If you explore the area around any large Japanese train station you’ll likely stumble across at least one large, brightly coloured building with small windows. The chances are that you’ve found one of Japan’s 25,000 rabu hoteru (‘love hotels’). The concept is simple: couples can discreetly rent an extravagantly styled bedroom for a 1-3 hour long ‘rest’
In a society with a strong sense of shame, all precautions must be taken to minimise contact with hotel staff. Couples can choose a room and acquire a key through something akin to a vending machine. Upon leaving a few hours later, the payment process is similarly automated.
Many of the more flamboyant hotels have explicit themes, built to resemble castles, schools, or even the HMS Titanic. The more ‘mainstream’ hotels tend to settle for copious amounts of garish pink neon.
The love hotel industry continues to thrive in Japan despite the recession, and has even started to spread to neighbouring countries. If short stay hotels can be so profitable in Japan, could we ever see them in the rest of the world?
To make sense of the love hotels’ success, we need to understand their wider cultural context. Much of Japan is rendered uninhabitable by mountainous forests, so the majority of the population are packed into a handful of coastal cities. Life in these cities is often hectic, with long working hours and very little privacy.
It’s normal for Japanese couples in their twenties to live with their families in crowded apartments, often with paper doors. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that many couples value the private escapism that a love hotel can provide.
To some extent, the uniquely Japanese love hotel industry is only suited to a uniquely Japanese cultural environment. In countries such as the UK, where young people are more likely to live on their own, there isn’t the same demand for privacy.
But with ever-rising house prices forcing young people to live with their parents for longer, a global market for ‘short stay’ hotels could well be emerging. In fact, with a handful of hotels in Paris and New York already offering an hourly rate, it may only be a matter of time until love hotels come to a city near you.