The Robot Restaurant Experience

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I’ve lived in Tokyo for over two years now. While I’m far from a native of this wonderful city, I’m long removed from wanting to visit the popular tourist sites. The zoo, Tokyo Tower, Sensoji Temple, they’re all beautiful places that are well worth checking out when you first come to the city, but they’ve lost their luster for me. Now I’d much rather go exploring off the beaten path and discover some hidden weird and wonderful cafe, art gallery or record store.

But whenever family or friends come to visit me, I feel obliged to jump back into tourist mode and show them all the big name sites and tourist traps.

At some point, this usually means going to Robot Restaurant.

Nearly everyone I talk to about living in Tokyo asks me about Robot Restaurant, and their impression of it at first seems to be that it’s a local favorite, a legendary entertainment destination that every Tokyoite wants to visit on a regular basis. But that’s about as far removed from the truth as possible. In actuality, Robot Restaurant is a tourist trap of the highest variety, designed almost exclusively for foreigners and foreigners alone. Everything in Robot Restaurant is in English first and Japanese second (if at all). I suspect that it was made specifically to tailor to what the English speaking world thinks Japan is really like, mainly nonsense, robots and cuddly mascots, all wrapped together in a neon coat. It’s such a stereotypical portrayal of Japanese pop culture that it would be offensive if it wasn’t maintained, performed and I assumed created by a Japanese staff. And its level of pandering and placating to foreigner views of Japanese culture would be equally offensive and disgusting if the show itself wasn’t so damn awesome.

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Robot Restaurant is a nigh-indescribable spectacle. Bikini-clad women battle neon-coated samurai. Giant moths piloted by maniac gorillas duel robotic invaders from another planet. Dayglo breakdancers decked out in laser-coated attire deliver an impassioned dubstep tribute to the works of Michael Jackson. Its bombast is unparalleled and nearly overwhelming. Once the show starts, you’re seemingly taken to another world, it envelopes you almost fully.

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And that’s probably for the best, because anything more than a casual glance or thought about anything you see or experience at Robot Restaurant will cause it to fall apart at the seams. Almost literally, in fact. The robots and another associated creatures and characters that fly past you look great from a distance, but you’re not seeing them from a distance, you’re right up in their face. As such, every flaw, of which there are many, from torn seams to broken lights, are bright as day. And while you might say little things like that add to the charm of the place, other issues are too glaring to excuse.

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The seats and tables are both minuscule. If you’re a bit overweight or on the tall side, you’ll be physically uncomfortable for the entirety of the performance. And prepare for added discomfort if you’re in the first row. You might get a great view, but you’ll probably have to rapidly scoot your legs to the side whenever a particularly big robot comes cruising through, unless you want to lose those feet.

 

In fact, the whole thing just doesn’t feel all that safe. Those lasers seem to graze a lot of eyes. The pyro feels like its closer than it should be. It has all the safety standards of an illegal warehouse rave or a drunken backyard wrestling match. Before the finale, giant chain fences are installed in front the audience. Presumably, this is to keep everyone safe from…something (suddenly self-aware machinery perhaps?), but these fences block the only visible exits. In effect, they turn the seating areas into corrals, god forbid a fire ever breaks out there.

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Even the means to enter the venue is strange and rather haphazardly slapped together. You reserve tickets online and are instructed to show up about an hour before showtime, then you have to get in line to pay for the tickets (which takes forever for some reason) and then you have to walk across the street to enter the restaurant proper. From there, you go up the third floor in a waiting area, which can only be described as the love child between Liberace and Daft Punk (it’s pretty rad). After chilling there for a bit, you’re then herded down into the basement for the show proper.

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The waiting area is cool and I’m glad its there (the seats there are actually comfortable) but the system to get there just seems needlessly complex and hopelessly understaffed. With just a handful of people servicing these desks, you could spend the entire hour waiting out there. If you’re going to Robot Restaurant get there well before admission time so you can skip that line and instead wait in the cozy waiting area and rock out to a robot playing Cyndi Lauper covers on guitar.

Notice I haven’t mentioned the food yet? Yeah, for that there’s a reason. I had the misfortune of eating the sushi there last year, and it remains the worst meal I’ve had in this country, and I’ve eaten at a Japanese Denny’s. The sushi I used to buy at my local supermarket in Pittsburgh was better. Under no means should you eat the dinner at Robot Restaurant. Luckily, they seemed to have realized this sometime back, as buying the food is optional.

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I realize I’ve spent the majority of this article shitting on Robot Restaurant, and I guess that’s not really all that fair. I’ve taken several people there, and they’ve always loved it. Even at the somewhat high price of 8,000 yen (about $80 USD), I’ve never had any complaints. It’s such an insane thing to witness, so unique and over-the-top, that, even with my multiple reservations, I do recommend everyone who visits Tokyo make the trip to check it out.

Just don’t eat the food, mind your feet, and plan an escape plan in case a robot blows up. And maybe only go once. It has a hell of sheen but the luster loses its sparkle the more you look at it.

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