We’re walking along a road in one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Nestled between the embassies, historic publishing houses and the Tokyo American Club stands an odd, castle-like building. Quite out of step with the swanky, modern buildings of Azabu district, this grey stone structure is Alpha Inn, Japan’s only dedicated BDSM ‘Love Hotel.’ Alpha Inn’s cryptic exterior gives away little sense of what goes on inside. But open stepping into the lobby, we’re confronted with a large glass case filled with various sex toys, whips, ropes and vibrators. A giant penis statue rest on top of the lobby bar.
Alpha Inn is one of the few remaining Love Hotels, which flourished during Japan’s historic economic rise in the 1970s. These pay-by-the-hour hotels have a gaudy, hedonistic aesthetic with interiors that are beyond kitsch. They mimic what was thought to be Western glamour of the day, with chandeliers, tacky wallpaper and diamanté flourishes. Alpha Inn feels like it exists in another time but it has survived, against the odds, because it offers a unique space for sexual expression and a home for Tokyo’s BDSM community. This visit, I’m collaborating with Canadian photographer Nathalie Daoust, who has spent months at Alpha Inn, photographing dominatrixes and fetish performers in each of the rooms.
Alpha’s Inn’s themed rooms all offer something different: they’re decked out with a remarkable array of BDSM furniture, hooks for suspension on the ceilings, bondage contraptions, crosses and other accoutrements, such as a horse-shaped piece of furniture. Each dungeon room has a bath, a bed and is dimly lit. If a slipper is tucked in the door, leaving it slightly open, it means that anyone can come in and watch or join the activities. While Alpha Inn once relied on word of mouth, today many guests initially meet on Twitter, then convene for an hour or two of debauchery with strangers. Entering the first room, we find a group of men who met on Twitter: one is cross-dressed and tied up to a St. Andrews Cross, while two others play with him and another watches.
“Most of [Japan’s Love Hotels] look like they are from medieval times, they are all a bit weird, with cosplay, Christmas or Bali themes,” explains Brett Bull, who runs a website called Tokyo Reporter, which explores Japan’s seedy underbelly. “No-one has addressed the elephant in the room, which is to have one that is just nice!”
Brett explains that much that occurs in Japan goes on beneath the surface of acceptable behaviour. “One of the common themes in media about Japan is that it is sexless,” he says. “I don’t think married couples are having sex but the media doesn’t explore anything deeper than that. The narrative is about being humble and suffering for the group. But that doesn’t explain why there are so many Love Hotels which cater to adults engaging in adultery and prostitution.”
Japan is famous for its low birth rates and aging population. Young people are increasingly less interested in sex and relationships, reporting high rates of celibacy. A 2021 survey found that more than half of Japanese twenty-somethings are not in a relationship: 65.8% of men and 51.8% of women. A third of men in their twenties and a quarter of women said they had “zero” dating experience.Yet, Japan is also a leader in the commodification of sex and intimacy, with both men and women paying for services that range from professional cuddlers to host/hostess bars where clients can purchase the boy/girlfriend experience and a service for every single fetish under the sun.
Saori Imazeki is Alpha Inn’s manager. His father opened the hotel in 1979, when Saori was six years old. “He was a writer and his pen-name was Sado Riske,” Saori says. “He was inspired by Japanese sadomasochism. The hotel was originally a traditional inn with a large bath on the first floor. Then it developed into a six-floor hotel, like a regular business hotel. In the late ‘70s, the golden era of Love Hotels, my father made one or two BDSM-themed rooms, he didn’t overhaul it all at once. Later, he suddenly decided to transform the entire hotel.”
Alpha Inn remains a relic of retro kink but its clientele has changed over the years. “In the ‘70s, there weren’t many people into BDSM,” Saori says. “It was only a narrow slew of elite people, doing somewhat exclusive things. But nowadays, it is young people in their 20s meeting on apps, so I feel the era has changed.”
Saori says that around half of his clients today are amateurs, while the other half are professionals. A recent trend is the rise in male escorts using the hotel to cater to women. “The women will check in before and then the guys will come in later,” he says. “There is a recent boom in women seeking out sexual services and they also do BDSM play. I’m grateful for them.”
