Ian D. Robinson finds an odd way to get intimate in Japan.
In hyper-convenient Japan, there is a push-button solution to every problem, minor or major. The dilemma of where to spend a romantic hour or two in private seclusion with your sweetheart - or with someone you've just met - can be solved at the Japanese institution known as the "Love Hotel".
Usually located in quiet streets on the city's fringe, these discreet establishments evolved from chaya, tearooms once used by prostitutes, entertainers and lovers. During the economic boom of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, they became a solution to the problem of Japanese families living in increasingly small dwellings, where a live-in mother-in-law could hear everything through thin walls.
But let's be honest, the real spirit of the love hotel comes from illegitimate couples on secret rendezvous - rabu hoteru are the places to go with someone you shouldn't be going to such a place with.
These places host a staggering 500 million visits a year, meaning that on any given day about 2 per cent of Japan's population visits a love hotel. Many of the guests are young, unmarried couples; the flatting situation is almost unknown in Japan, where most people live with their parents until they get hitched and having your girlfriend over for the night at your folks' place would be awkward to the point of being absurd for most.
My partner and I went looking for a room to check in. The street we visited featured places with suggestive names like Hotel With and Couple World. These days, the term "love hotel" is somewhat dated, and more colourful labels such as "leisure hotel" or "amusement hotel" are used.
The "romance hotel" we choose has discreet parking behind a large, heavy curtain. Walking past I'm amused to glance under the screen and see the black-and-white markings of a police patrol car.
Through the front door we enter a gleaming, silent marble lobby that has no reception desk. Instead there is an illuminated board with photos of the different rooms. Each room's price is listed - by one hour, three hours or for the whole night. Fees range between 3000 and 5000 ($45 to $75) for two hours, and can differ depending on the day of the week. The cost of an amorous tete-a-tete can skyrocket on Valentine's Day.
The pictures of those already occupied are darkened. The darkened pictures make me wonder who is inside. "I wonder which one the cop's in?" I say.
"Shhh! Just choose the room!" My partner is embarrassed to be there at all. I pick one and push a button next to the photo. Then we take the lift up to the fifth floor. The hallway is silent but a blinking white light on the wall directs us to our room. Inside, we lock the door and remove our shoes. A moment later the telephone rings and a receptionist wants to know how long we intend to stay, then hangs up.
Payment procedures differ from place to place. In our establishment there is a small opening set into the wall by the door; inside is a narrow plastic tube.
The drill is to take out the tube, unscrew the top, insert money to pay for the room and replace the tube. Push another button and the tube is sucked away up the pipe to an invisible cashier, who takes the money and sends the tube back with the change. Everything is perfectly unobtrusive, secret and unseen; we have checked into a hotel room and not met anyone's eyes.
With the routine complete it's time to relax, or not. The room is windowless but large and softly lit, the bed's huge and the bedside table is stocked with complimentary condoms - safety comes first in Japan.
There is a jacuzzi-style bath big enough for (at least) two, adult movies on TV, room service, and many love hotels sell costumes and toys (if you're into that sort of thing).
Today the themes for a love hotel's rooms are limited only by the imagination: swimming pools, space ships, Arabian Knights, medieval chambers - I've even heard of indoor go-kart tracks for those wanting to take a naked spin. Now that can't be safe.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Japan daily from Auckland and Christchurch.
Further information: Love hotels can be found in any city, close to the city centre, entertainment districts or near large stations. Prices range from $60 to $100 for two hours. Overnight stays are also possible if checking in after 10pm.