From the outside looking in, Love hotels are shrouded in mystery, almost unbelievable at first thought. The film Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé offers a particularly inertial view of Tokyo’s red light fantasies, featuring a psychedelic-themed love hotel. In Blue Valentine by Derek Cianfrance, a love hotel-inspired motel in Pennsylvania witnesses the agonising decay of the main characters’ tenuous marriage. One way or another, in Western culture, the usage of love hotels seem to be portrayed as a symptom of problematic relationships or of sexual pathology. On top of that, it is common for people to chalk the garish, flamboyant nature of love hotels to a reductive perception of ‘whacky Japan’. But beneath the flashing neon lights and complementary condoms-and-lube, there is a lucid explanation for the allure of love hotels…

The term ‘love hotel’ comes from a hotel called Hotel Love in Ōsaka. The hotel was built in 1968, although the modern love hotel has an ancestry dating back to the Edō period’s teahouses, which were sometimes used for prostitution. Although love hotels are often associated with other sex industries in Japan, it must be made clear that modern love hotels do not themselves provide prostitution or other adult entertainment services. They are intended simply for the privately arranged enjoyment of couples, friends or groups.

So, why go to a love hotel in the first place? One big reason is that homes in Japan are usually fitted with paper walls, which doesn’t provide many opportunities to enjoy privacy in the bedroom. In order to relieve sexual desire, many people deem it necessary to do so outside of their home. The inexpensive rates for love hotels and reliable vacancies (it is generally not permitted to reserve a love hotel room in advance) serves as a solution to this problem.

But this only partially explains the purpose of love hotels; it doesn’t say much about the eccentric décor and the imaginative themes for the rooms – one love hotel in Beppu, Ōita called Hotel Jzauruss is themed around Jurassic Park. Indeed, there is a certain one-upmanship surrounding just how far love hotels are willing to go with their themes, but the main reason for their appearance is due to a particular perspective on sex historically ingrained in Japanese culture.

In Japan, the distinction between love and sex is less muddled than their euro-centric companions. A patriarchal tradition of sex seen as more of a physical need rather than an emotional want suggests a tolerance surrounding how overt the representation of sex is in society. For example, artists in the Edō period could paint explicitly pornographic art (shunga) without damaging their career. In the town of Komaki, a famous festival called hōnen matsuri involves a procession of a large wooden phallus paraded from shrine to shrine. The act of sex was not considered lewd or shameful; rather, it was celebrated. It should be noted, however, that the phallus is afforded exposure that the vulva is not; recently the artist known as Rokudenashiko was controversially arrested for distributing the data for a 3D-printed model of her vulva.

Despite the reverence in which sex is held, human interaction in the public sphere is incredibly restrictive due to a social climate that favours the group over the individual. This has lead to the western misconception that Japanese people are emotionless, work-orientated zombies. It is not that desire and emotion doesn’t exist in Japanese culture, it’s that where it is repressed in public life, it emerges in the private world of fantasy, fetish, play, perversion. Love hotels serve the function of releasing sexual energy, and as such, the décor serves to separate the space from daily life. When seen in this light, it is easy to see why love hotels and other adult entertainment parlours strive to be anything but ordinary.

Rooms with ‘themes’ such as space travel, BDSM dungeons, churches, hospitals and nurseries are littered up and down the country. One of Japan’s more famous love hotels, Queen Elizabeth is literally shaped like a huge cruise (complete with a statue of DiCaprio and Winslet in the iconic pose on the ship’s bow, in an alternate universe where they missed the Titanic voyage). Rotating circular beds; toilets and showers with clear glass partitions; mirrored walls, floors and ceilings spiralling into infinity, are all usual suspects in the love hotels’ boudoirs.

Whether the mood is flamboyant, eccentric and gaudy, or dirty, brutish and sado-masochistic (or a hybrid of the two; the now defunct Hotel Adonis in Ōsaka had a Hello Kitty-themed BDSM room), the tempo is always to the max. They are designed to cater to every fetish and to heighten every orgasm. Perhaps this positive responsiveness and explorative nature towards the world of sex is a lot less absurd than it first seems.

WRITTEN BY Orion Facey