There's nothing like standing in a hotel devoted exclusively to sex and staring at a black-lit mural of humpback whales to give you the sensation that you are in a different country.
Japanese love hotels, also known as fashion or boutique hotels, are truly unique. They are a Japanese solution to this practical problem: Where do couples go to consummate relationships -- licit and otherwise -- in an island society of 127 million where several generations often live under one small roof?
Love hotels -- which have been around in one form or another since the 1600s and first took their modern shape in the 1970s -- answer the question. They're found all across Japan, generally clustered around most train stops, discreetly renting out rooms for a daytime "rest" (about three hours) or a "stay" (overnight, usually after 10 p.m.). They're also generally cheaper than regular hotel rooms.
While love hotels initially offered simple rooms, a growing number now boast theme rooms, from grottos to S&M chambers to more frilly, romantic options. Oddly shaped love hotels -- UFOs, boats and castles -- aren't uncommon. If you can imagine it, it's probably on offer somewhere. However bizarre, it makes sense in a society obsessed with packaging and presentation.
Love hotels are an accepted kinky-kitschy part of Japanese society, frequented by cheating lovers, young or old couples or even Canadian honeymooners who have been staying too long in a friend's tiny, paper-thin-walled Tokyo apartment. Like me and my new bride Natasha.
Based on the recommendation of our friend James McCrostie, who's been teaching English in Japan for four years and knows of these things, Natasha and I headed one afternoon for Love Hotel Hill, a concentration of four- and five-storey buildings in the Shibuya district of downtown Tokyo, to see what was available.
If you like window shopping, you'll love looking for the perfect love hotel room. You can spot these hotels by the two prices (for a "rest" or a "stay") marked outside, near the front door. Entering through a love hotel's opaque glass sliding doors into its dimly lit, tasteful lobby, you'll notice a wall with a panel with pictures of the different rooms on offer; if the picture is lit up, it's available. You select a room by pressing the button underneath its photo, and pay the woman behind the partly obscured counter, who gives you your key. If you don't see a room you like, check out the next establishment.
Some rules: Love hotels rent only to heterosexual couples. Threesomes aren't welcome either, as we accidentally discovered earlier when three of our friends wandered into one love hotel and were greeted by a highly agitated woman exclaiming, "No three! No three!" Also, apparently, they're only supposed to serve people who can speak Japanese, but we had no problem getting rooms. Love hotels are designed for discretion -- some hide customers' cars behind curtains to conceal their license plates, or strategically place walls to make it difficult to see directly into the hotel's lobby. And while many of the rooms appeared booked, we didn't see many patrons come or go, although we did spot couples holding hands wandering in the district, searching out the perfect love nest.
Natasha and I spent two hours browsing love hotel lobbies through Tokyo's Shibuya district. Did we want mirrors on the ceiling? A round bed with a lightshow? How about the Americana-themed room, with a juke box and old-style Coke machine? When we saw the room decorated with humpback whale murals at Hotel 03, we knew our search was over.
We paid our 3,000 yen for a few hours (which, at about $40, is middle of the road for these hotels) to the woman in the discreet teller's cage, got our key -- along with a coupon (rent five rooms, get one free) -- and took the elevator to the second floor.
The hotel part of our room was pretty standard: an incredibly comfortable king-sized bed, a television, a large washroom, a separate toilet cubicle (with toilet slippers) and a complete set of toiletries including a shaving kit.
As for the love part, there were condom packets on the pillows and an unusal headboard: A technological marvel, it had dozens of buttons labelled only in Japanese. We eventually figured out that they controlled the TV, air conditioning, mood lighting and about 100 radio stations. According to our friend Mr. McCrostie, one of these radio stations plays the different chimes of the Tokyo train stations, providing the perfect audio alibi for no-good spouses calling home. We chose the relaxing ocean soundscape channel. And what love hotel would be complete without a vibrating bed -- in our case, courtesy of a speaker installed underneath the bed.
As for the wall murals: humpback whales frolicking in the ocean, painted on backlit plastic. Coral designs decorated the ceiling. Pressing the right button illuminated the mural and the coral in black light.
Our only regrets were that we couldn't figure out how to work the karaoke machine, and that our non-existent Japanese prevented us from ordering room service, which consists of sex toys and schoolgirl costumes (the room service menu had pictures).
The second love hotel we visited was in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. It was a classy, romantic room with tatami mats on the floor, folding paper screens and not a whale in sight. We paid around $150 and spent the night.
A few hours in a love hotel didn't provide any special insights into the Japanese psyche, but it did help us to appreciate a culture that has managed to turn the sordid afternoon tryst into a surreal experience. Honeymooners, take note. The best way to find a love hotel in Tokyo is to take the JR train line (not the subway) to the Shibuya district (get off at the Shibuya stop). Then, just wander around and make your choice. For more information, check out the exhaustive discussion of love hotels in the September edition of Japanzine ( http://www.japan-zine.com) or the Quirky Japan Web site ( http://www3.tky.3web.ne.jp edjacob).