Tokyo Takeover: Robot Restaurant (Only in Japan or Over Rated Tourist Trap?)

Depending on the reviews you read, the Robot Restaurant is either a restaurant that puts on a pretty good dinner show, a burlesque show with questionable bento boxes, ninety minutes of "only in Japan" flashing lights, sparkles and insanity or a complete waste of money and time.

Me? I'm team "only in Japan" insanity.

Is it over the top? Is it totally cheeseball? Is it borderline too expensive? Absolutely. But like all "tourist attractions" it's a good time if you let it be.

If you're looking for something traditional (please, lets not even talk about the myth of "authentic") than probably something with robot in the title already isn't for you. Spend your money on Kabuki instead. But if you're looking for taiko drummers wearing rainbow wigs and maybe some dinosaur fights, read on.

Yeah, I'm setting the scene with pictures of the bar bathroom because I want you to know exactly the kind of situation you're getting yourself into.

First off, if you've used google maps and ended up in front of a place that says "this is not robot restaurant" don't worry, you're doing good. Turn around and on the opposite side of the street you should see the box office where you can purchase tickets or show up with your confirmation email and get your tickets. Robot Restaurant is in the building google maps thinks it is, the entrance just happens to be around the corner.

Be prepared for immediate and overwhelming sensory overload. The staircases and hallways have brightly colored back lit butterfly wallpaper, the philosophy behind the bar decor seems to have been "GIVE ME ALL YOUR SHINY THINGS. NO I DON'T THINK YOU UNDERSTAND ALLLLLL YOUR SHINY THINGS" and even though arriving early to watch the live music pre-performance in the bar is strongly encouraged, there isn't actually enough seating for everyone to do that so you're gonna be crowded.

I recommend drinking 1 to 6 Sapporos beforehand.

Soon you will be ushered downstairs to find your assigned seat. This is also when bento boxes are handed out if you ordered one. Most of the reviews I've read of the bento boxes range from "not great" to "the worst thing ever" so we had a quick ramen dinner before we got there. Before the show starts you can line up to buy more beer and popcorn. I bought us extra beers so I wouldn't have to stand in the line again between acts. I have zero regrets about that decision.

Once the lights dim, important safety announcements are made. Flashing lights, moving robot parts, etc etc. Make a dodge. We also had to practice ducking in case some of the larger set pieces came near us while making their way down the narrow performance space. This proved to be particularly relevant to me and Lara since we had front row seats at the end of the row where pieces moved onto the set. A lot of dodge making.

The first act has floats with light up taiko drums, scantily clad fan and parasol dancers (though I would still say people that describe the show as burlesque are being generous) and an electric guitar player in an insane wig that makes it all feel a little Mad Max: Fury Road. There is theoretically some sort of plot to each act but I had no idea what it was and it didn't really matter.

At this point we have yet to see any robots but honestly, who cares?

The second act is the battle of the animatronic dinosaurs. Now not only do we have robots but we have dinosaur robots which is basically more than anyone could ever ask for. I think these dinosaurs are fighting the battle between a princess and an evil witch but I could be 100% wrong. The battle ends with a puff of smoke and good prevailing (I think?).

After the dinosaur battle is a bathroom and beer break. There are more men's bathrooms than women's bathrooms since most of the audience members are male. I barely made it back to my seat in time (you will have to stand to the side if you don't make it back in time) where I was given a sparkly glow stick with which to practice waving back and forth. It's still unclear to me when we were supposed to use the glow stick after that since there didn't seem to be any more synchronized waving but let's just go ahead and add it to the list of things that make this experience both bizarre and fantastic.

"Hey, that also doesn't look like robots?!"

You're correct, it's not robots. It's not even robotic floats. They're also not doing The Robot. It's b-boys doing some really cool dancing with either hand held lights or some sort of light up palms in their suits.

Next the announcer comes out and starts introducing each of the women performers who do a little dance before the grand finale which is where things really just devolve into chaotic insanity. There's men dressed as robots, there's a pony, there's some singers and drummers and a lot of dudes in creepy horse head and you know what? It's probably better if I just show you.

In the end, everyone circles around for high fives and waves and you walk back out through the light up hallways and wonder what the hell just happened in the best way possible.

I've read that most hotel concierges can get buy one get one tickets. We stayed in an air bnb this trip but I was able to find discount tickets through govoyagin (not an affiliate link, just a way to make the show seem more reasonable).

Robot Restaurant is located at Japan, 〒160-0021 Tokyo, Shinjuku, Kabukicho, 1 Chome−7−1, 新宿ロボットビルB2.

