Peer Inside Japan's Secretive Love Hotels

In an increasingly crowded and technology-mediated world, pay-by-the-hour love hotels offer sexual freedom.

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Hotel Ai offers both normal and themed rooms, and is considered one of the best BDSM hotels in Japan. BDSM is sexual activity that involves the use of physical restraints, granting and withholding control, and infliction of pain.

Japan’s population is shrinking.

Deaths now outpace births, marriage is plummeting, and young people aren’t having sex. The media are calling it sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome”—an alarming trend that has the Japanese government funneling tax dollars into speed dating and matchmaking services over fears of an impending economic collapse.

But in a neon-lit pocket of Tokyo’s Shibuya district, BDSM equipment, mirrored ceilings, vibrating beds, and condom vending machines paint a different reality. Welcome to Love Hotel Hill, where Japan's sex industry is flourishing.

Clandestine Encounters

True to their moniker, pay-by-the-hour love hotels cater to millions of Japanese couples every year, and increasingly, tourists. There are more than 30,000 love hotels in the country, and hundreds in Tokyo alone—a multibillion-dollar business that accounts for a quarter of the sex industry.

With increasing life expectancies, the rising age of marriage, and high population density, multigenerational households are ubiquitous. When married couples live in close quarters with elderly parents and children, love hotels offer a practical alternative to thin-walled Japanese homes where privacy is scarce.

Although a majority of clientele are dating and married couples, sex work and extramarital affairs are not unheard of. Discretion is a love hotel’s most important commodity—they feature secret entrances, covered garages, and disposable license plate covers. Patrons can make cash-only transactions with clerks stationed behind opaque screens to guarantee anonymity. Others have sophisticated automated systems. The customer is shown a panel of photos of available rooms and features. They push a button to make their selection, which triggers a trail of lights that leads directly to the room.

The technology may be contemporary, but the origins of love hotels can be traced back to the Edo Period (1600-1868), when tea houses were established for liaisons with sex workers and geisha. The 1920s brought the emergence of enshenku—one yen dwellings that could be rented hourly and featured Western furnishings like double beds and locking doors. The modern iteration of the love hotel proliferated in the 1970s and 80s with Japan’s economic boom and a growing fascination with Western culture—these ostentatious properties catered to fantasy and mimicked Hollywood movies and fairytales.

Many of today's love hotels still offer themed rooms, ranging from Disneyland characters to mock classrooms to BDSM dungeons. Others are indistinguishable from standard hotels save for their erotic amenities—vibrators, cosplay for rent, rotating beds, and sadomasochistic equipment. In fact, some of them look so much like ordinary hotels, tourists often book them online unwittingly.

Sex on the Decline

Japan’s love hotel industry may be prospering, but the country is experiencing a paradoxical decline in marriage, childbirth, and sex.

More than 40 percent of men and women aged 18-34 in Japan have never had sex, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. If the current trend continues, it is projected that by 2060 Japan’s population will have shrunk by 30 percent—an impending economic disaster.

But in the midst of a stagnant economy, staying single has become an attractive choice.

As cost of living rises and job opportunities diminish, more young singles are returning home to live with their parents—these youths have become known as parasaito shinguru, or parasite singles. Unconstrained by mortgages and childrearing costs, their salaries are used almost exclusively as disposable income, allowing them to live carefree and unattached. In fact, adult children in Western Europe and the United States are remaining in their parental homes longer as well—both a symptom of struggling economies across the globe and evolving views on sex and marriage.

Japanese women are also embracing unprecedented economic independence. “We’re seeing many people who are living partnerless lives," says Eric Garrison, a clinical sexologist, sex counselor, and author. “There used to be this cultural belief that if you have a man, and your man is successful, then you're successful. Having a husband is not a sign of success anymore.”

For some, antagonism towards emotional entanglement is so pervasive that they choose to eschew romantic relationships altogether. In 2006, Japanese writer Maki Fukasawa coined the term “herbivore men”—those who are not interested in flesh—to describe this wave of sexual apathy.

Flight From Intimacy

While progressive social changes may be afoot, others worry the decline in sex is indicative of a more existential crisis—that technology is alienating rather than connecting us.

Psychologist and Harvard professor Craig Malkin describes the inherent dangers in what he calls cybercelibacy. “While gaming and pornography can’t ever cure our loneliness, over time they do become an incredibly addictive salve—and that makes it easier and easier to turn away from people and back to cyberspace,” he writes. “For people already leery of intimacy, the chance to lose themselves in an exciting world they can enter and exit at will can easily become a way of life.”

Replacing physical human interactions—which are fallible, unpredictable, and sometimes messy—with carefully edited images and meticulously planned conversations in cyberspace has removed the serendipity from relationships and redefined intimacy.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Japan either—Americans are also having less sex.

According to a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, sexual frequency has been on the decline in the United States since the late 1980s. The authors suggest a variety of factors may be responsible—the availability of alternative entertainment options, like video streaming, pornography, and social media; the libido-quelling effects associated with rising depression rates and pharmaceutical side effects; and the decrease in partnered Americans. Notably, millennials and Generation Z—who grew up immersed in technology—are having less sex than any previous generation.

In an era of sexual apathy, Japan’s love hotels seem to defy the trends. They offer privacy for uninhibited sexual exploration in an increasingly crowded and technology-mediated world—but these spaces may also be disappearing. With the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the government wants to convert love hotels into standard accommodations to service the influx of visitors.

For now, Tokyo's hidden erotic wonderland is open for business.

Albert Bonsfills is a photographer based in Tokyo. Follow him on Instagram @albertbonsfills.