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Out of Japan: Clinical passion at the edge of the universe

TOKYO - While staying as a guest of a Japanese family with their own children last year, one question kept nagging at the prurient part of my mind.

The apartment they lived in was characteristically tiny - two small bedrooms and a living room with a fold-down couch which served as a bed at night. The rooms were separated by sliding paper screens, which did nothing to block sound and even showed silhouettes against the light.

How did the couple find the privacy to make love? One night while drinking beer with the husband, he told me. He and his wife regularly went to a love hotel close by for a few hours of intimacy - in the early evening, or on a Sunday afternoon.

Love hotels are spread all over Asia, where the supposed Christian ideal of life-long fidelity to one's spouse is replaced by an easy-going, matter-of-fact approach to sex. But while in South-east Asia love hotels still have an aura of the forbidden fruit - usually patronised by men who are paying their companion for her services - in Japan the wheel has come full circle, largely because of extortionate property prices and cramped living conditions.

Increasingly, Japanese love hotels are used by young couples still living with parents, people who live too far away to entice their date back 'for a cup of coffee', and even married couples whose children no longer fall asleep after dinner. The love hotel is the ultimate escape from Japan's swirling masses.

In the pursuit of journalistic accuracy, I went to a love hotel - an adventure which turned into an eerie, anonymous 2001 odyssey into the clinical heart of sex in Japan. The hotel - actually called a 'fashion hotel', as love hotel is regarded as slightly vulgar - had a small sign outside, in pink, the signal colour of Japan's sex trade.

The automatic doors swished open to reveal a small lobby. In a panel were pictures of the different rooms - the vacant ones being lit. There was no one at the desk, just a telephone. I picked it up. The woman who answered simply said my friend and I should push the button of the room number we wanted. Beside it was listed the price for the room - by the hour, or for the whole night.

Click. This activated the lift, which opened and then closed behind us. There were no controls but the lift automatically stopped at the designated floor, and as we stepped out a series of flashing arrows seemed to be indicating a way down the corridor and around a corner.

Behind other doors were sounds of squeaking, moaning and, strangest of all - the unmistakable amplification of people singing to a karaoke machine. Still we had seen no other human, but outside our chosen room was a flashing light, and the door was swinging open. When they attach the electrodes to my brain, I will tell them everything, I thought.

The room itself was comfortably spacious - far larger than an ordinary hotel room in Japan. The bathroom was complete with new toothbrushes, razors and oils and creams. The bed was large, and set into one wall was a TV set, which had pornographic films, video games and a karaoke facility. The karaoke microphones extended to the bed, intended no doubt for a passionate duet between the sheets.

So far, so good. A thick instruction booklet explained how everything worked, although the mass of control switches beside the bed provoked some confusion until we worked out how the lights dimmed without activating the volume on the TV. Beside the door was a meter, as in a taxi, which clicked up the hourly charge, as well as any drinks taken out of the computerised mini-bar. I was expecting to hear the voice of the alien intelligence which controlled the building to start telling us what to do.

Behind the bed was a notebook to record one's comments, and even pre-printed multiple answer sheets on sexual themes, with his and her columns - how was the foreplay, how long, orgasm count, and so on.

The whole thing was more intimidating than one's first

adolescent experiences with the opposite sex. Once I had showered, shaved, brushed my teeth, played a video game, flicked through the movie channels and attempted a karaoke song, the actual act of sex hardly seemed relevant any more.

At the end, a button beside the door summons an attendant, who is paid through a small flap before he or she discreetly disappears.

The door swings open again, the lift is waiting, and by the time I reached the street and saw passers-by, it was like a home-coming to mankind from the most distant recesses of the universe.