Published on October 7th, 2015 | by Dean Harries
Robot punches unicorn: a first hand account of Tokyo’s robot restaurants
Read time: a bit over 3 minutes
In a land of highly-trained geishas, formidable samurai and vehement tradition, bonsai trees rest under blushing cherry blossom and wise winds float through the shrines of fallen emperors. Sorry, I can’t carry on like this… If Murakami was my editor I’d be suspended without pay.
Let me start again. In modern day Japan, Tokyo is a contradiction of polar opposites that wrestles with its identity as the country’s historic capital (slightly better). But doesn’t every major world city contradict itself in some way? Yes, no, kinda – just not like this.
Futuristic toilet seats heat bums and self-flush, while the spartan simplicity of a ryokan is lauded and revered. Udon and sushi are freshly prepared in restaurant windows by masters of the art, while pre-made sticky rice balls fly off the shelves in most shops. Vending machines have usurped the role of the waiter, while taxi drivers politely frown if you try to tip them. And so on.
The city is a tug of war and, as a traveller, you’re only as good as the last attraction you’ve seen. So why the allure of seeing robots step into the ring?
Deep in the redlight district of Shinjuku, just a stone’s throw away from the Golden Gai, nuts, bolts, wires and the spirit of an old go kart form an alliance. On a corner in Kabukicho, adult shops and ticket merchants play a style of speed-disco that doesn’t conform to the concept of tempo. Hundreds of people are drawn in by these warped tunes of Tokyo’s Pied Piper.
¥6000 ($70) changes hands repeatedly, and eager ticket holders shuffle around the corner to face the Robot Restaurant’s solemn doormen. Behind a red velvet curtain is a multi-coloured world of anime and Manga that leads to a chrome elevator; transporting would-be voyeurs to a mirrored dining hall/waiting room. Patrons guffaw as they glug champagne and snaffle through Bento boxes. A Russian hostess promptly checks the validity of tickets and, upon authentication, raises a smile. “The games will begin in half an hour. Relax, drink, eat, enjoy yourselves.”
Two negronis later and the basement called. Droves of people descend dimly lit stairs and negotiate a maze of corridors. I pull aside a curtain to reveal a compact arena with chain fences on either side. “How are they gonna fit bloody robots down there?” said my brain. Small benches line the room and people quickly take their seats when a siren sounds. Within moments, a tribal-cyber woman emerges from the darkness and screams: “Are you reeeeeady humans?” The last of the food and drink vendors scatter into the darkness. It begins.
Half angry/half happy Japanese women beat drums on top of small floats controlled by camouflaged technicians. Quickly following are the floats of angry men, making up a modern day Grease scene. Gargoyles play electric guitar and bass, as a rowdy warrior rides a unicorn while singing a Lady Gaga song in Japanese. Two robots compete in a comedy-boxing match, as the cast of Kung Fu Panda battle invading aliens (a massive shark wasn’t enough to defeat them). Motorbikes and huge robots attack each other in front of a crowd waving glow sticks and bottles of Asahi.
Just when you think you’re about to leave the Twilight Zone, a wave of flashing lights and high-pitched cries smashes you back into your seat. The performance ends as abruptly as it began and nobody gets up to walk out. Hot tip: there is no encore.
You may think this blog sounds overly elaborate and self-indulgent – and you’d be right. The Robot Restaurant makes you feel like you’re chasing your tail and then plonks you on a roundabout at high speed. Would I do it all again? It’d take an army of alien fighting sharks to stop me.
Discover the fun side of Skynet for yourself on a Geckos Japan tour.
Images courtesy of the lovely and talented Trina Gill.