TOKYO -- As midnight approaches, the sloping streets of Shibuya's Dogenzaka district start to crowd up. There are the usual salarymen stumbling home after a few drinks. Groups of university students head for the train station after a karaoke session.
But a closer look reveals hushed voices and silhouettes disappearing into the back streets -- and into a softly lit pink building with a hidden entrance and few windows. It is one of over 7,000 love hotels in Japan named after the original, Hotel Love, which opened in Osaka in 1968.
A fixture of Japanese society, these establishments cater to couples looking for a place to have sex. But the market for cheap accommodations is changing. With the decline of the youth population in Japan, and perhaps more importantly, fewer young couples having sex, love hotels are having to look for new clients. Soon the term "love hotel" may be a misnomer, even as a euphemism.
Old love, new clients
Today's love hotels are creating new services for foreigners and marketing themselves as hostels and "boutique" hotels -- small but lavish accommodations. Part of their appeal is the relatively low prices. Hourly rates start at around 3,000 yen ($27), while overnight stays from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. typically run from 6,000 yen to 9,000 yen.
"It is natural for love hotel owners who see decreasing revenue to convert their properties into hotels targeting inbound tourists. In fact, this phenomenon was seen in Seoul, South Korea five-six years ago, when Seoul was packed with Chinese tourists," said Tom Sawayanagi, International Director of JLL Hotels & Hospitality Group.
A spokesperson at Japanese information technology company Almex, which supplies large touch-panels in love hotel lobbies for guests to view and select rooms, said they have noticed a rise in business between love hotels and Chinese travel agencies. Almex, which has installed products in some 80% of the love hotels in Japan, plans to outfit rooms with multilingual tablets for operating in-room entertainment.
Starting September, Almex will begin offering an online reservation service for love hotels throughout Japan. "We will look to market them as lavish hotels with luxurious facilities," the Almex spokesperson said. "We will initially look to appeal to foreign couples visiting Japan."
The Dutch hotel site Booking.com has also partnered with 349 such properties in the past year, demystifying love hotels with slideshows, detailed descriptions of amenities, 10-star ratings and guest reviews.
"We offer rates on a one-night basis only," a Booking.com spokesperson said. In other words, no "rest" rates for those seeking a quickie.
"Very helpful and friendly staff ... they provided a helpful English info sheet about how to use the TV, phone, air conditioner etc.," said one reviewer from the U.S. who stayed at Hotel the Hotel in Shinjuku. "This was a classy little boutique love hotel that anyone can enjoy."
These companies highlight the industry's drive to become more marketable by categorizing love hotels as boutique hotels. Almex's website, Loveinn, is the first English-language portal for foreigners looking to stay at a love hotel as "an affordable, well-located" option. Complete with a manga to help first timers navigate the choices, Loveinn presents a wholesome image for what it calls "quality entertainment and relaxation."
"Companies like Almex are making it much easier for travelers to enjoy Japanese leisure hotels," according to the company's website. "Because of its unique role, the industry has unfairly been shrouded in secrecy, which leads to a lot being lost in translation."
Industry's rise and fall
The number of love hotels peaked in the late 2000s, reaching an estimated 30,000, but that has fallen in recent years. In 2009, the industry's turnover was estimated at 4 trillion yen, with over 2 million people a day visiting a love hotel.
These days, demand for rooms where trysts can take place is falling. According to Shiori Sakurai of STR, a hotel marketing research specialist, the number of love hotels has dwindled to around 7,000, although the figure is likely higher: Some are not registered with the police.
Demographic and behavioral changes are responsible for the decline. According to the U.N. World Population Prospects, Japan's youth population -- those between the ages of 20 and 29 who are likely to be most sexually active -- has fallen by more than a third over the last 20 years. Less sex translates to fewer love hotels.
Not only are there fewer young Japanese, they are apparently less amorous than earlier generations. According to a survey by Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 42% of unmarried men and 44% of unmarried women between the ages of 18 and 34, said that they had never engaged in sex with the opposite gender.
It is not all gloom for the industry, however. The void is starting to be filled by the growth of overseas visitors to Japan.
In 2016, the country hosted 24 million foreign tourists. If growth continues at a rate of 14% a year, tourist numbers will reach Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's goal of 40 million by the time of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But the surge in tourists has left the country short on accommodations, encouraging both the public and private sectors to do more to meet the demand.
Love in the future
Love hotels are becoming a global trend, with similar establishments popping up in Cuba, Hong Kong, South Korea and New Zealand to name a few. But the cultural phenomenon originated from Japanese enshuku, literally "one-yen dwellings," during the 20th-century Showa era, as couples looked for rooms for rendezvous. The appeal was obvious for couples seeking privacy in increasingly cramped cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
The blurring line in Japan between love hotels and boutique hotels has been a long time coming. After a 1984 entertainment law placed the hotels under the strict regulation of the police, they attempted to avoid the love hotel designation -- toning down flashy exteriors and expanding their amenities. Many are registered as general hotels or Japanese-style inns, which enables them to operate in zones where love hotels have been banned, said STR's Japan market manager, Shiori Sakurai.
Nowadays, once raunchy establishments are making great efforts to appear more subtle. Hotels that once featured vibrating beds, sex toy machines and swings now offer Jacuzzis, hot-stone spas and gourmet meals.
To survive, love hotels must continually update their services and facilities to meet changing customer trends. But can they?
"I would not mind staying at a love hotel as a cheap accommodation," one 19-year-old woman from Poland said as she made her way down a Shibuya street with her fellow travelers. The Booking.com spokesperson confirmed that the number of tourists staying at love hotels rose significantly from 2015 to 2016, as did the industry's profit.
Love hotels will have to keep changing. Most are exclusively for couples, although some allow families. There is also the age restriction: Customers must be 18 or older, and rooms typically have only one bed.
Sawayanagi of JLL Hotels & Hospitality Group sees love hotels' small room inventory as a challenge to the industry. "A love hotel doesn't have any marketing function or budget, and relies on walk-in guests only. By contrast, a standard hotel needs a sales and marketing function," he said.
Whether the industry can continue to adapt to changing social tides remains to be seen. But the slightly illicit atmosphere of Shibuya's Dogenzaka alley seems at odds with the new image that love hotels are trying to promote. Home to more than 100 love hotels, secrecy hangs thick in the air. Like the elusive industry itself, so are the shadows entering and exiting the buildings unseen.