Host Nathan Thornburgh finds himself, yet again, in a Japanese love hotel watching porn and knocking back shochu with his old friend, the Tokyo journalist Toko Sekiguchi.
This podcast episode should have porn, right? It’s an odd but necessary question to put to my old friend and former TIME Magazine colleague, Tokyo-based business journalist Toko Sekiguchi. But she’s a gamer, that Toko. For this episode, falling close to Valentine’s Day, she’s taking us inside the world of Japanese Love Hotels. Toko and I have done this before, four years ago, while I was reporting for Matt Goulding’s book Rice, Noodle, Fish. But Japan is always in flux, and the infidelity industrial complex keeps on growing. So she and I are back. As a warning, just in case the last 26 episodes of this show haven’t made it clear: this is not appropriate content for children. Or even for spouses. Discretion advised.
Here is an edited and condensed version of Nathan and Toko’s conversation from this week’s episode of The Trip: Drinking around the World with Exceptional People. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or Radio Public, or Stitcher.
Nathan Thornburgh: What are we drinking here?
Toko Sekiguchi: This is Strong Zero. It’s shochu and, probably, really bad fruit juices.
Thornburgh: Strong Zero. It’s a chu-hi in a can.
Sekiguchi: Yeah, a chu-hi is shochu mixed with pretty much anything.
Thornburgh: Shochu is the strongest kind of spirit that’s native to Japan, right?
Sekiguchi: Yeah. I think it’s originally from the south of Japan where they didn’t have rice to make sake. Since they didn’t have good rice and good water to make sake, they started distilling potatoes and other starchy vegetables into shochu. I think in the Kagoshima area they do a lot of shochu.
Thornburgh: I don’t know if the Kagoshima ancestors would have imagined a world in which Suntory is pumping out cans of very lemony Strong Zero, but chu-his are like a secret weapon of Japan. They’re a great pregame drink if you’re getting ready to go out. It’s like a cocktail in a can.
Sekiguchi: They’re like wine coolers except, you know, ridiculously strong.
Thornburgh: There you go. Well, cheers. Kanpai! So here we are, once again, in a love hotel. This is our jam.
Sekiguchi: Yes it is.
Thornburgh: We should say this: there will be no sex in this episode. Toko and I are buddies.
Sekiguchi: If you say so.
Thornburgh: Last time it was even better because I had actually left my wife and young kids at the hotel in Tokyo. I told her, listen, I’m going to a love hotel with Toko. You hang back. My wife’s a cool customer. And she knows you. So, it was okay.
Sekiguchi: It was nice that you told your wife that you were going to love hotel. She was like, “Okay, have a good time!”
Thornburgh: We’re here again to celebrate love hotels, which is a very specific part of Japanese culture. Let’s talk about the love hotel’s commitment to secrecy. The clients are often people who live at home with their parents and just need some privacy. But there’s also a lot of cheating that goes on in love hotels. There’s the presumption, no matter what, that people would like to be a discreet as fuck in here. Out in the suburbs, there will be some grandma who will come out to the parking garage and quickly put a shield in front of your license plates so that nobody can see that it’s your car that’s parked at the love hotel. And even this place that we’re at in the city seems to have a very labyrinth-like exit and entrance scheme.
Sekiguchi: These hotels are created so that you have minimal contact with other guests. In a lot of places, you don’t even have contact with the receptionist. There are touch screen panels, which you can use to choose a room. Things actually started changing, I think, in the mid-nineties. Up until then, people went to love hotels out of necessity. Discretion is important. In the mid-nineties, there was this travel guide that started doing love hotels features, and they sort of took the stigma out of going to a love hotel.
There were features on where to take your girlfriend and where to go for general entertainment. They suggested love hotels where people could have parties or get a private room to hang out with their friends and watch movies. So there’s been an evolution in the function of love hotels.
Thornburgh: That’s interesting. Lord knows we were both very much underage in the eighties, but for me, that feels like the golden era of love hotels because now you can see that they had a sort of arms race going on between the love hotels. They have like the crazy themes like the Statue of Liberty on the outside of the building or they’ll have crazy names. One of my favorite ones is, I think, in Osaka and it’s called Hotel Public Jam. I thought we were supposed to jam in private.
Sekiguchi: And they have rooms with dungeons and all that. I’ve never been in a dungeon room. But if I were to spend some time with my girlfriends, I’d want to get the dungeon room to have a party with my girlfriends. I wouldn’t necessarily be utilizing the dungeon for its primary purpose, but it’s fun. Right?
Thornburgh: Right! About 12 people could fit very comfortably in the room we’re in right now. You have karaoke, you have strange vending machines. You have DVDs. There’s obviously porn. I’m sure just a shit ton of porn that you can watch here, but you can also watch Troy. That’s not what I like to have sex to, but you can watch Hollywood blockbusters. You can watch Gerard Butler and get it going. The thing that is just so delightful, to me, about Japan is that they really leaned into the idea of the love hotel. They’re like this is a hotel for the purpose of having sex. I mean the fucking ashtrays in here are heart-shaped.
