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.

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.

Getting Lost in Jiufen (Epilogue): The Tea House

Red lanterns beckoned us down the hill, away from Old Street and into neighborhood lanes. A few twists and turns and stops at large decks built off the hill for better viewing of the ocean, now misty and spotted with boat's bright lights and we arrived at the odd, haphazard wooden building. Warm red against the cool purple sky, we didn't know what to expect but it seemed like good a spot as any to reheat our aching hands before catching a bus back to Taipei.

We enter into a small reception area, where an ottoman shaped mutt in a quilted jacket is quietly limping around. I wonder if we've accidentally ended up in some sort of guesthouse.

"It's ok, my dog he is old," a woman appears from an adjoining room behind the counter, "upstairs" she points.

The wooden staircase is narrow and turning, with even less space allowed for movement by a cluster of potted plants along the wall but opens into a wide hallway. To the left is a low opening into a room made of weathered, mismatched wood, roof slanting so at the far end the tables look made for a giant. Continuing down the upward slanted hallway, there's a large window looking into the room and table covered in Taiwanese LPs. There's a room in the back with a large group dining and laughing loudly. We decide to go up one more set of stairs.

These stairs open into one large room, home to more mismatched furniture covered in plants and vintage fans. Here two people are working in a small kitchen area and they gesture for us to find somewhere to sit. A sort of balcony runs around the high ceilinged room. We go up the stairs and find they lead to an outside balcony. Even though we had traveled downhill to the tea house, our view was now over the town and the ocean.

We order in a confusion. I choose one tea but then the server points out three teas (including my choice) and I'm not sure if he's suggesting I ordered wrong or explaining my options. I end up changing to the one he specifically mentioned was Taiwanese. Dan and I are both tired and sore from walking. The night has a damp chill that seeps into my bones. But even at that I find myself settling into the biting wind and thinking "home".

Out comes a wooden box with slots in the top, topped with a small red tea pot, a white and blue pitcher and two delicate cups. After this another wooden box with a burner. Followed by a large teapot of boiling water. We're not sure what we've gotten ourselves into.

"I will show you"

The young woman hands us a placard, partially in English explaining the process but also narrates what she's doing.

First she carefully measures tea into the clay pot. Next she picks up the large tea pot, wrapping its handle in cloth.

"The first time we are just warming the pot"

She pours the water into the pot, places the lid back on and then pours water all over the outside as well. She quickly drains the water out of the tea pot through the slots.

"Now we pour again"

She fills the pot until it is overflowing and once again replaces the lid.

"Now we wait until the water starts to go back" she gestures towards the nozzle and we all stare at the small opening intently. Eventually the water recedes a little. With quick practiced movements, she lifts the pot and hangs it almost vertically draining it into the small sieve on top of the blue and white pitcher.

"You can use these tea leaves 4 or 5 times, ok. And the rest in the container is for you."

"Ok, thank you"

She leaves and we quietly sip our tiny cups of tea.

Dan makes the next two pots of tea.

The young man comes out to check on us. If we're cold we can move inside he says as he lifts the pot to see how much water we have left.

I am cold but I don't want to go inside.

"Does the tea taste a little like fish to you?"

"I think some green teas, like this one, can have a bit of a seaweed-y taste"

"So, it's ok?"

My husband is not a tea drinker.

"Yeah, I think it's fine"

"Ok, it's your turn to make a pot"

I look at the giant pot warily. I take the lid off the small pot and carefully go through the steps. Pour to overflowing. Replace the lid. Wait for the water to retreat. Strain. Pour into cups.

We discuss our dinner options. Between buns in the morning and market food we're lunch, we feel street fooded-out for the day, plus between the wind and the walking, we're craving something more substantial.

Two more rounds of tea.

We settle on the Ippudo we had spotted two blocks from our hotel, not adventurous but we had had plenty of adventure that day.

We go inside to settle up the bill and then make our way back to the bus stop.

Parts One, Two, Three and Four

Getting Lost in Jiufen (Part Four): The Golden Waterfall

"This looks pretty straightforward, we mostly follow the main highway North towards the ocean"

I'm not sure what possessed me to say that after our walk from Jiufen to Jinguashi. We started off on the highway but soon found the directions putting us pack on a narrow path, making our way through overgrown residential walkways.

There aren't even construction workers or barking dogs in this neighborhood, though the houses that are still standing are much larger and more Western, decidedly not abandoned. We're nearing late afternoon and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn't get dark as early in Taiwan as it does in Korea and also that we don't get turned around.

"As long as we keep walking towards the ocean, we're going the right way" I tell myself. But we're back in the trees now and I have no idea where the ocean went.

The narrow path turns into a clearer brick pathway and that joins back up with the highway. There is definitely nobody else making this walk and very few people driving. At one point a cab even slows and tried to convince us to get in but we're captivated by the river, the strange retaining walls and the view of the ocean. Besides, the winding, pompous grass lined highway reminds me of home and I'm unwilling to give up my momentary peace for a potentially harrowing cab ride.

Retaining wall by the highway, Jinguashi/Jiufen, Taiwan

"Oh, here's a sign"

This walk has been far more straightforward and before we know it we've almost reached our destination. We turn right, thinking we have a bit of a hike to go but then suddenly, there we are at the waterfall, by a turn out in the road.

"Well this is... less golden than I expected"

The mineral deposits supposedly discolor the water so it looks gold but the water is looking pretty water colored to me. I'd read that it also discolors the river and then mixes into the ocean, but I don't think we have time to quite walk all the way to the coast before we'd be walking in the dark.

We sit to eat the rest of our cakes but seemed to have timed our arrival perfectly with that of many cabs and a bus. Soon there are people crowded around our bench taking pictures as we stuff the last of our not quite what we were expecting pastries into our mouth.

"What's that up on the hill?"

"I think it's an abandoned copper smelt. Should we go see if we can walk around?"

"Do you know when the last bus is?"

I look up bus directions and we try to find a sign on the stop telling us when the last bus leaves. Dan thinks it's in the next half hour but we decide to risk it anyways.

The Golden Waterfall, Ruifang District, Taiwan

We walk under an arch that has seen better days towards the dilapidated buildings but our plans for exploration are stopped short by a sign and a fence. We briefly debate walking up the road next to the fenced off driveway towards the building further up the hill, but we're both anxious about the bus so we settling for trying to get some good pictures before heading back to the waterfall.

"Look! The water in the river is way more golden!"

Now I really want to see how it mixes with the blue of the ocean but we'll have to save that for another trip. A trip where I agree to take the bus or hop in a taxi. I find another larger sign for the bus and it looks like the last one isn't for another two hours but the smaller sign says it only stops once an hour and we don't want to risk missing it, so we sit down and have a wait, hands beginning to stiffen as the sun goes down and the wind picks up. We probably only wait about twenty minutes but our anxiety increases as it gets darker and all the groups of people hop back in their cabs, leaving just us and a roadside vendor in the process of packing up.

We hop on the bus with one other couple and I realize it's just a tourist bus that goes in a loop around all the area attractions. You could probably get to to far more sites in a day than we did but hurrying from site to site isn't really our style and even much later when we get back to our hotel room and I realize my face is hot and windburned, I wouldn't trade our day slipping down hills and stumbling over broken paths for one spent in the relative comfort of a bus.

The Golden Waterfall, Jiufen, Taiwan

Parts One, Two and Three