Tokyo Takeover: Best Places to Escape the City

One of the things all my favorite cities around the world seem to have in common is the ease with which you can take a break from the city without actually leaving the city. You don't always have time or desire to take a day trip, sometimes you just want a couple hours recovering from pushing through the crowds in Harajuku. Luckily, between temples, gardens and parks, Tokyo has more than got you covered.

Imperial Palace East Garden

East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. Tokyo, Japan

The Imperial Palace itself is still home to Japan's Emperor and royal family* so you can't actually go in but you can book a tour to see some of the palace grounds. Though I haven't taken a tour, I've walked a fair ways around the exterior moat and wandered through the East Gardens. The gardens are free but you have to stop by a booth at the entrance to take a token as the number of people allowed in at one time is restricted. There's a mix of wide open spaces, planned flower beds and paths through more heavily wooded "wilderness". I was there at the beginning of December when the leaves were turning which was stunning, though I imagine in the Spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the flower beds actually have flowers in them, it's quite lovely too.

*Embarrassingly, I did not realize Japan still had a royal family before our first trip there, even though it's the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Thanks, American public school education.

The gardens open at 9:00 am and close between 4:00 and 5:00 depending on the season. They are always closed Monday and Friday. The entrance to the gardens is located at 〒100-0001 Tokyo, Chiyoda, 千代田1-1

Senso-ji

Ok, full disclosure, the first time I went to Senso-ji was during Golden Week last Spring and it was definitely not the place to escape the crowds. There was however a ton of street food and a ninja vs samurai mime show which was pretty fun and even crowded the temple grounds are lovely. When I went this past December, Nakamise-dori (the shopping street leading up to the temple) was still pretty crowded but once we got to Senso-ji itself, the crowds thinned out allowing us time and space to watch koi and discover the smaller sculpture gardens and shrines around the main temple building. From certain places you can catch glimpses of the top of Tokyo SkyTree while standing next to a pagoda, which weirdly makes me feel more removed from the city rather than reminding me that I'm still in it.

Senso-ji is located at 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan. As far as I know, it's open 24/7. You can find more information on its website.

Meiji Jingu (Inner Garden)

The heavily wooded park around Meiji Jingu is probably the absolute best to forget you're in the city (and to take a break or gear up for the potential crowds and madness of Harajuku). Walk through the first Torii gate onto the wide path towards the temple and you'll be completely surrounded by trees. Look up and the city skyline will have completely disappeared, replaced by rustling leaves. Just walking the path by the giant line of sake barrels and towards the temple is peaceful enough (even when we went during Golden Week) but if you're looking for an added level of escape, pay the 500 yen "maintenance fee" to visit the Meiji Jingu Gyeon. There's a meandering path that will take you through woods and gardens, some landscaped, some wild and past a lake where you can take a break and watch the koi. The Iris gardens were empty when I went in early December but the Japanese Maples were on FIRE.

Meiji Jingu opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. Meiji Jingu Gyeon opens between 8-9:00 am and closes between 4-5:00pm depending on the hours. It is located at 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo 151-8557, Japan and you can find more information on its website.

Hamarikyu Gardens

These former Imperial Gardens hold a special place in my heart because it's the first place I visited in Tokyo (after the first open ramen restaurant we could find because we arrived at 2pm STARVING) and also because it has a small soft serve truck (or at least it did last Spring). These gardens are on the bay so you get the salty sea breeze I love so much. Along with trees hundreds of years old, these gardens have many wide open grassy spots where blankets were spread out and couples and friends were picnicking and a large duck pond with a teahouse. There's a 300 yen fee but if your feet are aching from shopping in Ginza or maybe you need to take a nap in the sun after an early morning at Tsukiji, it's well worth it. 

Hamarikyu Gardens are located at 1-1 Hamarikyuteien, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0046, Japan and are open 9:00am-5:00pm year round. You can find more information on their website.

Tokyo Takeover: Get Caffeinated

A while ago I wrote Runaway Coffee Finds Around the World which included two of the shops mentioned in this post, my original plan was to go back and edit it with more Tokyo shops, shops in Seoul and places we found exploring Kansai but I realized that was just too long. So instead, here are my top five choice to indulge in my addiction in Tokyo.

