The giant panda in kung-fu get-up perched itself atop a mechanical cow which had just burst through a bamboo gate and was heading full tilt towards two menacing robots. The view from my bento box gave me an appreciation of the cow’s girth. The robots didn’t stand a chance. A few seconds later, I was proven right. A few seconds more, and somehow the robots overcame the bovine attack and began menacing the crowd. Light and sound in every color and pitch stabbed through the darkness. The crowd roared its strange approval. Just as I was wishing I had bought a beer before the show started, out came a giant shark mounted by a sexy, lightly clad warrior woman to save the day and I forgot about the beer.
While waving a neon baton they handed out right before a dance party of robots and warrior women, the same thought I’m sure all my fellow spectators were having crossed my increasingly puzzled mind: how did something known as a “robot restaurant” ever become a reality and could I even use the word reality? One of the weirdest visions these 20/80 eyes have ever seen must have been the brainchild of a horny, video-game obsessed 15-year old. Who else would cram mechanical animals, a couple dozen gorgeous amazons, life-size futuristic robots and pop music; pit them all against each other and house the whole thing in a space that looked as if a casino had thrown up on Sea World?
The crowd of mostly foreigners applauded wildly during the closing number which contained no less than the entire amazon troop, a neon tank, parade floats, motorcycles and large stuffed animals. The ladies had triumphed. They had vanquished the robots, at least until the next showing. The lights came on and we were ushered outside. My brain could breathe again. When I asked the lone female in our group if she thought what we had just witnessed was feminist or anti-feminist, she paused and scrunched her face, “I’m not really sure.”
Likewise, the ten days or so my brother and I spent in Tokyo, we were quite often not really sure what to make of our surroundings. We walked about six miles a day to explore only tiny patches of Tokyo’s sprawling quilt. Every turn down a narrow, quirky, shop-filled street demanded another. Every smell wafting from an open restaurant window was a command to inspect it at the least, stuff the source of it down my throat at the most. New York gives you a similar compulsion but not as strongly. I acknowledge much of that is probably because Tokyo, and Japan in general, was so delightfully foreign to me.
What certainly was foreign was having a barely legal girl with a helium-impaired voice and dressed in a saucy maid outfit show my two brothers and I a special blessing to impart on the shitty deep-fried chicken pieces she put in front of us. Her perky, high-pitched squeal was an enemy to all the glass in the room trying to stay intact. Mike, my brother stationed in Tokyo for work, was excited to take us to one of these maid cafés, probably just to get our reaction. While our maid ordained, her fellow maid leapt up onto the small stage and began to wildly sing and dance to the latest K-pop single everyone else in the bar seemed to know. A solid month after we’d returned, my brother, Dave, still has a confused look on his face. As the room continued to squeal, I turned and saw the smiling salarymen sitting behind us. They had at least a decade on me and their cigarette smoke couldn’t conceal a slight depravity. They were dreaming with their eyes open.
But it is a land of dreams and dreamers! Only a dreamer could have devised a toilet with an electric seat warmer. Where’s his or her statue? There should at least be a plaque for the mastermind behind the button that stops the electric bidet from continuing to shoot water up my ass. It takes a dreamer to understand the convenient joys of finding beer in a vending machine or a single serving of sake at the many paradises of convenience, Lawson’s or 7-11. Only a society that dreams can solve the great conundrums of the day like how to flavor Kit-Kats with green tea or even wasabi. I can’t believe I’ve lived this long knowing only one flavor.
Outside of the candy dish, so many other dishes moved me with wonder. The Ameyoko Market in the cool northern neighborhood of Ueno, has several outdoor yakitori joints buzzing with activity. Yakitori, charcoal-grilled meat on wooden sticks, is an entire farm presented to you on one plate. The whiff of grilled chicken skin, pork liver and medium rare beef hung just above the crowd of suits enjoying endless cigarettes and cold Asahi’s after work.
The surrounding market held other edible fantasies. Stalls sold slices of fresh, bright yellow cantaloupe, also on sticks, while others tried to satiate the Japanese appetite for colorful, heavily glazed donuts. At a particularly busy stall, a young-ish fellow stood stoically shucking raw oysters so immense he could have served them in a pair of Air Jordans. Customers all around him, he took his sweet time wrestling the crusty shells open or tangling with frightening spider crab legs that looked like they crawled out of the pages of a children’s storybook.
Watching the honed performances of the several sushi masters we had the pleasure of sitting in front of was like watching good theater. Sushi at 6:30 in the morning doesn’t sound quite as appealing as a chocolate croissant might but after a two-hour wait in less than warm weather, my brother and I were finally granted seats at Sushi Dai, the well-known sushi counter wedged into a closet in the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market. When I was able to squeeze myself into the seats, all of which were uncomfortably close to the back wall and to everyone else, I wrapped my cold hands around a hot mug of barley tea.
And then the show started. The sushi chefs moved their hands deftly, not a movement wasted. They still took every opportunity to shout greetings and thanks to all their patrons. I was witnessing a kabuki of sorts, one as entertaining as any giant panda. The seaweed curtains parted to reveal a cast of sea treasures. The chef directly responsible for my well-being would mumble something in Japanese, place his creation on a tiny stage in front of me and announce what it was in English-ish. He would then instruct me on whether or not I should dip it in soy sauce. Most times, not.
The too reasonable omakase was an inspired selection of some of the freshest fish in the world from the surrounding market where most of the world gets its fish. The fatty tuna never looked so svelte as it melted instantly on my tongue. The sexy Spanish mackerel made me cry ‘ole!’. The red snapper glistened like a sports car but thankfully tasted way better than one. Sushi rice I suppose was something I always took for granted; Japan’s answer to a bread basket. But I was schooled, one semi-sweet clump of sticky-rice at a time, on how locals held the rice in a higher regard than even the fish. It surprised me. I love rice as much as the next Japanese guy but I couldn’t imagine pulling up a stool to a rice clump bar.
After only forty-five minutes, Dave and I extracted ourselves from Sushi Dai and wandered around the rest of the market in a pickled ginger haze. The December air was brisk and weaving through the fishmonger stalls was like being in an open-air refrigerator. We were almost sideswiped by forklifts and stepped in more than one puddle of fish run-off. Our camera shutter didn’t rest trying to document the absurd variety of sea life on sale. Some of it looked unreal, like papier mâché or maybe the stuff of dreams.
WHAT: Japanese warrior women riding a well-lit tank, much to my delight.
WHEN: December 11, 2013
WHERE: Japan Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan