Love Motels are everywhere in Korea. Basically, they are hotels with a late check-in time (10PM or later) and often set up to be a getaway for couples. Since people – especially women – are expected to live at home until marriage, there really isn’t a place for a couple to have any privacy. I’ve also heard that another reason young adults live with their parents is because the rental deposits are so huge (read: $10,000 to $50,000 bucks!), that no one can afford their own place. Enter the Love Motel which provides people with the opportunity to have sex in a private place, even though premarital sex is frowned upon here (In that way, the US is not much different in its attitude about premarital sex, especially among the young – commonplace, but still seen as improper on some level). Love Motels also have a bit of a reputation for being a place for affairs and sex workers, as they can be rented by the hour – though sometimes a monogamous couple may choose the hourly option if staying overnight would arouse too much suspicion within the family. So yeah – Love Motels. They’re pretty ubiquitous and basically set up for sex, which is sort of weird for Korea since this country is pretty secretive about sex for the most part (a subject for at least one other blog post).
One of the things that make Love Motels different from other hotels are the entrances. The entrances are somewhat secret – off the main road, and shielded with heavy fabric like the kind that you would see in a drive-through car wash. That way, passersby need to make an effort to see who is in the parking lot, people getting out of the car can do so privately, and therefore customers can feel slightly more comfortable patronizing a place. At the front door of some buildings, you can see pictures of rooms that are still available and pay either by the hour, or the night using an automated system, so you do not even need to make eye contact with a desk person.
The pictures of the rooms outside the building are important, IMO, because they show off the décor – another thing that can make Love Motels different. Here (least in the fancier ones) rooms are often theme-based, and customers can choose the room according to what it looks like. Half the fun of staying in a Love Motel is the crazy room! Dave and I stayed in a Hello Kitty room one time (copyright be damned). There was also a Simpsons room and a room made to look like a camp site, featuring a large mural of a crushed beer can. Next time we want to either stay with the Simpsons or in the room with the large gun painted on the wall, film noir style.
Other room features that demonstrate its sex focus? The jetted tub, large enough for two, is in the main room, not the bathroom. From there (or the bed) you can view the giant TV which offers several porn viewing options (some free, some not), along with several other films. The shower is also big enough for two, and the rain showerhead helps ensure both parties can get under the water at the same time. Robes and towels are provided, as are several toiletries including colognes for men and women – and not just tiny bottles, but full-sized. The bottled water, juice, and soda in the fridge are all free of charge.
Then there’s the personal pack you can choose to purchase (though at some places they are apparently free – mine cost just a dollar); this includes, among other items, two tooth brushes, bubble bath, some extra special lotions, and two condoms. Checkout time is noon.
Oh, and apparently in some lobbies, there are dildo machines. I have yet to see one though. Our Love Motel did provide free popcorn and espresso, however, which was quite nice.
As with any hotels, Love Motels vary in quality and price. From the outside, many are beautiful buildings and some are decorated with humorous paintings or made to look like various structures (one in Cheonan looks like a Swiss chateau; another has a weird Wizard of Oz motif). I think the one we stayed in – Hotel Pop – is in the nice to medium range. Checking in at 10PM in a very central part of Seoul ran us $80 a night.
As I said before, Love Motels are all over the place. But apparently Koreans are not pleased about this. A few years ago this newspaper article ran in response to a controversy about a photo essay on Love Motels featured in an English magazine published in Korea. Apparently, the photo essay itself generated a decent amount of negative response from Koreans – how dare this journalist highlight the underside of Korean culture? Or, what seemed to be more the issue: How could our country betray us by allowing this feature to be published? Yet despite the author of the newspaper article – a professor at a prestigious Korean university – defending the right for the photojournalist to feature Love Motels and the magazine to subsequently publish the piece, he still sees Love Motels as a point of shame, and dreams of their eradication.
As a tourist, Love Motels can be a great option if you want to stay in a pretty nice (and fun/interesting) place for a good price. My experience with them is limited, as I only went to one (two separate times) with a partner and we are obviously American (white); presumably we were treated as tourists – not as opportunists. But we were treated with respect and the rooms, while not completely spotless, were clean and well stocked. When we couldn’t find the remote which controlled the TV, lights, and heat, someone came up right away to help. So, Love Motels aren’t just for “illicit” couples; they can be for anyone. I have no idea what it would be like to try to bring your kids there though; but I can see some young people being THRILLED to stay in a place decked out in cartoon characters ;-). That said, some parents may not be too thrilled to bring their children to a place with a sex toy vending machine…
But even if sex is their primary purpose, the Love Motel omnipresence demonstrates that they are here to stay and are used enough to keep them all in business. One sign that Korea’s attitudes about sex and sexuality are far from unique – sex is all around us, but we dare not speak its name.