Have you ever done LSD? Me neither. At least, that’s what I thought until I went to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo, when I had an experience that can only be explained as an acid trip. What, exactly, the Robot Restaurant is (it really doesn’t involve food or robots) is sorta beyond description. The Robot Restaurant defies categorization, but it’s ultimately best described as a campy dinner show straight out of the mind of Hunter S. Thompson.
Before we continue on any further, it’s worth noting that this post has “mild sexuality.” It’s pretty tame by most standards, but you may not want to view it at work. (UPDATE: As of 2017, we’ve returned to the Robot Restaurant a few times, and things have changed a bit. Read our “Robot Restaurant Redux” post for info and new photos.)
We had heard about the Robot Restaurant a few weeks before our trip, and I was immediately gung-ho about the idea. The video I saw combined dinosaurs, robots, tribal drums, and a variety of other oddities. It seemed like what you’d get if you gave a 10-year old boy a blank canvas and checkbook (the restaurant reportedly cost over $100 million USD to build) to design a restaurant, and he threw everything “awesome” into it, without regard for how those things meshed.
Sarah, Henry, and Kate weren’t sold so easily. They were all a bit apprehensive, wondering what kind of nefarious place I was trying to convince them to visit. In their defense, the videos I showed them did have a lot of scantily-clad women and not much else.
I didn’t want to watch a ton on YouTube (I had made my mind up that I wanted to go upon hearing a description of the restaurant) as I didn’t want to spoil the show, but what I did see didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The videos were mostly incoherent, save for a lot of movement, drums, dancers, and occasional “robots” and “animals.” After much persuasion, they were on board, ready for the greatest experience of their lives.
We had heard that the Robot Restaurant sells out on occasion, so we made reservations with the concierge at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and tickets for the show were delivered to our room around an hour later (these tickets included a buy 2, get 1 free promotion, which was not available at the door–YMMV on that, but if you can, try to have a concierge book for you).
The full price of tickets was around $50/person when we visited, but we heard that it had more than doubled in price since the restaurant opened (due to popularity), and it wouldn’t surprise me if it has gone up more since. The restaurant’s official English website is no help with regard to price, but it is helpful if you need a good laugh. Gotta love those graphics of fembots with real women’s heads Photoshopped on!
Anyway, we received a pamphlet with the tickets, and it promised greatness. According to it, there were “no rules,” and you could get on stage with the dancers and touch the robots. Cool. We spent the rest of that day physically and mentally preparing for the Robot Restaurant. Shinjuku is an interesting place. Business by day, party by night. Well, in different parts, but same idea. The Robot Restaurant was located in what’s probably best described as the “neon district” of Shinjuku, and was about a 30 minute walk from the Park Hyatt Tokyo. All around the Robot Restaurant were the types of seedy things you might expect to find in parts of Vegas or New Orleans, except with a Japanese twist.
The Robot Restaurant itself is pretty difficult to miss in all of this–it has the giant dinosaur out front. We waited in a glitzy lounge-type area while the previous show emptied (there are 3 per night) and the crowd was a good split of Westerners and Japanese. This is noteworthy because it was fairly rare to see this many Westerners in one location in Japan. I’d hazard a guess that a good chunk of the Westerners were heavily intoxicated, too.
My only intoxication was the surreal happenings all around me, and I’m fairly sure that doesn’t count. After being herded downstairs through narrow hallways into an area that surely would have been our grave had there been any sort of fire, we were given boxes of food.
The food is a complete after-thought at the Robot Restaurant, and it shows. Definitely eat prior to visiting. Before the show started, we were given several warnings, including several stern restrictions, including warnings that “big cameras” weren’t allowed to take “up-close” photos of the dancers (apologies for the photo quality here, not only is the area dark, but I took these photos quickly so as to avoid having any issues), not to touch the dancers, and to not get out of our seats. Quite the contrast to the “no rules” touted in the brochure. It was no big deal, just a bit comical. In the restroom, another American who was a regular of the restaurant, advised me not to make eye contact, as some of them “belonged” to the Yakuza (rumors have spread online that the Robot Restaurant is owned by the Yakuza…as best I can tell, these rumors are false, and in fact, the establishment is anti-Yakuza).
