It was late. Too late to go back to Tokyo. Our guidebook had no information at all about Shin-Fuji, a small town between Osaka and Tokyo. From the railway station platform there was only one obvious place to stay, a five-story building a few blocks away. The sign on top advertised "Hotel -- 6,000 Yen."
When we arrived, there was no one at the front desk. There was no front desk -- just photos of the rooms along one wall. Two were illuminated, the rest were dark. We didn't know what to do. There was no one to ask. After four months of honeymoon travel on the road in Asia we were weary. We didn't have the energy to figure out another baffling cross-cultural situation.
A side door opened and an older man and a younger woman came in, all smiles and giddy. Unlike us, they had no luggage and seemed to know the routine. The man quickly withdrew a key from a cubbyhole. The adjacent photo instantly went dark. Tittering, the couple disappeared into the elevator.
"What do we do?" my wife said. "There's only one room left."
Before I could answer she was over at the wall. Gingerly, as though extracting the detonator from a bomb, she drew the last key from its slot. Tiny lights embedded in the floor began to flicker, outlining a path down the corridor. From around a corner the glow of a larger light pulsed. We moved cautiously ahead, as though caught in a tractor beam. We looked around. There was no one.
I had no idea what to expect. Even on our budget of $200 a day the astounding cost of everything in Japan had limited us to sex-segregated guesthouses and youth hostels. Now, without having checked in, without having spoken to anyone, without having left an imprint of our Visa card, we were about to enter a hotel room. I opened the door.
"Look at this!" Nina said. This room was huge, as big as a typical American hotel room and much bigger than any other place we had stayed in Japan. We exchanged our street shoes for the "house" slippers that waited on the threshold. The larger pair had a groom in a tuxedo embossed on the rubber toe piece. Nina's had a bride in white.
"They must know we're newlyweds," she said, leaping onto the bed. She held up the condoms and the origami lovebirds that had been left on the pillow. "They've thought of everything."
I opened the room service menu. There was no sushi on this menu. But there were a lot of things that looked like sushi. The most outlandish was adorned with small nubs and a collar that resembled an anemone from a Jacques Cousteau special. Apparently it cost 13,000 yen, batteries not included. I reflected on what had happened so far. The May-December couple with no luggage, no front desk, condoms on the pillow, and the very special room service menu. I knew we had stumbled onto something truly unusual. We had checked into our first Japanese love hotel.
We had heard about love hotels. "Abec hoteru," our guidebook called them -- discreet, fantasy getaways the Japanese use for afternoon and evening assignations. We had even looked for some, but, assuming they would resemble the tawdry, no-tell motels that line America's secondary thoroughfares, we were unable to find any. Now, without speaking to a person, without seeing a single employee, we were in one.
The room was replete with electronic gadgets straight out of Hugh Hefner's bedroom. There were remotes for everything: the lights, the 440 channels of music, the air-conditioning, the television, the bed.
"What are you doing?" Nina said. She had changed into a "yukata," one of the razor-crisp robes that came with the room.
"Hang on a second," I told her. "I've got to check this stuff out. I mean come on, I'm a guy."
"If you don't stop right now," she said, "I'm taking a shower."
I could feel the tension rising between us, but I couldn't help myself. The room was like Mission Control in Houston. Given what the menu had to offer, I had to find out what was on cable.
"I'll be there in a second," I told her.
"Some love hotel," she muttered and stalked out.
I toyed with everything. The fridge was a little automat, stocked with sushi and sandwiches just waiting for my 100-yen coins. There was a karaoke machine with dual mikes. The accompanying songbook was the size of the Manhattan directory and had every song of Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber, plus thousands of Japanese favorites. In one corner there was a small weight-lifting machine.
"What exactly do the Japanese do in these places?" I wondered.
A curious pneumatic tube system, the kind once used for billing in old-fashioned department stores, snaked out of the wall. I turned on the television. A man was binding up a woman in Saran Wrap. Clearly this was no Motel 6.
