Belgian photographer Zaza Bertrand doesn’t speak Japanese and was only able to gather bits and pieces of words exchanged between the people she met in the country’s popular rabuhos, or love hotels. The mystery was part of the appeal.

Rabuhos, writer Claire van den Berg explains, are common in Japan, especially with 20 and 30-somethings who still live with their parents or extended family. For one-night stands and married couples alike, the neon lights and campy, themed rooms offer a rare opportunity for privacy and romantic freedom.

The hotels are designed for discretion; guests can purchase tickets on a machine, and when there is an exchange with a human employee, it’s often done through a one-way window to ensure anonymity.

Bertrand began by approaching people as they entered the actual hotels, but over time, she learned she had more success by contacting guests online. She made her intentions clear: she wanted “nothing sexual, just maybe a bit suggestive.” She would not pay them for their time, though she would cover the room fee.

Gaining trust wasn’t difficult; many of Bertrand’s models wanted the photographs as a token of the encounter to take home with them. The rooms themselves were elaborate, ostentatious, and worth remembering.

The photographer didn’t mind not being able to interview her subjects at length; the secrets that stood between Bertrand and the guests mirrors the enigmatical, clandestine quality of the trysts that take place inside these hotels.

When asked about the most meaningful encounter she had inside a rabuho, Bertrand remembers one man who requested he be photographed without a partner. She said no the first time he asked, but she agreed to meet him the second time.

He surprised her. They were both a bit self-conscious, but as it turned out, the man simply wanted a photograph of himself to mark a personal milestone. He had just celebrated his 60th birthday. “It was a great, very intimate shoot,” the photographer explains.

In the end, Bertrand’s book Japanese Whispers is a foray into the gray areas of longing and intimacy. Her photographs are by turns voyeuristic and reticent, melancholic and reassuring, hot and cold.

Japanese Whispers is published by Art Paper Editions. The work is currently on view at RIOT gallery in Ghent until January 14 and was recently exhibited at IBASHO Gallery.

All images © Zaza Bertrand