There are themed restaurants, and then there’s Japan’s Robot Restaurant, which will steam roll your brain with glow sticks, techno, and robots. Running counter to the Japanese cultural rubric usually shown, it’s a space age Cirque du Soleil on acid or a cyberpunk Moulin Rouge that gives a mind-blowing taste for bedazzled silliness and whimsical kitsch.
Warning: if you suffer from epilepsy you wont make it past the foyer…
The thing is, as out-of-this-world as Robot Restaurant feels, it carries on a long-running tradition of catering to curious, after-hours nightlife in the Shinjuku area. Particularly in the early-half of the 20th century, the area garnered fame as a district on the fringes of society known as the “blue light district“, home to gangsters, prostitutes and a growing cross-dressing community that used blue lights in lieu of red to help clients find their secret gender-bending parties.
Much of the area was bombed by allies during the war (although there is a small part of that old blue light district that survived, relatively untouched).
Today, however, if you’re curious to dive into the Shinjuku district of the 21st century where you’ll find Blade Runner in real life, with its electric energy and futuristic billboards, our Robot Restaurant is probably the best place to start…
“I’m not sure what I saw,” says one robo-restaurant goer. “A mix Dance Dance Revolution with anime?” Plus an animatronic shark. Plus a disco ball horse – we could go on, or we could go in. The first thing to know about this place, is that you usually have to book ahead (there are about three shows a day). Tickets are about $70. The waiting room is a veritable kaleidoscope of gold, with escargot chairs to curl up in and listen to the sounds of the soothing, robot boogie band.
Once you’re in the main room, visitors are seated around a main-stage not unlike Romans in the Colosseum, or commoners at a royal jousting match. The ensuing 90 minute show is a whirlwind of gimmicks, costumes, and camp choreography: you’ll watch a woman ride in on a “wooly mammoth” covered in holiday lights, and a man in a horse suit play the drums; there’s a snake, an army tank, and a robo-Samurai. At one point, a sign is even held up reading, When the machines on your head begin to turn, please high-five with dancers and please liven up waving the penlight to match the music! Suddenly, you realise you’re not just a quiet spectator in this weird universe. You’re its newest family member.
As a whole, the show’s been described as weird, kitschy, and a place from which you should “absolutely not order the food” (duh, Brenda). It’s chaotic, and an unabashed “tourist trap” says another, who adds that it’s nonetheless “the most enjoyable one I’ve ever been to”. In fact, despite the madness of the extravaganza, every punch, kick, and robot scream is planned for weeks on end by performers. “I try to convey a routine in a way everyone can understand its youthful emotion,” show director Namie Osawa told CNN in 2017. A performer named Kumin Hankokkou said, “The rehearsals are difficult but I enjoy that we work together to achieve the next level.” Next level indeed.
At the end of the day, you’d think that this place splits people into two camps: the die-hard anime/robot enthusiasts, and the eye-rollers. And it does, no doubt. But more often than not, those who enter Robot Restaurant say it was both terrible and terribly entertaining. It’s so bad it’s good.
What do you think, a little too over-the-top? Or just the ticker? Learn more about Robot Restaurant on its official website.