As for the show itself, I don’t really know what to say about it. It started out with a somewhat serious tone, with dancers engaging in what seemed to be ritualistic dancing and drum beating, and then descended from there into utter insanity. The first insane scene was robots v. animals, which culminated in a knock-off Kung-Fu Panda riding a bull through a lineup of robots.
Another scene involved Captain America, fembots with Thor hammers, and a dinosaur (or maybe it was a giant armadillo…or that dog-like creature from John Carter…it’s tough to be sure) fighting robots, in a scene dubbed “Robots v. America.” (There were actually a lot of references to American culture in the show.) After that, the dinosaurs came out in full force and battled robots, winning handily.
Around this point, the giant chain fence went around the audience. It was at that moment that we all collectively realized that “shit was ’bout to get real” up in there. A battle of epic proportions (or not) then took place.
Later, they passed out glow sticks and giant fembots were driven around by some dancers, possibly battling one another. Robots on scooters and Segways were also around then. This was a more lighthearted scene as compared to the “intense” battle scenes before it. This was all set to, what else, but Gangnam Style.
They also allowed the audience on stage after this scene for photos with the robots and dancers. Despite the rules that there be “no touching” of the dancers, most of them touched guests while posing. The dancers again touched guests when they flew right over the audience in some odd, assembly-line style riders that circled on the ceiling.
Random side note: the excited Japanese businessman to the right of me giving the thumbs up with a fembot and a masked dancer flying above in the background totally makes this photo, I think. This one photo basically embodies the randomness that is Robot Restaurant.
As the dancers “flew” around overhead, a giant tank came out. I might be messing up the order of some of these scenes, but I don’t think there was really a linear storyline. It was basically: awesome stuff happens…then more awesome stuff happens…then more–you get the idea.
I’ll stop with the descriptions now, as they shed very little light on the scenes in question. I would say that the photos speak for themselves, except in this case, I’m not quite sure what they say. For lack of an articulable summary of the Robot Restaurant’s show, here’s my best description: crazy stuff happens, and it’s beyond awesome.
Awesome in ways you wouldn’t expect to be awesome, but it just works. While this review covers the basics of what happened during our show, it only scratches the surface of a show that must be seen to be truly understood. The crazy on-screen graphics, the restrooms, the excitement of the audience, the seriousness of the stage-hands, the everything. We talked to a regular of the show after it was over, and he said that each show he has been to has been different. He was particularly impressed with the different dances they manage to learn (they were well done), which makes sense given that everything but the dances seemed very loosely scripted. Staff had surveys for guests after the show, and they took these surveys very seriously. It’s clear that they want to improve the experience. (Perhaps the food will be better in the future?)
With all of that said, is the Robot Restaurant worth it? EMPHATICALLY YES. I don’t care if the price has tripled in price to $150/person by the time you read this, it is absolutely worth it. That evening was the most we’ve laughed in a long time, and was incredibly fun. This review makes light of the show (and for good reason), but it’s absolutely a ton of fun. We literally laughed the entire time we were there, and although it was corny and totally bizarre, it was also totally fun. If you like lighthearted, fun things and have a sense of humor, you will enjoy this. It’s not for everyone, and definitely has some sexuality to it (probably a bit more than is apparent in these photos, but it’s still all PG-13), but there’s a reason it’s so popular: it’s flat-out awesome. It epitomizes the “bizarre” side of Japan, and was the perfect way to end our trip. We highly recommend it, and it’s an absolute must-do for anyone visiting Tokyo who loves fun. Going to Tokyo without seeing the Robot Restaurant is distinctly unpatriotic.
If you’re planning a visit to Tokyo, Japan, please check out my other posts about Tokyo for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Tokyo has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
If you’ve been to Robot Restaurant, what’s your review of it? If you haven’t been, on a scale of 1 to INFINITY AWESOMENESS, how great does this look to you? We’re interested in hearing your thoughts on this amazing show, so please share in the comments!