Sekiguchi: I mean, I haven’t really looked at the bed, but I think a lot of them are waterproofed or have plastic covers for public health reasons… which makes sense.
Thornburgh: It does make sense. I have to say: if Japan wasn’t already the most neurotically clean country I’ve ever been to, I might feel differently about always taking my good friend Toko to love hotels. I don’t want to shine blue light in this room either, but it’s got a better chance of being clean here than anywhere else in the world.
Sekiguchi: I haven’t been into a lot of love hotels, but I feel like most of them have hardwood floors. You wouldn’t want to have a rug in here. But if you were to spend a night in a business hotel in Tokyo, you’d be in a tiny room. A single bed and maybe a place where you can place your suitcase. No desk and no chair. And the bathrooms are tiny, tiny, tiny. If you go to a love hotel, the beds are luxurious and they have fancy bathtubs with neon colors and jacuzzis. When you consider the price, it’s actually not a bad deal.
Thornburgh: Right. This one is probably about $82 for six hours. So, do single people go to love hotels?
Sekiguchi: A lot of love hotels have been turned into family-friendly hotels.
Thornburgh: That’s interesting. You had mentioned that the one we went to four years ago now has kids on their website as part of their advertisement.
Sekiguchi: Yeah, it does. Another hotel, when it used to be a love hotel, actually had a graph on its website that with a male figure and a female figure and the different combinations of couplings that were permitted in the hotel.
Thornburgh: Oh, really?
Sekiguchi: A male-female pair was okay.
Sekiguchi: A male-male pair was not okay, a female-female pair was okay, and a single female was okay. Single males were not permitted.
Thornburgh: A dude definitely wrote that chart.
Sekiguchi: I’ve heard that one of the reasons why love hotels sometimes don’t allow single guys to come in because they don’t want guys calling prostitutes because that’s illegal.
Thornburgh: That’s funny. Prostitution is illegal but you have these hyper-sexualized hotels.
Sekiguchi: I mean if you go into a love hotel with a prostitute as a couple, it’s okay. You just can’t call up a prostitute.
Thornburgh: It’s all about the details.
Sekiguchi: There are at least a dozen different fluorescent lights in here that you can control.
Thornburgh: Right! It goes from blue to green. My favorite light comes on if you press button number four. It’s a spotlight right where the genital area would be on the bed. Like I don’t want to see anything else except your ass in motion, you know? It’s really funny.
Sekiguchi: They try to do everything they can to create a mood because these rooms are windowless. It’s actually been an issue in the last few years because it’s a fire hazard. I’ve read about several fires starting in love hotels and the emergency door was locked or the window that led to the emergency stairs had been closed shut.
Sekiguchi: Yeah, these rooms normally don’t have windows for good reason. You don’t want to be seen.
Thornburgh: Right. It’s like a cave.
Sekiguchi: Exactly, so they want to do everything they can to create a mood. Lighting is one way to do that.
Thornburgh: Ok, meal break. I just came from Sendai in the north and I brought you something called beef tongue pie. “Beef tongue pie” were the only words in English on the box. I have no idea what a beef tongue pie is actually supposed to be, but it sounded like a perfect thing to bring to a love hotel. So we’re going to take a beef tongue pie break and figure out what the hell it is. And then, maybe, we’ll watch some porn. The porn vibes in our respective cultures are very different but equally fucked up. You and I have had several cultural-critical conversations about this in the past.
[Deep narrator voice: they took a beef tongue pie break]
Sekiguchi, with the TV remote: Ok, so what would you like to watch?
Thornburgh: I don’t know. You’re in the driver’s seat.
Sekiguchi: Here’s one that’s not very #MeToo. It’s male boss, female subordinate/ejaculatory sex.
Thornburgh: Is there any of this that would feel female-centric?
Sekiguchi: I know that porn for women is kind of a burgeoning industry, but I’m guessing that’s kind of progressive so you wouldn’t see it at a love hotel. Also, in the past couple of years, a few women have come forward and said they were coerced into performing. It got some mainstream media attention so it’s finally forced the industry into owning up to something that was kind of an urban legend. That really takes the fun out of porn.
Thornburgh: It definitely takes the fun out of porn.
Sekiguchi: So, which one would you like to watch? We could watch the one with dental assistants?
[Deep narrator voice: they watched the dental assistants]
Thornburgh: Well fuck all that. Let’s go get ramen.
Sekiguchi: Ok (laughing).
Thornburgh: Thanks for coming to a love hotel with me.
Sekiguchi: Always a pleasure.
Episode 27 Show Notes: