by Bryce Marley-Jarrett
In a few short years Robot Restaurant has exploded with news coverage the world over, and even a 2 show special engagement in Sydney. This one-of-a-kind dinner show is one of the most popular attractions for tourists visiting in Tokyo, for a night of entertainment, drinks and “food”, and today we will try our best to explain what you're in for, and if it lives up to hype.
Nestled in the famous Kabukicho district of Shinjuku, with its neon flooded streets and between izakayas, arcades and host clubs, Robot Restaurant stands, oddly, as one of the most touristy, cheesy and wholesome in comparison to the rest of the street’s offerings. This is one of those places you will probably hear about from a friend who’s been to Japan in the last 3 years, and typically described as a ‘must see, greatest night of your life, and something you’ll never experience anywhere else in the world’.
And this should make you very skeptical immediately, as places so hyped up rarely live up to their expectations.
Okay let’s start this, it’s a difficult review to write, as i’m still not 100% sure what happened on our visit to Robot Restaurant in March 2015.
You can buy your tickets at the ticket office, just opposite the main building, however we would recommend not doing this, and instead google for tickets from tour sites like japanican.com or even just phrases like “Robot Restaurant discounts”, and you’ll usually get a 15%-20% discount on the regular price when booking like this. Do this, we feel you will enjoy your night much more knowing that you didn’t pay 7,000¥ for the experience ($74.00AUD). Also, with the pre-booked tickets, you usually get a voucher for a free drink at the bar!
When you show up for your scheduled show, it is recommended you arrive 45mins prior to “showtime”, as you will have entertainment by the live “robot” band in the rainbow lounge. Do this. The lounge does need to be seen, as it definitely adds to the spectacle of the whole experience, and all those questions you had of “what ever happened to the god of tacky, Ed Hardy and his designs?” will all be answered quickly.
When you arrive, go to the ticket office, and give them your reservation number. All staff seem to speak great English, which should give you an indication of the main demographic coming here: it’s 99% foreign tourist. You may think when wandering Japan, “wow there isn’t a lot of diversity in people here”... Well, you will forget that here. At the ticket office, you will get your tickets exchanged and pick your bento box meal ticket. You have a choice of meat or vegetarian. We found there was a third choice of sushi, however this is only available to those who pay full price for their ticket.
Japlanning Tip: Instead of paying full price for the sushi box, visit a nearby Sushi restaurant for a more tasty and fresher meal before or after the show with the money saved.
Once all the logistics are done, you are escorted to the entrance and up to the Rainbow Lounge. The elevator doors open and you will be doused in lights, metal objects, loud music and lounge chairs that appear to be stolen from Vegas in the 60’s. Welcome to the epicentre of tacky in Japan; all located in the decor of one establishment! It’s all part of the fun and excitement of Robot Restaurant, and also becomes increasingly cooler for its kitsch factor once you have your first free drink from the bar.
Here you will have a seat, sip on your drink and listen to the live “robot” band perform smooth tunes from the 80’s like never before. Now you might be wondering why I keep putting “robots” in quotation marks, this is will be used when it is someone, or something made to look like a robot, but is not actually a robot. The band is humans dressed as robots, however they are great fun, and will happily pose for photographs, which will become a better idea after your second or third drink.
Once it comes time for the show, an announcement will happen and right by the bar is a small exit where everyone funnels down endless narrow staircases, that look like Ed Hardy has violently vomited his influence on mid 2000’s fashion on every surface. Once you’ve descended several levels to the basement you enter the dinner theatre. Here helpful staff will ask for your dinner voucher and hand you a bento box (that will make you wish your brought your own from the convenience store across the street). Now, keep in mind that the food is not why you come here. If you are coming for a dinner out and the bonus of a show, please, just don’t. You will be disappointed. This might be the only lacklustre “meal” I have ever had in Japan, a place known for it’s high standards in even a meal from a konbini (convenience store).
Once you have your meal you will be guided to your assigned seats on either side of the show floor, and given complimentary water. The set up is like stadium seating, and is quite cramped, but not uncomfortable. You will be hounded with sales of beer and alcohol for the next 15 minutes while everyone is seated. To be fair, the drink prices aren’t ridiculous. They are more expensive than an izakaya or your everyday konbini, however not crazy. Expect to pay 400¥ to 600¥ for a beverage.
The show says it runs for 90 minutes. This is slightly misleading, as the show is cut into about 5 segments as they need time to breakdown a set or move things out or put up safety barriers. These last anywhere from 5-10 minutes, and some come after a segment only lasting 8 minutes. So the show is quite choppy, and these breaks often seem like they are there purely to sell more beer and popcorn, and as you will experience the audience gets into it more and more after each segment, coincidence?
The show starts off seemingly seriously with two floats at each end lined with drummer playing what seems to be a battle call for war, then switch out for a parade of women dressed in a mix of hip traditional wears and skimpy outfits dancing. All to pop music, lasers and lights. It’s loud, bright and infectious to say the least. But where are the robots?!
Transitioning into the next segment “robots” come out and dance, although clearly humans in costumes, we start to realise, there isn’t going to be any actual robots, are there? They dance with lasers and loud music pumps as a remote stage with a pretty girl playing drums goes around, while another stage goes around with a singer belting out Telephone by Lady Gaga (and she is singing live and sounds great to her credit).
