Japan’s HENN NA HOTEL: A Stay in the Future, Today

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International pop culture would have it that Japan, which is indeed one of the pioneering nations in advancing the development of smart robotics, would someday far off in the future will have a wide proliferation of robots out and about in society. One needs look no further than several examples of Japanese manga, anime and even live-action films and TV series. Despite the rather subpar box-office reception given the accusations of white-washing and cultural appropriation, the recent Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese media phenomenon “Ghost in the Shell” (starring Scarlett Johansson) was also a decent preview of what a cyber-future Japan could look like.

Of course, tech of the here and now is still light-years away from such flights of fictional fancy, but you have to give props to Japan for trying, even in civilian establishments such as hotels. Take for example the appropriately named Henn na Hotel in Sasebo, Nagasaki prefecture; it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the “first robot-staffed hotel in the world”.

Located inside the Huis Ten Bosch theme park which is aesthetically designed to look like the Netherlands, the Henn na Hotel (literally meaning “Strange/Weird Hotel”) is the brainchild of Hideo Sawada, founder of the low-cost (but now major high-profile) traveling tour package agency H.I.S. Co. Ltd. From humble beginnings H.I.S. grew to having 303 branches in Japan, 185 international branches in 124 world cities, majority stakes in two international airlines, two Australian Hotels, and a cruise company. Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo is one of the first big diversification drives that H.I.S. has undertaken under Sawada’s direction, while the Henn na Hotel within is a blend of the company’s stock-in trade and vision for the future. And make no mistake; the so-called Weird Hotel wears its weirdness on its metaphorical sleeve the moment guests walk in the door.

Take for instance the front reception desk of the Henn na. It’s staffed by what appears to be a good-looking Japanese clerk and a velociraptor with a tie. As you suspect, they’re actually robots; the clerk is the Japanese-language receptionist white the dinosaur is the English-speaker. But they only serve to talk the guest through the actual check-in process: the information and biometrics terminals to their respective lefts. This is important because guests don’t get keys or cards. Instead it’s all facial recognition software that opens doors, or charges purchases and meals to your hotel account.

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Meanwhile most other staff functions appear to be taken up by one sort of robot or other. There’s the robot trolley that carries your luggage to your assigned room, the robot arm that stores items in safety lockers, or the humanoid robot concierge that answers questions (Japanese only) about hotel locations and breakfast schedules. In every room is a little robot buddy named Churi-chan (because her head is like a tulip) who controls the overhead lights and acts like a “smart” radio alarm-clock that wakes you in the morning with the weather report, all by talking to her (in Japanese again, but she has an English manual to work around with).

This rather impersonal experience comes from Sawada’s idea of drastically cutting down the usual hotel manpower and having 90% of the expected help be robotic. His H.I.S. Company has made contacts with Japanese robotics developers in order to create this cyber menagerie for the Henn na Hotel. But thankfully “some” human presence is still necessary. The hotel manager at least is flesh and blood, and he plus nine other staffers are present behind the scenes to observe the security feed and come out whenever a robot or facial recognition terminal is acting buggy. For example, room check-ins aren’t entertained by the robots until 3 in the afternoon, so a human staffer tends to pop out to explain to guests why the front desk is “ignoring” them.

And then we go into the dining element of the Henn na Hotel, which takes cues from one of the most ubiquitous basic commercial tech in Japan: vending machines. If you want to sample the “fried octopus balls” or hotdogs then you “facial recognize” the mechanical vendors to give you a serving on your wooden dining table.

I had described a stay at the Henn na Hotel as being (nearly) impersonal. That may be a minus point save for the fact that the robotic impersonality has been billed by Hideo Sawada as the selling point, and what may be a flaw anywhere else has become a source of futuristic charm. Already plans are underway to expand the number of rooms, with Sawada ultimately seeing branches of the Henn na Hotel opening overseas someday. In a way that sounds like a lovely thought, for people all over the world to get  a weird opportunity to sleep in the not so distant future, right now.

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

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