Stylist’s associate editor Gemma Crisp travels to Tokyo to discover a bonkers world of robot-related fun
It’s not often that I’m torn between grinning like a loon and wanting to run for my life when checking in to a hotel. But that’s the effect the receptionists at Japan’s Henn Na Hotels have on you. Because not only are they robots, they’re dinosaur robots, complete with beady eyes, gnashing teeth, moving claws and (in an odd styling trick) jaunty hats that remind me of glamorous air hostesses from the Sixties. Even though I know they’re robots and therefore harmless, the ‘flight’ part of my brain flickers to life and starts humming the Jurassic Park theme tune.
The first Henn Na Hotel opened in 2015 in Sasebo, an hour’s bus ride from Nagasaki, and was recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s first robot-staffed hotel the following year. The name is a play on a Japanese word meaning ‘strange’, but the proprietors are keen to stress that their aim is to achieve the “ultimate in efficiency”. At the original hotel, this means facial-recognition technology is used in lieu of room keys, the luggage storage is handled by a robotic arm and room service is taken care of by vending machines. The concept has proved so popular that they are rolling out eight more hotels in Tokyo alone, with plans for 100 in the next five years, including overseas locations.
I spend my first night at the second branch, Henn Na Maihama Tokyo Bay (rooms from Y11,000 (£72) a nigh, hennnahotelmaihamatokyobay.com), which opened in March last year. The 100-room venue has 140 robots on staff as well as seven humans in case anything goes awry – David Attenborough would be quite taken with the two robotic fish that swim around a giant fish tank in the lobby, although their glowing blue eyes make them look a little radioactive. Admittedly, the hotel’s suburban location isn’t ideal if it’s your first visit to Tokyo, but Tokyo Disneyland is a 15-minute walk away so it’s a good base if that’s on your itinerary.
The velociraptor that takes care of my check-in ‘speaks’ English, Chinese and Korean as well as Japanese (you select your language using a tablet). While bowing and blinking, it explains I need to scan my passport and register my details using the tablet, before a neighbouring machine spits out my keycard and a paper slip with my room number. A Roomba robot vacuum lazily ambles along the hallway carpet as I enter my room, which is basic but more spacious than you’d get in central Tokyo. Waiting for me with a perky blink is Tapia, a googly-eyed egg-shaped ‘room concierge’ the size of a basketball. While it can tell me the news and weather forecast, change TV channels, switch on lights and play music (a choice of ‘relax’, ‘exercise’, ‘morning’ or ‘lounge’), it falters when I ask it about where to eat or what to do. And 10 minutes after going to bed, I have to turn it around to face the wall so it doesn’t ‘watch’ me sleep.
The next day, I catch the train to Odaiba Island to visit Diver City Tokyo Plaza shopping centre, but I’m not here to browse the sales at Marc Jacobs or See by Chloé. Instead, I’m hurrying to get to the complex’s Festival Plaza by 11am to see the 19.7-metre high Gundam robot transform between its ‘unicorn’ and ‘destroy’ modes, which it only does four time a day (11am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm). Based on the Gundam Unicorn novels and spin-off anime TV series, it was unveiled in September to much local acclaim – even on a windy Wednesday morning, there are around 30 fans waiting to see a transformation that takes all of 10 seconds. Since I can’t check in at my next robot hotel until 3pm, this leaves me plenty of time to visit the dedicated Gundam store on the top floor, which is full of model kits from the series. Simple mini-robots cost Y340 (£2.25) while more advanced kits reach a whopping Y27,000 (£178).
Henn Na Hotel in Nishi-Kasai, just across the river from the Maihama Tokyo Bay branch (rooms from Y9,000 (£60), hennnahotel. com/nishikasai) is the latest in the burgeoning robot chain, having opened in December. It’s a similar but slicker deal – two dinosaur robots on reception (different species and different style of natty hat), but instead of room concierge Tapia, there are more useful in-room gadgets. The LG Styler wardrobe press looks like a sleek fridge that smooths out your clothes and removes any debris and odours – at least, that’s what I think it does as all the instructions are in Japanese. More useful is the free Handy smartphone that helps me to navigate the streets of Tokyo. It means I arrive at Shinjuku’s incredibly popular Robot Restaurant (shinjuku-robot.com) later that evening with enough time to wolf down some gyoza from one of the numerous izakaya (postwork gastro pubs) in the vicinity.
Calling itself a restaurant is slightly misleading – sure, you can order food while lounging in the waiting room (which looks like Liberace and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele collaborated with a magpie – for a taster, watch Charli XCX’s Superlove video, which was filmed here), but you’re really here for the 90-minute robot-themed cabaret show (£53). Split into four themed acts, it’s a hectic mix of dancers, robots, music, lasers and outrageous costumes that put the Notting Hill Carnival to shame. Rather apt is the “20XX” act, set in a future where robots control all humans – except the traditional temple guardians who eventually fight back and overturn their robot overlords.
When I return to my hotel, the robot dinosaurs bow as I walk past and I can’t help but wonder where the closest temple guardian is, as the Jurassic Park theme song starts up again in my head…
For pure novelty factor, Henn Na Hotels are hard to beat, but give me a boutique B&B any day.
Air France flies to Tokyo from eight cities in the UK, including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff, making it easy to travel from your local airport. Fares start from £470 economy return including taxes and charges (airfrance.co.uk or 020-7660 0337). For more information about visiting Japan, go to jnto.go.jp