At first, we couldn't figure out why our taxi driver was giggling. My friend and I had just arrived to Kyoto from Hiroshima by bullet train. It was a whirlwind 10-day introductory trip to Japan, and we were bouncing around by high-speed train, sopping up all the salty ramen broth we could find, and ticking heritage sites off of our bucket list. By the time we arrived in Kyoto, we were exhausted and cranky. It was also prime leaf peeping season, and every single hotel in Kyoto was sold out, forcing us to stay five miles out of town in a place we found online called the Fine Garden Hotel.
The Fine Garden was booked as an “adults-only hotel.” Initially, we thought this was odd, but we figured maybe there were hotels that just didn’t want kids to stay there. We were also desperate for a place to stay, so we decided to book the room regardless. Now, however, we were regretting our decision, and our cab driver’s giggling was getting on our nerves.
We arrived at an industrial, desolate area of the city called the Minami ward. It was dark, save for a brilliantly lit building that looked like an events hall that hosts gaudy Russian weddings. Our cab driver turned around, a hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter. He pointed to the door of the Fine Garden, looked at me and my companion, and drew a heart in the air with his two pointer fingers. We realized immediately that we were staying at a Love Hotel.
Love hotels can be found across the entire country in the major cities. They're designed specifically for discreet sex: you can pay by machine, or via a receptionist who sits behind a frosted glass window. There are no windows in the rooms, and some even distribute license plate covers to protect the identities of their guests.
While love hotels have been around in some form for decades, they started becoming a staple of Japanese society in the 1960s. Unlike the motels of the United States, which have a reputation for being seedy and dirty, love hotels value cleanliness and comfort just as much as anonymity and novelty.
“Japanese love hotels provide a quiet, comfortable, anonymous space for consensual sex to take place,” says Eric M. Garrison, a clinical sexologist who has studied Japanese sex culture.
They also serve another cultural purpose. In Japan, it is customary for extended families to live together under the same roof, and it is even more common nowadays for adult children to return home in their late 20s or beyond. “With paper-thin walls and overcrowding, and now with Boomerang kids [adult children who return home] living with their parents, it is understandable to see why youth would need a place that rents in three-hour increments,” says Garrison.
A Japanese man who would identify himself only as Lieuw, the moderator of love hotel booking engine LoveInnJapan.com, said that in the past, "couples used to go to Love Hotels for private moments apart from the family," he said. Now, you're more likely to see a wider range of customers, from couples in their 20s looking for a one-night tryst to tourists like ourselves.
"Nowadays love hotels not only target couples, but also friends with things like bachelorette party packages,” Liew says. “They can sing karaoke in the room, or relax together at a reasonable price."
Since we booked via Booking.com and it was high season for Kyoto, we were met by an actual receptionist who promptly took our payment for three nights (this is uncommon for love hotels, as most couples are only interested in paying for one night). Our room had a small vestibule in the entrance with a dumbwaiter for room service, so that once we were tucked nicely within the confines of our room, there would be no need for human interaction.
Inside, the spacious room had all the makings of a fairly luxurious hotel stay: a comfy bed, clean linens, a massive flat screen TV, a mini-bar, a Jacuzzi for two. But it was the little things that differentiated it from your average hotel room: bath gels with names like Gentle Lover, and a mechanism next to the bed that looked like that contraption your mom once told you was her “neck massager.” Beyond these, there was a slot machine, a karaoke machine, and the thickest room service menu I’ve ever seen — all included with the assumption that we'd be spending most of our time indoors.
While our love hotel room was fairly standard, just like sexual preferences, there are love hotels to fit all types of moods. “Some look like helicopters inside, others are designed like trains or schools. Some are specifically designed for BDSM," says Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD, social psychologist and relationship/psychosexual consultant. "There are some love hotels that are so well-hidden you don’t even know they are there. Whatever you desire, there is a Love Hotel to suit.”
Although love hotels have historically been used almost exclusively for sex, the truth is that they are becoming much more mainstream. Many tourists like myself use them as alternatives to name brand hotels, particularly if they're traveling from city to city. "Nowadays love hotels not only target couples, but also friends with things like bachelorette party packages,” Liew says. “They can sing karaoke in the room, or relax together at a reasonable price."
It's also worth noting that Japanese society at large has less of a need for love hotels, in part because young people in particular are just having less sex. In fact, the Japanese government is funding speed dating to help combat the rapid decline in reproduction among the younger generations. For the time being, however, love hotels are still a major part of Japanese culture and history. (Plus, it just happened to be one of the nicest hotels stays I've ever had.)
This article originally appeared on Men's Health