The receptionist at the Henn-na Hotel in Ginza, Tokyo, is looking at me blankly, smile fixed on her perfectly made-up face and eyes blinking in a disconcerting, shutterlike fashion. Then she speaks – first in Japanese, then in an English translation.
“Welcome to the Henn-na Hotel. Please use the kiosk machine to complete your check-in.”
It’s hard to find good staff these days. So Japan’s H.I.S hospitality group, who own Henn-na (which translates as “weird”) in the heart of Tokyo’s upmarket shopping district, have taken a revolutionary step and installed very lifelike androids to look after the check-in process. And so far, no one is complaining that the machines have ousted human employees.
There’s nothing like a gimmick, of course, to garner attention; and H.I.S are masters at the quirky. In 2015, they opened the world’s first robot hotel (staffed by a hat-wearing velociraptor, among other robotic helpers) adjoining the Huis Ten Bosch amusement park in Nagasaki, and have since opened several other Henn-na properties, including one at Chiba near Tokyo Disney.
The Ginza hotel, which opened on February 1, is the first of its kind in central Tokyo but another four will be open by year’s end. Expansion plans also include international destinations, with more than 100 properties worldwide in the works over the next five years. It’s true, I’m afraid – robots really are taking over the planet.
In Tokyo’s epicentre of entertainment, Shibuya, I am made a coffee by an adorable mechanical barista named Sawyer – another H.I.S. employee, at a brand-new cafe adjoining their travel agency – who flexes his long red arm before handing me a cup of drip-filter coffee. Two helpful humans supervising Sawyer advise me that this is the best choice of coffee for watching Sawyer at work, since the process takes longer than the standard latte; and I must admit I’m charmed by Sawyer’s deftness, despite the fact he doesn’t speak a word of English. Although the taste of the coffee is not to my palate, it’s worth the ¥320 ($3.75) for entertainment value alone.
Accommodation at the Henn-na Hotel is also a bargain, starting from just ¥7000 yen (A$82) a night. A typical modern Japanese business hotel, the 98 rooms are tiny but functional, with a basic bathroom, twin or double bed and just enough floorspace to (not) trip over your suitcase. High-tech features include smartphone operation for air-conditioning, lights, television and room entry; the same phone is also available for guests to use throughout their stay, including data and one free international phone call.
There is also a robotic steam press for removing wrinkles and odours from suits; while downstairs in the lobby, patrons can order an impressive selection of alcoholic beverages from a pre-paid machine – delivered to your table by a smiling bartender – human, I should note.
“Wow, you look so lifelike!” I tease the bar manager, one of just a handful of real people working on site. With the hotel launched less than a week before my visit, the joke is still fresh enough to illicit a smile; it seems the human employees of Henn-na enjoy their quirky robotic co-workers and the attention they bring.
“They work hard, don’t require a break and are never moody,” the manager laughs. “It’s fun working here, it’s a great novelty and seeing the robots makes the guests happy.”
The robots are also a great asset from H.I.S management perspective. “We look for high productivity at our company, and the robots are good for that,” says H.I.S director of sales and marketing Tatsuya Fukuda as he shows me around the property. “We’re always looking at ways of introducing the latest technology. At this point we are using robots at the front desk, but that may change in a few years with technological advances – apps, emojis, who knows – it’s very exciting.”
Of course, there are limitations to android abilities. While my receptionist speaks five different languages, she just blinks at me robotically when I ask for directions to the bathroom. Fortunately, Mr Fukuda steps in to assist – humans can be very useful.
JAL flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Narita Airport in Tokyo, see au.jal.co.jp/aul/en/
The Henn-na Hotel is a short walk from Shintomicho subway station, exit 4m, near Ginza. Rooms start from ¥7000 a night. See hennnahoteltokyoginza.book.direct/en-gb/
The Henna Cafe is in the basement of the Modi Building, 150-0041 1-21-3, Jinnan, Shibuya. There are no signs in English.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tohoku Tourism.