The scene at the reception hall is surreal, something out of a science fiction movie. A furry pink-and-green robot with an oversized head welcomes me in lilting tones. At the reception desk, a toothy velociraptor in a bow tie flexes his talons, bows slowly, and tells me to push a button on a touchscreen and swipe my card to check in. Beside it sits an eerily realistic female android wearing a bellhop’s cap and a constant smile. She flutters her eyelashes at me, but only speaks Japanese. I look around to see window-cleaning robots glide about the sprawling, minimalistic lobby. An orchestra of small robot musicians play at regular intervals, alongside a player piano. Outside, I can see a robot cutting the grass, moving through the lawns effortlessly.
Henn na Hotel, which opened in 2015, is the world’s first hotel manned by robots. Fittingly, it is located in the country at the forefront of innovation in robotic technology. The 144-room property is in the town of Sasebo, near Nagasaki, within a theme park called Huis Ten Bosch, which is devoted to all things Dutch. Windmills, fields of tulips, meande-ring canals, gabled homes, replicas of Dutch buildings, and souvenir shops filled with cheese and wooden clogs all hark back to Nagasaki’s history as a Dutch trading post.
Allen Lee, a marketing manager for Huis Ten Bosch, shows me around the hotel. He explains that Henn na has done away with standard room cards, since rooms open with facial recognition: your mug is scanned and saved by cameras at check-in. On one side of the lobby, enclosed in a huge glass cube, is a cloakroom where a large mechanical arm picks up luggage left in a drop-off window for guests with early arrivals or late departures.
A robot concierge tells me about breakfast timings and can even call a taxi if required. Rechargeable luggage trolleys equipped with sensors crawl slowly alongside you while playing loud music as they take your luggage to
Opening the room with just a glance thanks to the facial recognition software, I enter to see Churi San awaiting me. A pint-sized feminine robot, also dressed in pink and green (she is apparently inspired by a tulip), Churi San is perched on the bedside table. When spoken to in Japanese or English, she can control lighting, forecast the weather, set a wake-up alarm, and even sing a song on request.
The room is no-frills, with a large bed, wooden cupboards and light furnishing. Instead of a television, there’s a tablet. The bathroom has a toilet that washes, dries, plays music and has a seat fitted with sensors that lifts automatically in a person’s presence. The hotel has done away with conventional air-conditioning, instead using radiation panels, special bricks, angled roofs, solar panels, reflective paint and a sensor to adjust the room’s temperature according to your body.
The hotel’s staff is predominantly robotic; only 7 per cent are humans, mostly engaged in housekeeping tasks (room cleaning costs extra), as well as manning the security cameras to keep an eye on the expensive robots, and assisting in case of glitches. The restaurant has a basic menu, with staples like rice balls and hot dogs, as well as vending machines for drinks and coffee.
For those who equate hospitality with the human touch, robots may seem like a kitschy gimmick. But according to Henn na’s founder and CEO, Hideo Sawada, the hotel takes a bold step towards artificial intelligence while reducing accommodation costs. The property is energy efficient without compromising on quality of service. In a country with a shrinking, ageing population, where shops and restaurants already employ androids, it seems like a logical extension.
The word “hen” means strange or weird in Japanese, but it’s also the word for change. For some, the hotel is simply an offbeat experience for the traveller searching for local quirks. For others, it signifies the future—not only of the hospitality industry, but of the world. In a lighter vein, Allan Lee jokes that, “One great advantage of this hotel is that customers can’t complain to robots.” I answer with a smile, “And as a guest, I don’t have to tip them.”
ESSENTIALS www.h-n-h.jp; doubles from JPY7,000/Rs4,100 including breakfast. The hotel also offers rental cars and bicycles.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.