The Love Hotel

The cheesy neon colored lights were a sign.

I assumed bright lights signaled a pachinko parlor inside our Osaka airport hotel. This wasn’t ideal. Sleeping in a cigarette odor-stained room above a casino was not how I wanted to end a lovely week in Japan.

I reminded myself it was just one quick overnight. By choosing to take an evening airport shuttle to Osaka Itami Airport, overnighting at an airport hotel, and taking an early morning flight to Tokyo, we had managed to stretch one last magical day out of Kyoto. 

Bob and I got off the airport shuttle and walked towards the neon colored lights. Luggage in tow, we entered a dark car port and looked for the hotel lobby. Finding the main door, we entered a fluorescent-lit room and walked towards a small counter. An older Japanese-speaking woman appeared, eager to check us in. While Bob pulled out our reservation information, I circled the room. There wasn’t a pachinko parlor in sight; there wasn’t cigarette smoke in the air.

“Lobby” of Hotel First in Osaka, Japan

But the whole place was giving me the heebie-jeebies. Unlike a traditional hotel lobby, there wasn’t seating or an elevator in sight. Instead, I found mirrored walls, fogged-glass room dividers and fake flowers. One wall seemed to display a menu of rooms with different prices. It was written in Japanese, so I couldn’t understand the particulars.

Collectively, these were weird signs.

I walked back over to Bob. As he pulled a credit card out of his wallet, the women pushed a piece of paper towards us. The page was typed in English. We read it together.

Guest disclaimer at Hotel First in Osaka, Japan

This was a really bad sign.

“Seriously, what IS all of this?” I exclaimed. 

“How can you lock people in a room. What if there’s a fire?” Bob asked.

“No!” I continued. “No, we are not staying. We are so out of here!”

The woman didn’t understand English, but it was clear this was a problem. She exited the door behind her, immediately returning with a younger woman holding a smart phone. The young woman held the phone near my face, the English-to-Japanese verbal translator app open.

“Cancel reservation. Refund the payment. We do not stay here.”

The women immediately processed a credit. I took photos of the weirdness around us. We took our receipts and left. 

“Where are we going to go?” Bob asked. 

“I don’t know. Sleeping at the airport is a better alternative. But I remember passing a brand new business-looking hotel when we were on the shuttle bus. Let’s walk there.”

We entered a normal hotel lobby abuzz with guests. Bob asked if they had a room. They had one room left. The rate was $260 a night. I sat down in the hotel lobby and checked travel sites for alternatives. Most of the airport hotels—including the one we were standing in—showed no availability. The few that were available made me suspect. “Take it,” I said.

In our simple, clean hotel room, we showered, prepped our clothes for tomorrow’s leg of international travel, and crawled into bed. While tired, I couldn’t sleep. I was still wrestling with my own question—what was all that? And why was a hotel that locked people into rooms even listed on Booking.com

I pulled up the original hotel listing. “Bob, did you notice it said “Adults Only?”

“Yeah. I just figured that in Japan some hotels didn’t allow kids. And that’d make it more quiet for us.”

I scrolled through the hotel reviews. I found one that mentioned it was a “love hotel.” 

A love hotel. What was that? And how have I never heard of it? 

I opened my Google browser. And for the next two hours, I fed Bob the basics of this Japanese-originated concept.

A “love hotel” is essentially a short-stay accommodation that offers rates for a rest (a few hours) or a short stay (overnight). The Hotel Love, which opened in Osaka in 1968, was deemed the first of its kind.

Love hotels were designed for young Japanese couples who often still lived with extended family in tight quarters. Hotel entrances were designed to be discreet. Guests choose their room and duration from a hidden lobby menu. Rooms tend to be large, typically with full size baths, jacuzzi tubs, oversize TVs and kitchenettes.

During Japan’s late 1980’s and early 1990’s heyday, love hotels became the status symbol date spot. Competition became fierce, leading to the creation of themed hotels (fairytales, dungeons, tropical islands) catering to every taste. Today, a stay at a top love hotel can be part of the whole Japanese travel experience. You can go to specialty sites like LoveIn Japan to find the perfect one..

Clearly Bob and I had stumbled upon a love hotel that hadn’t quite kept up with the times.

Likely they aren’t alone. There are an estimated more than 10,000 (really!) love hotels in Japan. The largest concentrations are found in Tokyo and Osaka. The whole Japanese love hotel industry (yes, it’s deemed an industry) is estimated to generate 2-3 trillion yen—or $17-25 billion USD—annually (source).

But the industry is at an inflection point.

From a demographic standpoint, there’s an ongoing decline in the target market of Japanese 20-29 years olds (source). Culturally, Japanese young people are staying single longer, and are more apt to live alone than with their families. 

To respond, some love hotels have adjusted their policies. They allow for group or business stays; they list on internet hotel booking sites. In fact, during my late night Google research, I found that Booking.com has a whole global “love hotel” category, with 609 hotel options in Japan (including the one we booked). Others have started marketing special packages to women—like birthday and bachelorette parties.

But the larger dynamic is the upswing in the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan. If my Facebook and Instagram feeds are a guide, I can attest to this personally. Whether the visitors stem from the U.S. or China, the upswing is dramatic—Japan welcomed almost 29 million foreign visitors in 2017, up 19% from 2016. In 2020, Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics, pushing expectations to 40 million foreign visitors in 2020, and 60 million visitors by 2030.

With that good news comes one big problem. Japan hasn’t had enough hotel rooms to keep up with the surging demand—especially in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Newly-announced restrictions by the Japanese government on AirBnB owners haven’t helped. It’s led to a visible flurry of new hotel building activity and the adoption of new concepts, such as capsule hotels.

But there’s a bright idea flashing in neon lights—converting many of Japan’s love hotels into regular accommodations.

That’s exactly what the Japanese government has set out to do. In 2016, they announced an increase in funding to remodel “underperforming” hotels for broader public use. Currently, love hotels don’t allow for people under 18. To remodel for family use, they need to add food facilities, beds, and general hotel services. Former love hotels can be the perfect family option—offering convenient central or airport locations, and larger-than-normal room sizes.

I closed my laptop. Suddenly I was thinking differently about the love hotel down the street. My heebie-jeebie experience actually highlighted an interesting business opportunity. I wondered why the hotel management had taken the step to list on Booking.com but otherwise remained stuck in another era. Why had they not sought to take advantage of Japanese government investment to change their legal and marketing status to a regular hotel?

Why would they choose not to change?

Maybe it all seems too daunting. Maybe after 40 years of doing something a certain way, it’s simply too difficult to change. 

We all know that big change starts with taking a first step. Maybe they just can’t identify that first step.

But I can.

They could start with changing the automatic door locks.


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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!