Best Love Hotel In The World – This Love Hotel room includes an underwater scene. Others have themes including the White House, doctors’ offices and railroad cars. Photo by John Lander/Lightrocket via Getty Images
Difficult negotiations are underway for the seventh floor of a Japanese tower. Behind the check-in counter, a hand reaches through a thick felt curtain and gropes for a credit card on the counter. Finding nothing, he quickly retreats, and after a furtive, whispered conversation, a receptionist strangely appears in the windowless lobby.
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It’s a love hotel, a type of Japanese establishment that rents out rooms by the hour to couples who want to be intimate in a place other than home. Love hotels promise absolute discretion and aim to eliminate face-to-face contact with receptionists. Traditionally, guests are locked in their rooms during their stay and only interact with staff via a screen or phone. But the sweaty international tourists at this particular counter want to speak to someone in person. They look confused and irritable, no doubt struggling to find the hidden entrance to the property and perhaps distracted by the dirty, tiled corridor leading from the car park.
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Behind them, a young Japanese couple quietly checked in without making eye contact, choosing a theme for their room on an automated screen. In recent years, love hotels have become places where cultures collide. While locals continue to visit them as always, international tourists are also booking them online, not knowing what to expect.
Shishido-san, who runs a love hotel in northern Japan, explains that anonymity is crucial to the concept. “Japanese culture is a ‘shame’ culture and love hotels can be used with discretion and secrecy,” he explained in an email. “Japanese people are not very open about sex in public places, so love hotels are necessary to release their sexual desires.”
A room at The Hotelian, a love hotel that Shishido-san runs in northern Japan. Courtesy of Hotelian
Love Hotel started around 1980. There were approximately 30,000 in the 2000s, their peak. But at the turn of the millennium, love hotels began to decline and fell on increasingly hard times. Japan’s population is aging, which means fewer and fewer young people want to visit love hotels.
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Meanwhile, Love faces political pressure to turn hotels into tourist accommodations. The Tokyo Olympics — originally planned for 2020 but now pushed back to next year — were the most recent endorsement of those efforts.
The global pandemic decimated international travel in 2020. Japan closed its borders to most countries and saw an astonishing 99% drop in foreign visitors since April. Tourists may gradually return later this year or early 2021. And in the age of social distancing, the Love Hotel model may unexpectedly be perfect for health-conscious travelers.
Three years ago, Dutch hotel site booking.com partnered with 349 of Japan’s thousands of love hotels to offer adventurous travelers a unique Japanese experience. Jess Helms, director of tour development at the Japan-based travel agency, explains that love hotels “offer an experience for travelers who might want something different. She says her company’s partnership with Love Hotels has gotten a lot of attention online. “Japanese culture is very low-key and polite, and it’s a way to experience something else.”
Liam, a tourist from London who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, stayed at a cheap love hotel in Osaka in February. “Someone told me this is a must when I visit Japan,” he says. The room had a king size bed, karaoke machine, jacuzzi, free condoms, free cosmetics, sex toy vending machine and mood lighting. “The front desk seemed surprised that we wanted to speak to a member of staff,” he says.
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Initially, the 31-year-old has a lot of work to do. “We ordered cosplay and my friend dressed up as a maid and sang karaoke,” she says. “I bought some souvenir panties from the vending machine in the room.” But after a day of walking around the area, the novelty wore off. “I found a room without windows. It was starting to feel kind of fluffy.
The experiment in bringing love hotels to foreigners had mixed results before the pandemic, with reviews ranging from glowing praise for the lavish amenities, decadence and themed rooms to the relatively low prices to the outright disgust of reviewers duped by sex toys. Nightstands and condom dispensers in alcoves. There were also complaints about poor decor, cleanliness and a lack of English-speaking staff.
Meanwhile, some Japanese guests were surprised by the changes made for tourists. One reviewer who stayed at the Love Hotel in Osaka wrote online, “It was really embarrassing to meet another customer at the front desk!”
“Japanese people are not very open about sex in public places, so love hotels are necessary to release their sexual desires.”
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Indeed, many love hotels have made major changes in the way they operate to operate more like boutique hotels. Some have removed certain discretionary rights to ensure a traditional check-in experience, and many have discontinued the traditional practice of locking couples in their rooms until they call the front desk. (This will probably prevent tourists who want to walk around.)
As one of the top-rated love hotels on sites like booking.com, Hotel Love seems to have adapted particularly well in Nagoya. Manager Kawashima-san jokes in an email that the biggest problem is that Western guests bring shoes into the room, damaging the floor. More seriously, he adds, there have been some difficulties with staff who are not “acquainted” with the expectations of foreigners and who do not speak English. But the problem is shared by all types of Japanese hotels, he says. “Most guests leave happy and will return,” he says.
Shishido-san, whose Love Hotel is in the northern Japanese city of Sendai, is also adapting to the needs of international visitors. He says his staff embraces the opportunity to learn about different cultures and that visitors get access to a new Japanese experience and Instagrammable rooms.
With the advent of COVID-19, Japanese tourists have returned to love hotels. Early reports suggest that some properties are doing particularly well amid the pandemic, as people use them to escape claustrophobic housing or annoying families.
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As the country adjusts to a new normal, domestic hotel bookings have risen to 70 percent of their pre-virus levels – although a second wave could push that back down. A spokesman for the Japan National Tourism Organization says hotels across the country have introduced new safety measures, from “QR code menus, plastic reception screens, temperature checks and increased cleanliness” to “touch-free” holographic touchscreens. Love Hotels is well prepared to take these new steps.
Note the lack of windows on the outside of this Love Hotel Zebra in Tokyo. Photo by John S. Lander/Lightrocket via Getty Images
Liam recalls laughing at “lock room service” in February. The staff ordered his food, drinks and suits from an adjacent but closed entrance instead of giving them to him directly. “I felt stupid at the time,” he says, “but if I went back now, I think I’d feel different.”
After months of lockdown in the UK, Liam says he is very aware of the need to protect himself from the virus and protect restaurant servers, bar staff and public transport operators. “Lack of contact can be a good thing in the age of the coronavirus,” he says. “Instead of love hotels becoming more like regular hotels, maybe the pandemic will change the direction of travel – instead, regular hotels will have to change to become more like love hotels.”
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No purchase necessary. Winner will be randomly selected on 5/1/2023. Offer available in the US only (including Puerto Rico). Offer subject to change without notice. See the contest rules for full details. The most interesting thing in the room? “Bed,” says Chinatsu Onitsuka. Although in any other context a basic and possibly boring piece of furniture, in the world of Japanese love hotels the bed becomes a dreamy vintage car, plane or UFO. “That’s where [designers] will do it