That Time My Husband and I Stayed at a Japanese Love Hotel

Photo: Courtesy of Ellen Freeman

By Ellen Freeman

Six years ago, I drank a bucket of margaritas (with only a little help from my friends), went to a basement show, and met my future husband. Now, after nearly two years of living together in Japan, I wanted to celebrate our anniversary in a Japanese-y way. I had been fantasizing about staying in a ryokan, one of those atmospheric Japanese inns with softly sliding paper doors, guests lounging in cotton kimono, private hot spring baths, and a smorgasbord of exquisitely Instagram-able traditional fare…but then I found out that a night in a ryokan costs upwards of $150 per person.

Considering that for that price tag we’d still be sleeping on a futon on the floor, plus the fact that my subsidized teacher’s rent comes to $140 per month, we decided to scrap the ryokan plan, no matter how romantic it seemed. Instead, we went lowbrow and stayed in a love hotel.

That’s not to suggest that a love hotel is any less authentic of a Japanese couple’s experience. In fact, stroll around the nightlife district or outer edges of any Japanese city and you’ll come across as many love hotels as the country’s infamous vending machines. Even in the tiny town where we live, there’s an abandoned one right across the street from our apartment building. It boasts smashed windows, dilapidated cabanas, and a porcelain dog guarding the front door that I’ve had my eye on for months.

Put bluntly, love hotels are establishments where couples pay to use a room for sex. Once, a member of my English conversation group asked me, “Why don’t you have love hotels in America?” I thought about it and answered, “Because Americans do it at home,“ forgetting for a moment that there were also pay-by-the-hour establishments that I was sure I’d never set foot in.

But when you live in a household with multiple generations and the only thing between you and grandma is a paper wall (as is often the case in Japan), home is not always the most desirable place to get down. Love hotels are also the perfect spot for a secret fling.

More from Refinery29: 10 Incredible Hostels To Make Your Bucket-List Dreams Come True

The idea of a hotel for sex sounds seedy, but this is Japan, where people change their shoes to go to the bathroom and voluntarily wear surgical masks to prevent illness, so I can assure you that love hotels are just as clean and well-appointed as regular ones — nothing like the shoddy counterparts in the West.

Photo: Courtesy of Ellen Freeman

Love hotels have various offerings, from the whole night to a few hours (called a “rest” on the rates chart), and even just 30 minutes. (It’s got to be a bit of a letdown when the guy taking you to a love hotel is like, “Let’s just get the half hour.”) Clients are treated with the utmost discretion: The parking lot is shielded from view by low-hanging flaps and customers most likely won’t have to encounter a single other human during the whole experience.

In older love hotels, guests check in with a pair of anonymous hands through a frosted glass window or buy a ticket out of a vending machine. Newer ones are outfitted with a touchscreen display showing interior photos of all of the available rooms. With the latter, there’s usually someone watching on closed-circuit TV, so if you stand there and hesitate for too long or generally look confused and foreign, they’ll call you on the lobby phone and walk you through the process. (I obviously know this from experience.)

There are apps to help you find the nearest love hotel when the mood strikes, but on our special night, my husband and I circled the nightlife zone, looking for the perfect place to spend our first time. Easily recognizable for their whimsical, castle-like exteriors and lack of windows, love hotels favor foreign-sounding, sometimes-inexplicable names written in flashing neon. We struggled to read them, skipping the Amour and the Serenade (too basic), bypassing the Tiki Tiki and the Treasure Island (too tropical), and eschewing the Green Salad and the Bean-o (no explanation needed). Hotel Chapel Christmas was enticing but, not fully committed to spending our anniversary in Santa Land, we ultimately chose Hotel Ginbashi (“silver bridge”) for its swish street appeal.

More from Refinery29: Your Guide To An Unforgettable Weekend In Big Sur

Photo: Courtesy of Ellen Freeman

The almost-full parking lot was decorated with sepia-toned stock photos of pearls and jewels, everything radiant with golden backlighting. In the lobby, we stood mesmerized by a futuristic water feature that somehow levitated sparkling crystal droplets to the ceiling, instantly selling me on the hotel’s classiness. Ambient string music piped eerily into the deserted room, giving us the strange feeling of trespassing. It was after 10 p.m. and there was only one room left, so we made a move and selected Room 405 for the night at a cost of ¥9800 (about 80 bucks — pretty mid-range for a love hotel). As we waited for the elevator, another couple arrived to find no vacancy and we avoided eye contact.

