The Futuristic Kitsch of Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant Is Worth Every Penny

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Nestled in the neon-lit galleries of the Kabukicho District in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, just blocks away from the evocative, ancient corridors of the Golden Gai district, the entrance into the hyper-modern, epilepsy-inducing Robot Restaurant welcomes curious tourists. Earlier this year, I stepped into this den of kitsch, eager to test my tolerance for tacky fun.

In Tokyo on an extended ramen binge layover, I met up with my actor pals Michael Trotter and Jamie Hyder. The Robot Restaurant was next up on their itinerary and they asked if I was keen to join. Immediately, I was flooded with questions. Do the robots serve tables? How many robots are there? What is their capability? How does tipping work with robots? Should I give them batteries instead of cash?

There were bigger questions too. Questions about what sort of traveler to be. As experiential types, how often do we consider ourselves “above” typical touristy shit? For me, it’s probably too often. There is rarely anything at the end of a long line that makes it feel worth standing and waiting any amount of time. This even goes for monumental attractions like the Mona Lisa.
Too often I’ve eschewed the highlights, finding myself in situations like getting tear gassed after a soccer match instead of strolling the Louvre. Perhaps to my detriment.

The Robot Restaurant stands in the face of all that hipster travel acumen. It’s a refuge for anyone looking to throw away their tourist shaming tendencies, inviting all comers to just sit and enjoy some weirdness.*

*Incidentally, our motto here at UPROXX Life is also “just sit and enjoy some weirdness.”

When in travel doubt it’s wise to simply trust the wisdom of Bourdain. And by wisdom I mean the I-don’t-give-a-rats-ass-what-you-think dalliances of our era’s most beloved enthusiast. “Prepare yourself for the greatest show in the history of entertainment” he gushes in the opening segment of Ep. 7 in Parts Unknown’s second season. The restaurant opened in 2012 with a rumored cost of 10 billion yen ($127.34mil). Back then, as seen in the episode, the restaurant dialed up the “sexy” regardless of kids in attendance. These days, the clothing is more modest and the choreography less sexually suggestive. However, as I was soon to discover, the intensity switch is still hardwired to the acid-jazzed mainframe.

Even after seeing the Bourdain endorsement, I still had reservations (and not the variety that guaranteed my seat). The $70 spent for a ticket on a traveler’s budget — especially after a month overseas — is equivalent to roughly $7 bajillion dollars back home. It’s also good for a half dozen additional ramen or udon experiences in Tokyo, so we were treading on hallowed ground. But Trotter had vouched for the place and I’ve only known him to be a man of exceptional taste and humor… though he does convince people he’s someone else for a living. I bought in at the door on the night of (which I later learned is the most expensive way to visit).

After navigating through a series of reflecting hallways and chambers that would put any house of horrors to shame, the audience enters a mirrored, light-convalescing waiting room. In the back, a robot band starts a serenade. It is here that the restaurant portion of the evening’s program becomes evident, as you can get a mediocre sushi bento box and booze or soda (robot hack: it’s cheaper and tastier to eat from the unlimited options in and around Shinjuku prior to attending). In a case of right-place-right-time; Trotter, Jamie and I were volunteered by the attendant to try a free sake shot. Stand near to the piano if you’re keen on this experience.

What the purveyors of this tourist endeavor don’t make quite clear is that the Robot Restaurant is not a restaurant at all. Instead, it’s a theater production of a boundless Shakespearean parable that asks big questions about the dualistic nature of humanity. This saga is not told in early modern English, of course, but in the eternal patois of laser dancers, light cannons, robotic avatars, neon acrobats and periodic barrages of surround sound. It’s as if strobe-infused heavy metal had an anime-inspired love child with an innocent Disney theme park show.

I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too: “That sounds like it would be cool on drugs.” However, the sensory overload combined with my proclivity to remove myself from overwhelming situations when tripping vetoed any notion of further heightening the experience.

As the restaurant has grown in popularity, production value has matured. Shows vary now from day to day and special showcases – like this year’s Halloween performance – are not uncommon. The vibe is one hundred percent tourist kitsch and pseudo-Japanese futuristic tack, delivered in a way that caters to what Westerners might expect of such a genre rather than some adherence to whatever techno-fueled synthesized pit of despair this commercial art form crawled out of. It doesn’t matter. The performers are exact, talented and disciplined. Their execution is confoundedly satisfying. Though the robots are mostly human performers operating robotic floats, like you might see at a walking parade on Mardi Gras day, no one was offended.

After the epic was over, each of us — ears ringing, eyes slightly washed out from all the flashes — had similar feelings of “what did I just witness?” Trotter recalls feeling like he was on the set of Fear and Loathing in Shinjuku – which is fitting since several reviews of the Robot Restaurant make mention that the entire experience is what they envision taking LSD is like, noting they’ve never tried the stuff. Well, I’ve done LSD and the Robot Restaurant is a thousand times more intense. Unlike psychedelics though, the place is kid-friendly (and probably even cheaper than hallucinogens these days).

Often, when determining the value of an experience while traveling, rather than focusing on what everyone else is or isn’t doing, I try to use the ol’ travel metric of asking “will this be unlike anything I’ve seen before?” The answer for the Robot Restaurant was a resounding “yes.” I’m pleased to report it is absolutely worth every penny.