Now everything starts to get crazy and weird (yes, now is where the weird meter comes up, so you can only expect it's going to get crazy if by comparison everything prior to this is closer to normal).
The next few segments of the show compile of a safety chain coming around the audience so “robots” can fight each other, then an audience member can fight the winning “robot” and surprise, surprise... win! Following this, a what looks like Kung-Fu Panda mascot, that looks like an off-brand character from Times Square, comes out riding a very sad looking cow as he battles a very evil looking “robot”. This continues for sometime, until a bikini clad lady (are you sensing a trend here) riding a dragon, with Thor’s Hammer can finally annihilate him. You are reading all this correctly; You can’t make this stuff up.
The theme of bikini clad ladies riding oversized animals and animals riding other animals to battle, both “robots” and other giant animals continues, while lasers shoot, some mild pyrotechnics erupt and the loose story of what is happening is explained on massive wall screens behind the stadium seating on each side, in very broken english. Culminating in a battle with a fierce looking lady atop of a Mad Max-esque battle machine with the biggest gun I’ve ever seen killing a massive snake. All of this happens with dramatic, almost video game-like music blaring everywhere.
The end segments of the show are much more positive and upbeat. The troop of happy ladies are back in very skimpy marching band costumes, “playing” trumpets to the crowds as our talented singer is back signing more on a moving platform that is made to look like a big robot is carrying her around, while singing the title song from the hit 1980’s musical Dreamgirls. Yes, you did read that correctly. This definitely gets the crowd moving and cheering, it’s the perfect set up for her to show off her singing chops into a rousing dramatic rendition of Ave Maria, because, well, what else would you expect from a place called Robot Restaurant?
While the singer is belting out Dreamgirls and Ave Maria, the first signs of what could possibly be considered robots are around, and even seem to be singing back up to her Ave Maria rendition, it's so beautiful you almost think they are shedding a tear, if only robots could.
This is when you can tell they are leading to their finale. Glow sticks are handed out, a credits montage starts to play on the screens, and all the performers are mentioned. They are all out, sans any “robots”, in Super Girl Marching band outfits dancing to Bang Bang, by Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, the official ambassadors of all things “robot”, I assume.
The final segments of the show are hyper colourful, loud, with every lighting and special effect imaginable thrown in, guys on these weird high speed uni wheeled contraptions whisk by, while girls are on top of giant bikini clad robots carrying them around and “robots” with rainbow clown wigs are rollerblading about. While this crazy assault on your eyes and almost every other sense you have is going on, and weirdly you are loving it at this point (it may be that 5th drink in the umpteenth segment brake doing that for you), The Robot Restaurant crew are smoothly bringing out floor to roof giant robots to flood the stage. These robots are huge, and do… not much.
They and the Supergirl marching band are all that are left on the stage and they walk up to you, the robots, and bow and shake a little, in what I assume is supposed to be a dance. They are impressive looking and detailed, however they are attached to a line in the roof, and remind me of those “robots” you got in the 90’s as a kid with a cable attached that you controlled with a remote control. This is the robots you have been expecting all night, and at the moment it is all cool, with your senses all being assaulted by infectious tunes, strobing lights and lasers and the finale happens with everyone dancing, including the robots to some infectious J-Pop number with interaction from the crowds chanting along and applauding for more like they are at a Beyonce concert. And all of a sudden it is over.
You are herded back up stairs to street level and head out into the streets of Shinjuku, mind melted, and wondering what just happened, did you just experience one of the most amazing and insane shows of your life, or as the light sound and movement (and perhaps a few drinks) wear off, you realise that may be the most touristy and tacky things you have ever experienced in Japan and even those final showing of actual robots may have actually just been “robots”.
Is the hype surrounding Robot Restaurant worth the money and time? Looking back at the entire thing, and videos taken from the night and the hundreds of pictures, we would have to say yes, for some people. If you're looking for fun and a lot of laughs, and are okay with a corny show, go and have fun!
It is bright, loud, hectic, tacky and so very touristy. It’s great for a large group outing, to have fun getting taken in by the bright lights, shimmering “robots” and costumes, and will give you some hilarious stories for your trip back home. If you are looking to see robots in action and be amazed by the technology we have today: don’t bother, you will be disappointed. Head to the Miraikan and check out the robotics exhibit and the ASIMO demonstration and be blown away by real robotics instead.
- Location - B2F Shinjuku Robot Bldg, 1-7-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
- Getting There - From Shinjuku Station take the east exit and it is a 6 minute walk.
- Admission - Tickets at the door are currently 7,000¥ and does not include your meal (1,000¥ for a meal). Be sure to grab your tickets from an online site like http://japanican.com or from your hotel concierge for a discount and your meal included. Japanican.com currently has a 25% off ticket with meal included for 4,500¥.
- Website - Check out their official English website here for current schedule of shows and the most up to date admission prices.
To this day it is still the most stereotypical touristy thing we have done in Japan, and we’re okay with that. It’s definitely not a repeat experience.
We are glad we did it once, will we return? No. From most reports, the show has been dumbed down, technology-wise over the years, and many of the spectacles you may have read about the show in the past are long gone. No longer is there a bright neon clad tank, or WWII fighter jets fighting in the show. Also you no longer get to get photos on stage with the “robots”.