"C'mere, c'mere, c'mere," Nina cried from the bathroom. "Read these." She handed me a basket full of complimentary toiletries. On the tiny bag that held a "Hair Band," I read the caption. It seemed familiar, but I couldn't place it: "Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together. I've got some real estate here in my bag."
"'I've got some real estate here in my bag.' What is that supposed to mean?" I said.
Nina raced back to the bed. "Oh my God," she said, "that's from 'America.' Simon and Garfunkel were here."
I followed her back to bed, ready to resume the romance that had dwindled over the last few days as we pinched pennies on everything.
"What's that?" she said.
"That," she said, pointing to the far wall where a red digital clock was pulsing with the seconds. It read "0:42." We looked at each other. The clock changed to "0:41." It was ticking down.
Suddenly the playfulness that had been building between us was gone. "What do you think this room costs?" Nina said.
"I don't know. The sign said 6,000 yen."
"Right," she said, "but do you think that's for an hour or all night?" I felt my chest constrict, and it wasn't from what I'd seen on the television.
We had already seen a $70 cantaloupe and a $100 mushroom for sale and had heard about bars where beer costs $300 a bottle. Before I could complete the thought Nina said, "What if it's 6,000 yen an hour?!" It was a great room, but we didn't have $600 to spend for one night. I began to panic. I picked up the phone. A woman answered.
"Hello, do you speak English?" I asked. At first I thought she said, "What do you think of our sushi?" but then I realized she was speaking Japanese. "How much does this room cost?" I asked anyway, wondering how one counts above 1,000 in Japanese.
Nina handed me a brochure from the Japan National Tourist Organization. It had all the standard questions and answers needed by tourists written in both English and Japanese. The tourist, me, is supposed to point to the questions and the happy-to-assist Japanese person is supposed to point to the correct answer. It works less well on the telephone.
I opened to the hotel section and said, "Kono heya wa ikura desu ka?" which, according to the book, means, "How much is this room?" This unleashed an immediate answer I didn't understand at all, except that it sounded like "$1,200 or whatever you have left -- whichever is more." Sweat began beading on my forehead.
By now my bride was laughing hysterically. My mind strayed from the raison d'être of love hotels and began to focus on the Japanese penal system. "Maybe we should leave now," I suggested.
"Are you crazy?" Nina said. "It's after midnight. We're going to sleep. I don't care what it costs."
"Right," I thought. "This is why the groom's family pays for the honeymoon." As I put my head down, I saw traveler's checks flying out of my wallet. The digital clock clicked down to "0:08."
"What's that?" Nina said. Someone was knocking at the door. The digital clock pulsed "0:00." In the hallway a dissolute Japanese woman waited. The minute she saw me she began speaking rapidly in Japanese. When she finished I patted myself on the chest with both hands the way Indians used to do in old Westerns and said, "English." Evidently she was unable to pick up the language from this gesture and took off again in Japanese. Somewhere in her stream of words an island rose above the torrent. "Check-out-o" I thought I heard her say.
"Check-out-o?" I asked.
"Check-out-o," she insisted.
Now the picture began to clear. The clock had ticked down. Our time was up. I had heard a "kerplunk" in the pneumatic tube. When I hadn't put in my money this woman was sent out to collect.
"No check-out-o," I said. I put my hands to the side of my head like the woman in the Singapore Airlines ad and repeated, "No check-out-o. Sleep-o."
She started up again in Japanese. I gestured for the woman to come inside the room. She threw her hands up in front of her face and waved them back and forth as though trying to stop a runaway train. She wasn't coming in. Even love hotels have rules.
From the bed Nina called, "Try the book." I retrieved the pamphlet, hoping it might work better face to face than it had over the phone.
In the pamphlet I pointed to "How much does this room cost?" She wrote 6,000¥ on her palm. Still, I didn't know if that was per hour, for two hours, for the time we had been there, or what. With book, pen, and a rudimentary written language that consisted of these symbols -- ¥ -- ? --> -- together with the hours of the day written in the 24-hour clock of the military, I was able to figure out that our first two hours cost 6,000 yen and the rest of the night would be another 6,000 yen. I paid her the money. I wasn't ready for the challenge of the pneumatic tube.
