Page last updated at 00:49 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 01:49 UK

Love beats the recession in Japan

A couple hold hands outside a love hotel
Japan's love hotels are doing brisk business, despite the economic downturn

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Tokyo

Japan's love hotels are attracting interest from more than just couples looking for a place to spend a few private hours.

Investors are also interested; this vast market seems to be proving more resilient to the recession than luxury business hotels.

There are about 25,000 love hotels in Japan which are visited an estimated 500 million times a year.

Clustered around train stations, they are doing a brisk business despite the worst recession in living memory.

A couple walk through the lobby of a love hotel, looking at a bank of screens
People can check into the love hotels via touch screens

Flamboyantly designed and exotically named - Hotel For You, Sunpalace, Asian P-Door - they offer rooms by the hour, euphemistically marketed as a short rest or a longer stay.

Contact with staff is kept to a minimum. This is a business that runs on discretion.

Some have underground car parks and entrances, while others provide screens to shield visitors' number plates.

Plenty of customers are using love hotels to indulge in affairs or to meet prostitutes, although many are couples looking to escape the narrow confines of Japanese apartment living.

Crowded country

At many hotels the reception desk has been replaced by a touch screen of pictures of the rooms, brightly lit if available, dimmed out if already occupied.

Love hotels offer time alone in a crowded country where privacy is rare.

Yuichi Ito and Kyoko Shio are typical of Japanese in their twenties, still living with their parents.

Yuichi Ito and Kyoko Shio in a hotel room
Yuichi Ito and Kyoko Shio both still live with their parents

"My family is my Dad and my Mom, and I have two younger brothers," says Yuichi Ito. "But we only have four rooms, so it is a very crowded house."

He adds that he and his girlfriend, who met while they were studying in the United States, visit love hotels to find somewhere to be alone.

Providing privacy is big business in Japan. The love hotel industry is huge, estimated to turn over about £25bn ($40bn) a year.

And hotel owners claim they have been barely touched by the recession.

"Of course some hotels did [suffer], but not love hotels," says Joichiro Mochizuki, an executive with a company which runs a number of love hotels, including the Asian P-Door in Tokyo.

"Not like city hotels, not like business hotels - for this love hotel we had a 3-4% drop but otherwise we have kept a 400% occupancy rate."

That means each room is, on average, used four times a day.

The sheer variety on offer for couples is huge. There are mock castles, perched by motorway intersections.

One love hotel is decorated on a theme that combines soft toys and bondage. In others, visitors can dress up as doctors and nurses.

Hotel built like a ship, with a "Titanic-style" statue at the prow
The hotels cater for all, even fans of the film Titanic

Some rooms look like school classrooms or train carriages.

There's even a love hotel for fans of the film Titanic, shaped like a cruise liner with life-size statues of Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslett on the prow.

With 25,000 across Japan, there is one to suit every fantasy.

Seedy reputation

British businessman Steve Mansfield sees great potential in the industry which has traditionally been shunned by big Japanese corporations put off by its seedy reputation.

The rooms in his hotels are rather straightforward. He says he aims to create the ideal living area which people would have at home if money was no object.

There is a bed, of course, a flat screen television and a projector, a karaoke machine and an outdoor bathroom in the more expensive suites.

There are also payment machines by every door in case guests want to leave unseen.

Steve Mansfield in a love hotel room
Steve Mansfield is looking to invest in more love hotels

Mr Mansfield's company, Japan Leisure Hotels, listed on London's AIM market, already runs six hotels, and he would like many more.

"When we looked at it and saw the fragmentation - 90% of owners have five or fewer hotels - we thought this is interesting," he says. "Here is a massive industry that has no market leader and there is a great opportunity here for consolidation."

Steve Mansfield does not like the phrase love hotels. He prefers "leisure hotels", pointing out that what goes on in his premises happens in every other hotel in the world.

Whatever they are called, Japan's short stay hotels remain busy with customers.

The Japanese may have cut back on many things in the downturn - but not on a few hours to spend alone with a loved one.

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