TOKYO TRAVEL & WEIRD THEME RESTAURANTS INTERVIEW IN CHARLOTTE OBSERVER. PHOTOS OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND, VAMPIRE CAFE JAPAN.
Happy Sunday! How was your weekend? I’ve been working non-stop… hopefully I can break the big news to you on Monday.
New Q&A in the Charlotte Observer about my Theme Restaurants book. I hear it’s now in stores and found on major online retailer sites, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you can’t find the title, I’m sure the store staff can order it for you (and you can always get it online). Looking forward to hearing what you think of the book.
Tokyo whets your appetite for the bizarre
Posted: Sep. 20, 2009
La Carmina is a writer who divides her time between Vancouver, British Columbia – her hometown – New York and Tokyo. Her blog (www.lacarmina.com/blog) chronicles “goth” youth culture in Japan. Her new book, “Crazy, Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo” ($24.95, Mary Batty Publisher), is about bizarre places to eat in the Japanese capital.
Q. OK, so tell me more about your book.
(It contains) photos and paragraphs about more than 30 theme restaurants in Tokyo – and not the TGI Fridays type. These are full-blown Disneyland acid-trip-like experiences where you can expect to drink cocktails with fake eyeballs in them, or a vampire waiter to burst from a secret passageway and spook you. You might be served by a pretty girl dressed as a French maid and who offers to massage your hands. I visited all these places in 21/2 months.
Q. Are you much of a foodie?
Yes and no. I don’t eat out much more than the average person. I’m more interested in wacky, surreal experiences.
Q. What’s behind these places? Is Japanese food so similar and bland that they have to do this crazy stuff?
Initially it wasn’t about food – it was about creating an entertaining experience that would draw people in. These places weren’t expected to take off the way they did. You just can’t predict that people would enjoy eating behind, say, jail bars. But the Japanese loved it. These places became great destinations, especially for parties of people who’ve seen everything else in Tokyo and wanted something unique.
Q. But these places are stranger than what you may find in, say, New York.
It’s something distinctly Japanese: the ability to just let go and let the environment sweep you up. I think they’re a bit more open to participating in a fantasy dining experience. It’s a favored form of escape from everyday life, something we in America don’t necessarily seek out.
Q. Are these wacky restaurants expensive?
I’d say generally about $20-$30 for a meal for one person. That’s not too bad. Sometimes there’s a cover charge, especially if you have a group. Some are more upscale.
Q. Walk us through the place that started this trend.
A jail restaurant called Alcatraz. It’s actually a “haunted mental hospital”-theme restaurant. It has a couple locations. The first one closed, but now the one in Shibuya District is the main one. Inside there are two levels of cells, and crazy haunted medical décor is everywhere… organs in jars, monsters in mental hospital uniforms strapped to the walls, and so on. You speak to the hostess, who handcuffs you and leads you to your cell and locks you in. If you need a waiter, you grab a metal bar and bang on the cell door. Then you place your order, which might be a cocktail that comes in a “syringe” or chemical beaker. Then comes the highlight – the dinner show. The whole room turns pitch-black. You hear wailing sirens and disco music. Out rush the haunted mental inmates – people wearing monster masks who run through the halls screaming. They open your cell door and grab you and shake you. One lucky person in the whole restaurant is dragged into the hallway and manipulated – hair ruffled, dragged around the place, and so on.
Q. Um, is the food any good?
It’s not good at all. But I will say that the quality of the food has gotten much better in the past few years. There’s a Jesus-themed café called Christon that has genuine Eastern European relics – and food that’s quite good.
Q. Who goes to these places?
It depends on the theme. Goth kids love the Jesus and vampire themes. But you’ll see groups of businessmen who go for laughs. You’ll see a 55-year-old woman with her husband. It seems strange, but older people enjoy the monster attacks.
Q. What’s the damnedest place you cover in your book?
It’s a bar called Kagaya. It’s presided over by a man who seems normal until you’re asked to choose a country with your drink order. Say you choose Bali (Indonesia). He’ll go into a little closet and come out dressed as a Bali dancer, spinning and dancing. Then he’ll duck back into the closet and come out dressed normal. Pick France and he’ll draw a portrait of you, look lovingly at you, and then rub the drawing all over himself…. not everything makes sense.
Q. And you and your friends sometimes dress to match the place you visit?
Yes. At the Alice in Wonderland Café, one friend was the Cheshire Cat, with full face paint and a furry tail. I was the Queen of Hearts, and had playing card stickers all over me. It was quite fun because we sat next to an older couple that kept giving us strange looks.
Q. Where are these places?
All over the place. Except for the monkey-waiter café, which is in North Tokyo, all the places I write about are in Tokyo – and all over Tokyo. The only apparent concentration is of “French maid” cafes, in the Akihabara, a big nerd haven. All the latest electronic stores are right there; gaming centers, too. So you have all these nerdy young men hanging out there. They go to maid cafes.
Q. So techno geeks go to see waitresses in sexy maid costumes?
A “French maid” doesn’t have the racy connotation as it does in the West. Maids often appear in anime (Japanese animation) and manga (stylized Japanese comics). So for these men, it’s like stepping into a comic book.
For more info about the book, click-click.