"Only 6,000 yen for midnight to 10 a.m.," Nina said. "That's not bad."
It's true we had been spending nearly that amount to stay in separate bunkrooms with Korean schoolkids on vacation. If love hotels were all like the "Dear Hotel," it looked like the reasonable and romantic way to see Japan.
The next day we were off to Nikko, an alpine town north of Tokyo famous for its temples and natural beauty. "To hell with natural beauty," Nina said. "We've got plenty in California. Let's find another love hotel."
Although well known to the Japanese, the locations of love hotels are not mentioned in guidebooks. After quickly seeing the sights of Nikko, we went to tourist information. An older, genteel Japanese woman stood at the desk.
"You ask her," I said to Nina.
"I'm not asking her," Nina said. "She's like a grandmother."
As we glared at each other, the lady asked in perfect English, "May I help you?"
I looked at this lovely woman who was waiting patiently. I couldn't do it. What would she think of Americans if I asked her about an abec hoteru? I gathered my courage. At last I asked, "Is there a bank anywhere near here?"
The clerk at the bank was a young man who also spoke English. After we changed money I gestured that he should come closer. From inches away I whispered, "Can you tell me if there is an abec hoteru around here?"
"Abec hoteru?" he restated at full voice, apparently not constrained by any prudish American convention regarding places for sexual trysts. "Just moment please." He then turned to a female teller and began a conversation in Japanese that sounded something like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on first?" routine, with abec hoteru running the bases. After much discussion that involved the entire staff of the bank as well as the use of several maps, he directed us to a hotel up the street. When we got there a dozen elderly women were getting off tour buses and checking in. Something had gotten lost in the translation.
"What should we do?" Nina asked.
To get to Nikko we had changed trains in Utsunomiya, a small junction town. The bullet train had sped past a bright neon sign for "The James Dean Hotel." It had to be what we were looking for.
"Let's go back to the James Dean," I suggested.
By the time we returned to Utsunomiya it was already past 10 p.m. Nina suggested taking a taxi, but the flag-fall was 600 yen and every mile was about that much again. Getting to the James Dean could cost a fortune. Besides, it seemed to me the hotel was near the station. I figured we could walk. As we learned an hour later, it's difficult to judge distances while on a train going 180 miles per hour.
Pulling our suitcases behind us, we were soon trudging down narrow roads on the outskirts of town. I could see the neon glow on the far horizon. Like desperate gamblers low on gas it drew us on like the distant lights of Las Vegas. We were walking through rice fields and around agricultural warehouses. The roads were empty. But the lights were getting closer. So was an odd, rhythmic sound.
Thhhh-kwack! We heard. Thhh-kwack! Thhh-kwack! We turned a corner. In front of a convenience store a man and a woman were hitting golf balls tied to an elastic cord. Thhhh-kwack! The ball took off, fell to the ground and snapped back to the tee.
We stopped and watched them. They stopped and watched us -- two gaijin pulling suitcases in the middle of nowhere at midnight. And we thought they were strange. We continued on. They watched us leave. Thhh-kwack!
We were absolutely beat when we got to the James Dean. It was in an enclave of love hotels. Next door was the Passion, a metallic, futuristic castle. Down the street was the Chalet, an ersatz Tudor building with turrets worthy of Rapunzel's affection. Each had individual parking spaces for each room. The couple pulls in, closes a curtain behind the car and goes directly inside without being seen by anyone. We circumnavigated the building. All the garage curtains were drawn closed. We had shortchanged the historical wonders of Nikko. We had walked for more than an hour. And now, at midnight, on a Thursday, the James Dean was full.
We wheeled our bags across the street to the Cosmo Part II. Each of us and each of our bags tripped the electronic sensor at the gate. No doubt wondering how four cars could pull in at the same time, the proprietor, an old man in slippers with a cordless phone, shuffled out. From my experience the night before I was now nearly fluent in love hotel Japanese.
"Check-in-o," I said.
"Hai, check-in-o," the old man responded. He then asked, "Rest-o?"
I shook my head no and said, "Stay-o."
