Get a Room: Inside Japan's Love Hotels
A deep crimson-colored soundproof room with a bed large enough for six, every imaginable bondage furniture and more than enough space to swing a cat... How's that for a lunch break get-away in the middle of your workday?
If you're a sexual adventurer, no trip to Japan is complete without a visit to a love hotel. The love hotel is a quintessentially Japanese innovation, the bastard child of fantasy, and a necessity of urban congestion and the compartmentalized Japanese libido. Each time I return home to Japan, I pick a love hotel to visit, all under the convenient excuse of furthering my research into Japanese sexual subcultures.
Let me introduce you to the notorious and well-loved Alpha In. Yes, that's "In" with just one N. The comedy of bizarre Engrish goes hand-in-hand with the weirdness of Japanese pop culture. But then again, it's no wackier and linguistically messed-up than some of the "Japanese" tattoos I've seen in the West.
Apparently Alpha In is the only exclusively kinky love hotel remaining in Tokyo. Once there were more, I'm told. Governmental pressures on the various adult entertainment industries have waxed and waned over the years. The recent post-Bubble years have been hard on the love hotels as they've come under greater regulation by the "Public Morality" laws. The Japanese politicians are trying to clean up the image of their country after much sensationalized and negative Western media coverage about Japanese sexual practices and domestic political pressure, ranging from used panties in vending machines and prostitution to gruesome sex murders. Cleaning up smut is the favorite pastime of impotent politicians powerless in the face of real issues, such as the economy. For whatever reason, Alpha In has survived the political culling. Rumors abound about its behind-the-scenes connections that keep their doors open.
Since I was traveling solo and sans amorous counterpart, I called upon my pal Island Dog, a transplanted New Yorker turned Tokyoite, to be my guide and alibi. He's patronized the establishment a few times with his Mrs., so I figured he'd be good for a few stories as well.
While located in the nightlife filled Roppongi district, the Alpha In is easiest to access from the Azabu-Juban station, not the Roppongi station. It saves you a lot of hard hiking up a gnarly hill. Unlike the infamous Love Hotel Hill in Shibuya where pleasure palaces are pretty easy to spot, this one hides stealthily on a boring residential Tokyo street. Even people looking for it often miss it. Without Island Dog's guide dog skills I'm sure I'd still be wondering around somewhere among noodle shops and corporate offices. If you approach it from the back of the building, it resembles a 19th-century prison or immigration detention center incongruously decorated with a cheery neon sign reading "Fashion Hotel Alpha In." "Fashion Hotel," I presume, euphemistically refers to the fantasy element of love hotels, but it is a common term denoting such facilities.
Once you enter the lobby, the age and creakiness of the place become evident. It reeks vintage 1975. This isn't one of the shiny modern "boutique hotels" full of romantic slick touches to appeal to the female customers.
The old lady at the front desk hands us a room menu book. This joint isn't high-tech or modern enough to have the fully automated room selection and payment system that allows for the illusion of anonymity through the total lack of direct human contact. It's kind of homey, with grandma assisting with your tryst and mid-day escape. The room catalog is full of photos and prices of each room. Once we pick the room we want, we have to check on availability by looking for lit rooms on the electric wall panel. If the room name isn't lit up, it's in use. Island Dog tells me that the place is often packed, especially on weekends, and the board is darkened for quite a while. If you arrive when there are no rooms at the inn, there's a cheesy but comfortable bar and lounge to hang out in and peruse the myriad of sex toys for sale. They also have role-playing costumes for rent, including nurse's uniforms, Chinese dresses and schoolgirl uniforms. It's always bothered me, however, that all the costumes are for women and only in female sizes. Call me an equal opportunity perv, but I'd like to see fun options for the guys coming in as well.
Fortunately for us, business and sex lives were really slow that afternoon so the room I wanted was available.