Coutume Coffee and Pain au Chocolat, Tokyo

Coutume 〒107-0062, 5丁目-8-10 南青山, 港区 東京都 107-0062, Japan

Oh man, Coutume deserves (and will get) its own write up because the food options here are also fantastic. One of things the Tokyo outpost of this French coffee shop has going for it is that unlike almost every other coffee shop in Asia, it opens before noon. In fact, it opens at 7:30 a.m. which means any future Tokyo trips will definitely include choosing a place to rest our head walking distance from this spot. There's so much going on here. A variety of single origins, your choice for preparation, espresso drinks, dutch coffee/kyoto drip and AND the price range for beverages is $3-$5 (yes, even for a single origin pour over, I can't even). I went here every day my last trip to Tokyo and I bought a bag of beans to bring home to my husband. My only complaint is that I wish the tasting notes had a translation to either English or French because the one I got from google translates didn't make a whole lot of sense (but that's not a real complaint because maybe I should just learn Japanese if I really want to know).

Miyakoshiya Coffee Minato-ku, Tokyo Shimbashi 1-chome 7-10 Shiodome Superior building

Miyakoshiya seems to have a number of locations all over Tokyo but we only went to the Shimbashi location near our hotel. The Shimbashi location has a decidedly rustic look with lots of polished wood and mismatched tea cups. The first time we went on a week day morning it was empty and they were playing Willie Nelson (my kind of place). We got Guatemala and a Mocha Mattari pour overs. For those not keeping up on their yen to dollar conversions, the Guatemala was just over $7 while the Mocha Mattari was a bit over $10, which is pretty similar pricing to coffee in Seoul. What wasn't similar to most shops in Seoul, was the quality. The Mocha Mattari might be the best coffee I've ever had. I still regret not spending the yen on bringing back some beans. We went back on a weekend day and it was packed and full of smokers (less my scene) and ordered iced coffees. The iced coffees were VERY strong but required quite a bit of milk and sugar to overcome their bitterness. If you go, I'd stick to a week day visit and the single origins. I'm not sure of the actual hours here but I think we went as early as 9:00 a.m.

Cafe de L'Ambre 8-Chome-10-15 Ginza Chuo Tokyo

Opened in 1948, with the original owner still roasting the beans (yes, he is literally 100), Cafe de L'ambre is a must visit for its smokey, bar like atmosphere and amazing vintage decor alone. The menu has both single origin pour overs (done with cloth filters) and numerous iced coffee drinks. Even though there is an English language menu, I ended up with a regular iced coffee instead of the "rich iced coffee" I was trying to order. The regular iced coffee is served with coffee cubes which I really appreciated, however similar to Miyakoshiya, it was very strong and very bitter. I prefer drinking coffee black but I added all of my tiny pitcher of milk and a fair amount of simple syrup. Dan successfully ordered the "water drip" coffee which we think was just straight Kyoto drip/Dutch coffee concentrate in a shot glass. Unlike my iced coffee, it was smooth, rich and delicious with an almost fatty mouthfeel even though it didn't have any sort of milk or cream. Dan definitely won at ordering this round.

Update: I returned to Cafe de L'Ambre at the beginning of December and successfully ordered the rich iced coffee which comes in a cocktail glass and is smooth and delicious. Lara ordered the egg yolk coffee which is very sweet and has to be consumed very quickly or the yolk cooks. It wasn't bad, but it's probably a try it once for the experience sort of drink for most people.

 Blue Bottle 3-13-14 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku Tokyo, 107-0062

Yep, that Blue Bottle. Just like any Blue Bottle in America, you can expect a bit of a line, the need to be on your toes if you're going to snag a seat and fantastic quality and service. Watching the baristas on the line here is beautiful, fast and efficient, they clearly take pride in their work. I even saw a barista send a cup to the kitchen because he had accidentally moved the cup too fast, slopping a bit over the side! It hadn't even disturbed his latte art! I considered offering to take it, but I don't think that would've gone over well. Unfortunately, unlike American locations, the Aoyama Blue Bottle doesn't open until 10 am so it's better for days with a late start or when you need an afternoon pick me up.

 Clover Cafe 雷門2丁目18-15T・Sビル Taitō, 東京都 〒111-0034 Japan

You're probably surprised by the inclusion of a character coffee place in this list which is totally fair BUT don't think just because it has a cute cat this cappuccino isn't good. Even though I did originally choose to go into Clover Cafe because I wanted the novelty of a "only in Japan" adorable coffee, it turns out the drinks here are well balanced with a nice full mouth feel. I'm also in love with the Earl Grey cake. Clover Cafe is right by Senso-ji, so it's a good place to rest your aching feet after exploring the temple and various market streets or if you haven't had your morning cup you can stop by before heading to the temple, since Clover Cafe is another shop that opens bright and early at 7:30 a.m. (8:00 a.m. weekends).

