Japan no-tell motels offer rare commodity: privacy

August 16, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- You can hold your sweetheart's hand in the restaurant and give her a kiss on the cheek in a movie theater. But where do you go in congested Japan when it's time for something more intimate?

In Tokyo, you'd "take a walk up the Slope," a modest hill just north of Shibuya Station where the commuter rails meet the central Tokyo subways. It is a major intersection of Japanese life, at once the most familiar, most active and most anonymous spot in the country, the perfect location for a no-tell motel.

Within a few small blocks there are about 100 such places, commonly referred to by the English words "love hotel," most carrying the expected names, such as the Casa Nova (One and Two), the Passion, the C'est La Vie and The Oz. A recent report estimated that 20,000 people a day pass through this tiny district, with each room occupied on average four times, at rates ranging from $25 to $150 for two hours.

Some who claim knowledge of the field say it is the highest concentration of love hotels in Japan, or at least, they say, the highest concentration of the kind of love hotels that people would take someone they love.

Shibuya has no monopoly on the business. The National Police Agency has issued about 3,000 hotel licenses under "The Act to Control Businesses Which May Affect Public Morals." Numerous others are unlicensed, and many travelers contend they have never seen an inhabited area in Japan that didn't have at least one.

Among the numerous reasons cited for their popularity is the desire for privacy and space in such a cluttered, densely populated country with high rents. Married couples with families patronize these hotels to escape from the crowded conditions and paper thin walls of their own homes.

One woman who goes frequently with her boyfriend said she would never want to bring anyone to her own apartment -- too exposed to the prying eyes and ears of neighbors. "It's expensive, but I go so no one can see and no one can hear," she said.

A 45-year old bachelor with a good job and a typical Tokyo bachelor pad (dark, dingy and depressing) said he never even thought about bringing a date to where he lives. "If I did," he said, "she'd leave."

Under-30 crowd

The largest group of patrons are men and women under 30 who, married or single, cope with high rents by living with their parents until almost the day they begin their own families.

Other frequent couples are younger women and older married men, but occasionally the reverse.

Casual relationships, known in Japan as "furin" (from the ideogram meaning to negate morality), became popular in the 1970s as part of a broad reversion to behavioral standards that applied prior to the country's westernizing a century ago, recently wrote Masatoshi Takada, a professor at Mukogawa Women's University.

"In Japan, people don't say it is immoral to have these affairs," he said.

There is certainly nothing seedy about the hotels. They intentionally lack windows but are spotlessly clean and packed with amenities. The interior is typically expensive post-modern, though the latest craze is for Mickey Mouse motifs on the pillows, bed spreads, towels and walls.

Coffin-shaped tanning tables are common as are vast tubs in various shapes. If unconfirmed tales can be believed, one hotel has a full merry-go-round inside a room.

A karaoke machine

Among the most common extras is a karaoke machine -- an opportunity, says a fan, for couples to romantically serenade one another, or, as shown in a recent Japanese movie, something for a young couple to do after they discover that they'd prefer just being friends.

Many of the hotels carry Tokyo cable radio, which provides what it calls "alibi channels." Tune into background sounds of pinball (Channel 30), an outdoor telephone booth (Channel 31) or a coffee shop (Channel 32) to create the proper auditory background for calls involving the outside world.

To minimize contact, few love hotels have conventional lobbies. Money is paid through a hole in a smoked-glass window, or through a slot in the room, to unseen and unseeing operators.

In some, customers drive into dark underground garages leading to elevators to take them directly to the room. Thoughtful hotels place signs in front of each license plate to obscure the numbers. But the process is not flawless. A police officer said he sometimes has to go to the Slope (the only times he ever goes) because of accidents involving cars making a fast entrance or exit in the dark garages.

A few hotels are a bit more open. One serves free ice cream to patrons who sit at small cafe style tables waiting for their friends, and perhaps become friends with each other. Another provides coupons redeemable for gifts: six trips earn a stuffed bear, 30 a Walkman. Just something to bring back to the family.

No male couples

Despite the permissive casualness of it all, Japan remains a country of rules and they often seem to extend even to the windowless rooms of these hotels. Male couples aren't permitted (although female couples are).

Reports of crime are minimal. "People come here for love, not to fight," a police officer said.

Still, the Slope's days probably are numbered because the land has more valuable uses. Children of some hotel owners reportedly have become unwilling to continue the family operation. For them, it's not a tradition worth preserving. After all, from their perspective, it's not a matter of love, just business.

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