When we got off on the fourth floor, illuminated arrows pointed us in the direction of our room. As we giggled our way down the mirrored hallway, we bumped into a maid who hastily backward-scurried into a mysterious trap door, bowing and apologizing the whole way. We located the blinking 405 plaque and as soon as the door closed behind us, the phone rang. Like something out of a thriller movie, only more polite, a woman on the other end instructed us to put the money into the space-age vacuum tube in the entryway and whizz it off to wherever all the hotel staff were hiding in the walls. Like Wonkavision, the tube immediately zoomed back with our change. It was my first time using a vacuum tube and it easily supplanted the lobby’s reverse-fountain as my favorite feature.

The room was cavernous compared with a standard Japanese hotel room, which are usually only slightly bigger than the bed, which is itself slightly smaller than an American queen-size. The bed at Ginbashi, though, was huge and — I was relieved to see — spotless. The suite was decorated in Valentine chocolate brown with red accents. For the first 10 minutes, we were like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone 2, running around, opening every drawer, jumping on the bed, and exclaiming with delight.

More from Yahoo Travel: Have L.A.’s Edgy New Hotels Gone Too Far?

At first glance, there was everything you would expect in a normal hotel room: a tea service and mini-bar, leather couch, forgettable framed art, and a digital alarm clock. But a deeper probe into the cabinets revealed a glowing sex toy vending machine (with offerings like fruit-flavored lube and a $40 purple dildo), a full karaoke set-up with his ‘n’ hers microphones, and a stock of free condoms in a shade of red that perfectly matched the throw pillows.

Photo: Courtesy of Ellen Freeman

I excitedly threw open the closet doors but inside only empty hangers swung — disappointing since I’d heard that some love hotels stock sexy costumes. A friend told me that some of the more down-market love hotels he’s stayed in even complete the “den of sin” image with slot machines right in the room, their bells and lights so annoying that he’s had to dismantle them just to get some sleep. Luckily, ours was a gambling-free zone.

More from Refinery29: 5 Things To Look For In A Travel Buddy

There was plenty of entertainment provided, however, on the TV’s free porn channels. Sure, we perused the adult content, but found the impromptu skin flick film festival uninspiring. For one, Japan’s censorship laws require pixilation of all genitals, but even less arousing was the fact that all of the plot lines seemed to rely heavily on schoolgirl uniforms and unwanted groping (with the female party squealing come-ons like “no, no, no,” “bad,” and “scary,” before finally being overcome by ecstasy). We switched off the TV and, though I can assure you that there were no schoolgirl uniforms involved, thoroughly enjoyed all that the room had to offer for the rest of the night.

I woke up surrounded by a womblike pink glow created by the morning light coming in through the sheer red curtains. While my husband snoozed, I put my hair back with the polka dot scrunchie I picked out of the bathroom’s replete selection of complimentary toiletries, applied the collagen face mask, and slipped into the big-enough-for-two Jacuzzi. I cycled through the channels on the bathroom’s flatscreen TV with my big toe, flipping between the pixelated porn, a subtitled broadcast of From Here to Eternity, and live coverage of a Japanese chess tournament. As I lay back in the herb-scented water, the tub’s LED laser-lights pulsating through every color of the rainbow beneath my butt, I thought to myself, “I don’t ever want to leave this place.”

Related: You Can’t Get More Romantic Than These 3 Couples Retreats

At 11 a.m., time for checkout, we made for the door but found it locked — and un-un-lockable. There was actually a little piece of plastic covering the lock with instructions to break it in case of an emergency. I’d heard from friends with a lot of love hotel experience that they sometimes lock you in the room until you pay (which could be kind of scary or kind of romantic). But since we’d paid beforehand, it didn’t make sense that we couldn’t get out. I tried calling down to the staff, but no matter what combination of numbers I punched, couldn’t get past the dial tone. Finally, after sending off a few frantic “HELP TRAPPED IN LOVE HOTEL” texts, the door miraculously clicked open and we were free to leave. Breathing a sigh, I took one last look around the room and realized that I did want to leave this place — but only cause I was hungry for breakfast, the only amenity that love hotels are missing.

WATCH: Sydney Gets Wild and Weird with Vivid

Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.