Despite the clear demand for the expression and freedom it provides to its guests, recreating Alpha Inn would be impossible today. “Legally, we can’t build new Love Hotels, only run those that exist already,” Saori explains. “In terms of zoning. our place is not OK: we are close to a park and a school. We aren't meant to be in the vicinity of these things but we were here before the rules were implemented. We are a sex establishment and Japan is trying to get rid of these places. If I quit, it would close as the owner would have to change. So, I need to be healthy and well!”
Izumi is a representative of Tokyo M Seikan, a male escort service which specialises in ‘M Seikan’ play for submissive women, which falls somewhere between vanilla sex and soft BDSM. The agency provides everything from all kinds of sexual play to dating services – their escorts frequently post photos from ‘dates’ at places like Disneyland. Izumi is tall and well-built, has a fringe that covers his eyes, full, upturned lips and seems quite introverted, despite his job description. His eyes have a glint and curiosity which his clients find “mesmerising.”
Alongside handling management, Izumi also handles outcall work and has done 6,000 outcall jobs to date, sometimes spending the entire day at Alpha Inn, going from client to client, with up to five daily jobs in total. Full-service is not legal in Japan, so his activities are everything beside full intercourse.
On Izumi’s Twitter, he keeps a diary of sorts. He describes the broad range of activities he undertakes at Alpha Inn, which includes threesomes with two escorts and one client, a foursome with two clients, jobs with couples, whipping a girl with many spectators (other guests from the hotel), mummification with tape in the corridor and a video where he ties-up a girl with a vibrator attached to her nether regions and leaves her there with the door open.
Saori says that many artists are attracted to the “chaos” of Alpha Inn and work on projects there, such as illustrators and photographers taking (self)-portraits. The months Nathalie has spent at Alpha Inn have resulted in a series of fantastical yet intimate photos which explore her interest in the human proclivity for escapism – and are now on display in the lobby. Each image shows a woman in one of the rooms and reveals the nebulous boundaries between the real and the dream-like.
Nathalie shot the project despite being rejected several times by the owner, which she admits made it “even more intriguing” for her. “The atmosphere was incredible; it was like entering a world full of fantasy,” Nathalie remembers. “Despite all these rejections, I still had not given up on photographing the rooms of the Alpha Inn hotel. So, in one last attempt, I showed the owner my newly released book on the Carlton Arms Hotel, an underground New York City legend where every room is decorated by artists from all over the world. Finally he said yes. He told me I could photograph the rooms and the people who worked there, to make a full project about his hotel if I wanted.
“What interested me the most about the hotel and the women working there wasn’t the work itself, but the fact that it was a way to escape reality, both for the women and for the customers,” Nathalie continues. “This mesh between reality and fantasy is something I find truly interesting to show through photography. At first, I photographed the women with their clients, but quickly discovered that I wasn’t really interested in the men and their stories. I’m drawn to document people who pursue a kind of escape, the places they go to do so, and the people who are paid to help them reach this state of escape. Why do they work in this field – is it only for the money or are they motivated by real interest?”
We follow Tamaki, a dominatrix from La Siora, Tokyo’s most exclusive house of domination, to a brightly lit medical room with her client. Japan’s commercial BDSM scene has a large proportion of people with no inclinations towards kink and provides, effectively, a kind of theatre for money. But La Siora has extremely strict schooling standards, rejecting most girls who apply and serves only Japan’s elite. Donned in a bright red catsuit which contrasts with her long, jet black hair, Tamaki proceeds to whip her client, who is prostate on the floor, while she scolds him.
Behind each of Alpha Inn’s doors is a fantastical universe, where the normal rules of engagement do not apply and the pressures of regular society cease to exist. These interactions engage with the illusory, a type of fantasy and daydream created by the protagonists. But for people with a deep predilection for BDSM, these experiences can bring them closer to what they believe is their true self.
“BDSM is more mental, people who practice have a lot of desire for it,” Saori explains. “Some people have come here for decades and some are even here every day. My father didn’t want to make something normal: he wanted to do “plus alpha” and that’s why he created Alpha Inn. Each of the rooms is its own world. If we disappear, there are a lot of people who would genuinely be sad.”