Taipei Takeover: Banking with Dinosaurs (Thoughts on a City)

It's hard to put my finger on what I liked so much about Taipei. I can tell you why I love Tokyo or why Beijing really didn't do it for me or why my feelings about Seoul ping pong all over the place. The city itself isn't attractive, it doesn't have the cared for look of Tokyo or the futuristic gilt of Seoul. Like Beijing, mopeds are so numerous it seems like you're always in the middle of a scooter gang. But there's something quite literally in the air in Taipei that makes me immediately more relaxed. As a lifetime coastal dweller, I can appreciate the beauty of the ring of mountains around Seoul but they make me feel as trapped as the stagnant air that often layers on top of the city. I know I'm on a peninsula but why can't I feel the ocean?

Taipei though... Taipei the air moves. The damp chill is familiar and even the buckets of sixty degree rain feel right. While we rode in a taxi from the airport to downtown Taipei, I could let the trees blur and the wide freeway alternating between green hills and city buildings could have easily been in the Bay Area instead. People walk slow, like they do on the West Coast too, I never have been a slow walker so maybe this is my one complaint about Taipei.

The first evening we were in Taipei, a warmish Saturday night, we rounded a corner and almost ran into a group of teenagers screaming and laughing and I was so startled realizing the only time I see kids the same age in Seoul is if I ride the bus immediately after class gets out. Sure, I see toddlers in the park and let them pet our dogs all the time but I don't know the last time I saw teenagers having fun.

In Seoul the buildings are shiny on the outside but built quickly and on the inside there are cracks. In our own apartment, behind its giant gold door, we never know which bathroom lights are going to work and one time our door knob spontaneously combusted. We have a huge jacuzzi tub but the two times I've used it I've listened to the pipes burbling for days wondering if at any moment sewage would be coming back up (a real thing our dogsitter had to deal with once while we were out of town). In the news you read about new towers with cracks in the foundation or aquariums that leak. Rome may not have been built in a day but there's a good chance the current version of your neighborhood in Seoul was.

Taipei might be uglier but at least it seems honest.

Land Bank Evolution Museum, Taipei Taiwan

One morning we walked in the rain to the Taipei Miniature Museum (there is also a Miniature Museum of Taipei) only to find a note taped on the door saying it was closed for two days. We shifted our plans and found ourselves at the 100+ year old National Taiwan Museum wandering through a self described maze analyzing the effect of capitalism on the landscape of Taipei. It ended in a room with a cloud symbolizing The Cloud from which we all access information. Then we walked through another floor with extremely dated dioramas of Taiwan's flora and fauna. Taiwan has had its own problems with maybe bulldozing too much of the old in the name of the new but now instead of a constant battle, the two seem to exist in a comfortable truce.

Across from (but part of) the National Museum is the Land Bank Exhibition Hall. One side of this building is filled with information dense displays about evolution followed by a huge hall of dinosaurs and other creatures (but mostly dinosaurs). The other side of the building is actually in a two story bank vault and discusses the evolution of the banking system in Taiwan. Even to my much more business minded husband, the information on the banking side was boring and repetitive but we both agreed walking through the aisles of a bank vault was cool. I suspect Dan could've spent hours looking a the exposed mechanisms of the bank vault door.

IMG_0701.JPG

One morning we went to the National Palace Museum but elbowing through endless tour groups to look at 100 different bronze mirrors didn't do it for us. It's not that I can't appreciate a few cool bronze mirrors or calligraphy sets or celadon plates but that I don't have the patience to be trapped between waves of people in a room full of only that. I'll take the less visited dinosaur bones and a bank vault full of adding machines.

After the Evolution Museum we walked through the 2/28 Peace Park on a hunt for bubble tea. The well tended parks in Seoul are one of the things I like most about the city. In Taipei the parks have more pavement but the trees seem to grow wild.

We continued in search of the nearest Chun Shui Tang (the original maker of bubble tea), not realizing the location I had marked was beneath the National Theater in Liberty Square. We walked a few circles around the slippery bricks before heading under the stairs and being guided to a table where we received a menu slip to fill out. Foolishly, still full from our Sichuan lunch, we each chose to get a medium bubble tea. Dan got classic black milk tea and I got jasmine. We had spent a lot of the day walking in the rain so we also ordered a plate of green tea cookies, content to stay inside and take a break for a while.