"Rest-o" is the word for the two-hour tryst enjoyed morning, noon and night by seemingly every person in Utsunomiya and the rest of Japan. "Stay-o," which runs overnight, begins only when most lovers have gone home to spouses or parents. If one can wait around, a stay-o costs much less than a traditional hotel and comes with more exciting fixtures.
The proprietor showed us a graphic display of the rooms. We chose the "disco" room. Our stay-o in rural Utsunomiya would cost 6,000 yen.
"It's better than last night," Nina said. The room was twice as spacious as our room at the Dear. Not only did it have everything the Dear had, but it had a sauna, a large selection of adult video tapes and, directly above the bed, the pièce de résistance, the item I had wanted above my bed ever since junior high, a rotating mirrored ball. I started surfing the music system in search of "Disco Inferno."
The phone rang. I picked it up. I heard the old man's voice. "Front-o," he said.
"What do you think he wants?" I asked Nina. I went downstairs.
At the foot of the stairs was a small trap door, the kind used by milkmen for home delivery. The old man's arms were jutting through, a small Coca-Cola bottle in each hand.
"For you," he said in English. "For American friend." It was the most touching thing anyone had done for us in Japan.
After we finished with the bath and the sauna we were ready for bed. "Do you want to see what's on TV?" Nina said softly, raising her eyebrows in a coy, newlywed kind of way. We had never watched any adult anything before. "It could be educational."
I clicked the set on. Evidently the Japanese have a thing for fresh foods because again a man was sealing a woman up with plastic wrap.
"Oh my God. I can't watch this," Nina said. "Turn it off. No, don't turn it off. No, I've got to watch this."
We watched until the woman looked like she would stay fresh until at least tomorrow. The man began to undress. As the camera dropped to follow the action, the anatomically correct, precisely outlined parts of the image became blurred, digitally scrambled. This didn't conceal the faces of the actors but only the areas most people are interested in seeing when watching these films.
The sexual encounter that followed was like watching two pulsing, swirling lava flows merging with one another. Everything was rendered in a wild paisley.
"What is this?" Nina asked. "Are they trying to protect us from something? We're in a love hotel."
"Yes, we are," I said, turning on the rotating mirrored ball above the bed. Little ovals of reflected light spun around the room. I drew her near.
"Wait a minute," she interrupted. "Don't you think you should ... you know, sing some karaoke? Or do some weight lifting? That machine is going to waste." Laughing, she added, "Oh, I don't understand this country at all."
The next morning, before leaving, I put 200 yen in the karaoke machine and crooned my own rendition of "You're Just Too Good to Be True." Nina woke up just in time to see me hop on the weight machine for a quick twenty reps. I then brewed two cups of complimentary coffee. Fully pumped up, I pulled the karaoke mike into bed. Nina looked at me and said, "I think it's time for us to leave."
By the time we returned to Tokyo, we were expert love hotel spotters. Near railroad stations they seemed to comprise entire blocks. They dotted residential neighborhoods. How could we have overlooked places with names, English names, like the Happy Heart Hotel, the Once Around, the Sweet Night Inn? Even the Japanese neon signs took on a certain stimulating familiarity. We became fluent in identifying the essential characteristics of love hotels: the wild architecture, the wilder names, the continuous streams of cars and pedestrians, and, always, the sign out front with the prices.
After four months of honeymoon travel by plane, train, car, boat, and motorcycle, it was now time to head home. Ours had been an amazing journey where each day contained an element of the surreal. We had hoped to go on to Europe, but time and budget prevented that. So, in lieu of Paris, we spent our last night in Tokyo at Le Chic where all the little sayings on the toiletries were in French. We used the room to its fullest. No gizmo was left untouched. When we were finally exhausted, when we had taken advantage of everything Le Chic had to offer, I dimmed the lights and tucked Nina in. I put a few coins in the karaoke machine and softly began singing Chansons d'Amour. Paris had nothing more to offer.
A version of this story originally appeared in West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News, in June 1995. It has since been published in many magazines, newspapers and anthologies (and plagiarized repeatedly).