every one whose walls have secrets to tell. Not to give the wrong impression, their clientele include plenty of married as well as steady couples. Yet in Omiya near where I live, I notice strange phenomena. More and more “kyabakura” are disappearing and in their place, large cheap chain restaurants are opening up. The Japanese salaryman’s waistlines even seem to be expanding.

Looking back on the good old days, I sigh…

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Author of this article

Eddie Landsberg

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