Metal Machine Music: Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant

When Anthony Bourdain paid a visit to Robot Restaurant in 2013, the cabaret show began piquing the interests of foreign visitors. I needed to see this show during my first trip to Tokyo - and in fact I was lucky enough to see it twice!

Tucked away in the narrow streets of Kabukicho, Shinjuku, the Robot Restaurant glimmers brightly amongst the neighbourhood’s smaller, darker establishments. When Anthony Bourdain paid a visit to Robot Restaurant in 2013, the cabaret show began piquing the interests of foreign visitors. The venue opened in 2012 at the cost of $10 million and gives show goers an overwhelming 1-hour experience replete with strobing neon lights, giant animatronics, roof thumping hyper pop songs, and scantily-clad dancing girls. It was determined that I needed to see this eclectic show during my first trip to Tokyo – and in fact I was lucky enough to see it twice!

Show admission is roughly $60 USD at the door and there are three shows a night, every night. It is recommended that you call in advance to make a reservation to guarantee seats for your desired show time. Despite its camp aesthetic, Robot Restaurant is a tightly run ship. Attendees are required to call and check-in one hour ahead of the show time and the upstairs lounge is opened just half an hour prior. Cancellations will incur cost so be punctual.

The first time was unexpected as a few of us scored free tickets to that evening’s show from a promoter. I was already slated to go a week later with a colleague, but it was a Tuesday night and I had yet to experience Tokyo by night.

Kabukicho is Shinjuku district’s entertainment and red light district. In between the towering buildings and giant electronic signboards that light up the square in Shinjuku downtown is a bright alley that leads to Kabukicho. Digital and cardboard signboards littered the street and walls advertised ramen and yakitori eateries. There also stood young men in suits charming women to their bars & clubs.

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Kabukicho by night

In the middle of it all, with the biggest and shiniest signboard, is Robot Restaurant. Looking directly at the facade was hard as the whole place literally glowed. Every inch of the interior was covered with mirrors and metallic surface to better bounce the colored LED lights that glared everywhere.

The foyer is a large space, half for the queue to check in and half to display a couple of their proprietary Roboko, large robots shaped like women piloted by their human dancers. As we waited, we watched the live band – dressed in robot costume, of course – and the girls making their Roboko dance to loud J-pop beats.

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A bento box can be bought with admission at the door, and beer and snacks are sold throughout the show. We showed up a bit late to enjoy the upstairs lounge and headed downstairs where the show takes place. There were three rows of seats on each side of a long runway-like show floor and huge display screens lined the walls. The audience was a mix of locals and foreign tourists, including a handful of salarymen distinguished by their uniform black slacks and white shirts.

The show comprised different themed segments featuring costumed young ladies dancing with robots such as giant jungle snakes, smoke-making machine guns, futuristic chrome bikes and gem encrusted unicorns. While the girls danced, there was a whole team in the dark controlling the robots with practiced expertise. Between the sets, girls with beer kegs strapped to their backs went around selling beers and chips. There is ample time and opportunity to take a bathroom break – and you should do so if only to see the gilded toilet and washroom.

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It was interesting to see the reactions of the audience during the frenzied show. Some were uncertain but generally enjoying it while a few looked uncomfortable. As the show went on and the girls danced and the beer was poured, the group of salarymen were starting to get loose and enthusiastic. They clapped their hands, they vigorously waved their glow sticks, they even sang along. Their happy mood seemed infectious as the people around them also started getting into the show.

The second time around later in the week was the early show at 7pm on a Sunday. It was the same set and performance as the first time. I was still fazed by the lights and sounds, but was more free to make other observations. It made me wonder how the girls were able to dance so enthusiastically to the same routine three times a day, every day. A couple of girls had tattoos, but that is still taboo in Japan – so what must the Japanese tourists think? One noticeable difference was the crowd which was mostly foreign tourists. The buzzed salarymen were missed as the audience remained mostly tentative and lukewarm. Midway through the show, one young couple who were sitting next to me just got up and left, seemingly offended.

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Despite the bikinis and revealing costumes, this show is promoted as “family-friendly” and children are welcome at Robot Restaurant. The show has become less burlesque since its beginnings, focusing on the robots and sound effects. Robot Restaurant’s popularity is growing and it proudly touts a printout of its TripAdvisor status as a top attraction in Tokyo.

After the second show ended, I walked into the dark street with music still ringing in my ears, spots in my vision, and a small triumphant feeling that I had made it through, twice. It is definitely an experience that requires an open mind and good humor.