Our trudge through the rain was rewarded with glasses of bubble tea bigger than our face and a plate piled with rich, buttery green tea cookies. The milk tea at Chun Shui Tang is unsweetened and the pearls are small and chewy. I prefer my bubble tea on the less sweet side but the pearls here also taste completely unsweetened and I had enjoyed my cup of Happy Lemon bubble tea, purchased at the Taipei 101 food court the night before, more. Maybe sacrilege. But maybe the original just isn't always the best. The teahouse was relaxing and dry though and by the time we drained our huge glasses and conquered the mountain of cookies, we were ready to go back out into the world.

Or at least to the subway that would take us to hot showers and dry socks.

The National Taiwan Museum and Land Bank Exhibition Hall are open Tues-Sun 9:30-5:00pm and admission is a whopping TWD $30 (USD $1.00) for a joint ticket. The National Taiwan Museum is located at No. 2 Xianyang Rd and The Land Bank Exhibition Hall is No. 25 Xianyang Rd. For more information about special exhibits, check their website.

Taipei Takeover: Drinking Your Way Through

We already know that Wa Shu might just be my favorite cocktail and whisky bar in the world (and I wouldn't blame you for just hanging out there your whole trip) but we also checked out a few more bars in our short trip, so if you're more into craft beer or cocktails a little more classic, here are some good options.

Hodala

Conveniently, Hodala is right around the corner from Yongkang Beef Noodles, making it easy for you to get some pre or post noodle brews. Hodala has a solid mix of their own beers and guest taps from around the world available and with 16 taps, you're sure to find something you like or you can do a tasting paddle if you're not sure. (I was very excited by the number of dark beers on the menu and went for the Black Bullet and Fear the Oat!, both from Hodala) The beers here range in price from around $8-$10 (US) which might seem a little crazy after you've just spent that same amount on your entire dinner but is pretty average for craft beer around Asia. The exposed bricks, odd lighting and very intentional giant water pipes running along the wall didn't do much for us in the way of decor and generally I would describe that atmosphere as trying a little too hard to be cool but since I live in a neighborhood in Seoul I sometimes describe as "Brooklyn Disneyland", I'm well familiar with this style of slightly too shiny and new industrial and once you've had enough beers you probably won't care.

Hodala is located at No. 10, Lane 4, Yongkang St, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106 and you can find more information on their facebook page.

啜飲室 (The Tasting Room)

On one hand, like Hodala, The Tasting Room's exposed wood, stainless steel and soundtrack of smooth jazz, give it a feel of trying to hit a particular aesthetic and not quite getting there but on the other, it actually is also an art gallery with some pretty cool stuff on the walls and as much as I want to talk about how over the top hipster their twenty different custom made, hand crafted tap handles are, they're actually pretty cool and I'm sad I didn't get a good close up shot (the image on the beer glass is a print version of one of the handles). The taps here definitely have a pretty heavy showing from West Coast breweries like Rogue and Heretic and they only had one Taiwanese beer on tap, so if your heart is set on trying some local beers, this isn't the place but with tons of beers we can't get in Seoul (including a good selection of dark beers for me) this was a good place for us to have a few rounds when we decided we'd pushed a little too hard in Jiufen the day before and needed a rest afternoon. Beers here are around $6-$8 (US) so a bit cheaper than Hodala, but also still not full pints. It's walking distance from Wa Shu if you're interested in doing a mini bar crawl.

The Tasting Room is located at 復興 南路 一段 107 巷 5 弄 14 號 No. 14, Alley 5, Lane 107, Section 1, Fuxing South Rd, 大安區台北市 Taiwan 106, you can find more information on their facebook page.

Ounce

I didn't snap any pictures at Ounce because this small, dimly lit speakeasy just didn't seem like that kind of party and while normally I have very little shame about taking photos of my food and drink, the bartender serving us turned out to be good friends with my husband's childhood best friend (TRUE STORY) so I didn't want to make a total ass of myself. (He's also how we found out about Wa Shu after we were asking about the selection of Japanese whiskies)

Ounce is hidden inside Relax cafe but don't worry, it's not that intimidating a speakeasy, just walk in and say you're their for Ounce and they'll direct you to the door tucked in the corner. There's no menu here, just a conversation with the bartender about your preferred liquors and flavor profiles and plenty of twists on classic cocktails. The drinks here are solid, costing around $12 (US) for a cocktail and the room is small and intimate but not so pretentious that we felt out of place in jeans. If you want an only in Taipei experience, go to Wa Shu but if you're looking for somewhere a little less adventurous to relax after a day of sightseeing, check out Ounce.

Ounce is located at No. 40, Lane 63, Section 2, Dunhua S Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106, you can find more information on their facebook page.