I'm such a sucker for a gimmick.
When I was a kid there was this restaurant in the mall/at the science center/on the docks — I don't remember exactly — that was boat-themed. Like, not seafood and the Gorton's Fisherman, but like you sat in a foam tugboat on a fake indoor dock and sailors and captains brought you crappy fried fish.
It's a RESTAURANT? But you're on a FAKE BOAT? The water is INDUSTRIAL CARPET with FELT FISH? WHAT COULD BE MORE ENJOYABLE?!
I never got to eat there, per se. I think my mom and I picked up my cousin from a birthday party there (WHERE THERE WAS A WOMAN DRESSED UP LIKE A FISH SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS) and I briefly got to wander the boat-tables huffing the grease and kid-sweat odors. I really wanted to eat fried shrimp and "be a boat captain."
Oh MAN, I wanted to eat there. Just once, that's all I wanted. Alas, it was not to be.
I'm not sure if my mom just couldn't handle that much KID STUFF in one sitting, or if it was just too far out of our price range, but no matter how I begged to go to the "boat restaurant," my mom said no.
I think her exact words were, "You don't want to go there," a favorite phrase of my mom's back in the day, when she didn't want to explain herself. It still makes me prickle.
Now I know the "boat restaurant" was probably tacky and sticky and totally '80s kitschy, but the thought of getting to have my pretend world realized in 3-D in front of me was a freaking dream come true for seven-year-old Louise. I mean, I was the kid who would lie on the floor for hours in a melancholy haze over the fact that I'd never get to live in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's upside-down house.
But now that I'm in Japan, I feel like seven-year-old Louise finally gets her "boat restaurant." Or Vampire Cafe or Ghost Cafe or what have you.
I live in the land of theme restaurants.
Almost any fantasy you can imagine, someone has turned into a theme restaurant, or is planning to turn into a theme restaurant. They run the gamut from sexy (bikini robot babes, maid cafés), to commonplace (a classroom café), to "nerd culture" cafés that are manga- or anime-themed.
And of course there are the horror-themed restaurants. That's where my creepy senses are zeroing in.
With a spooky-inclined friend visiting in two weeks, and s.e. visiting Tokyo shortly after that, I've been doing my homework on the most bizarre, Japan-tastic, "Creepy Corner Worthy" restaurants and cafés out there.
"Spooky-cute" or "creepy-cute" is actually what that comes to mind as many of the more "horrific" themes are tempered by cuteness. From what I can tell, a lot of them are like going to a haunted house in Disneyland: creepy but cartoonish.
I'll admit that some of these places walk the line between taste and "not so tasteful" for Western and/or feminist sensibilities, but I'm trying to take it all with a pinch of context and a dash of cultural understanding. Plus, I'm learning that what a Western audience might consider "exploitative," a Japanese audience sometimes considers "freeing."
Anyway, here are some of the spooky cafés and restaurants I'm intrigued by. I'm not sure if I'll make it to all of them, but if you're wondering what I'm doing later this month, it will probably have something to do with ghost servers or "coffin-side" dining.
Want to feel like you've just stepped into Dracula's parlor? Vampire Cafe in the Ginza district of Tokyo is your gothic respite from the living.
Coffins, dusty chandeliers, crucifixes, candles, a few severed limbs, and "blood" make up the decor, while servers in tuxedos and French maid outfits (I've heard some have red eyes) hustle about the dark restaurant bringing you dishes served in caskets or in a crucifix motif. Even the walls have some "blood splatter" on them.
According to the website, you have the choice of dining in one of four locations in "The Castle," the "Altar" room, the "Victim" room, the "Coffin" room (pictured above), or the private "Black" room for up to 30 souls.
While I've read that the food is "okay," this is one of the cafés in Tokyo that gets raves for detail, from the baroque music playing throughout the restaurant, to all the mirrors in the dining area being broken.
So remember how we talked about the Namahage? The Japanese boogeyman who roamed the mountains and villages in the Akita Prefecture asking families, "Blisters healed yet?" aka "You're a lazy sack of crap."
The Namahage is a Japanese boogeyman specific to the Akita Prefecture, whose goal in life is to scare LAZY or naughty children straight. Dr. Phil was actually modeled after him.
I'm lying. But spend an evening at Akita Dining Namahage in the Ginza District, and you may crave the warm, "tough love" embrace of Dr. Phil.
While the restaurant itself is a detailed representation of a traditional village eatery in the distinctive Akita area, I've heard the food is quite good, but things get a little less homey when the lights go out.
The lights will abruptly turn off, and out of the dark, to the banging of drums, a traditionally costumed Namahage will come a-prowling. This isn't Yosemite Sam getting mock angry with you at Six Flags, this is a demon who takes his job seriously.
Going from table to table, ESPECIALLY those with children (it's a family restaurant, duh), the Namahage will ask, "Are you lazy? Do you drink too much sake? Are you bad? Are you? Are you? ARE YOU?"
Apparently the Namahage only relents when you play along and offer fearful submission or apologies for your slothful ways. Kids cry, adults shriek, the chefs notice how well kamaboko (fish cake) goes with anxiety. Eventually the Namahage blesses you and you can go on eating your hot pot.
Of course, if you don't play along, or are unrepentantly bad, the Namahage will grab you and take you back to his mountain lair for all eternity. But you still have to pay your bill.
Well apparently that dream can come true at Yurei Izakaya.
As some of you may remember, a yurei, generally speaking, is a Japanese ghost. An izakaya is essentially a pub or bar with food. Located in the Kichijoji neighborhood of Tokyo, Yurei Izakaya is a creepy, campy theme-restaurant favorite.
Located down a dark staircase "booby trapped" with cold blasts of air, your typical house of horrors accessories, "think rubber severed heads, sudden bursts of cold air, ghostly mumblings," the bar is located in a black-lit basement.
The theme is ghosts and all things dead. Servers with pale skin, dressed in white burial garb serve you creepy-crawly drinks and food like this jiggly brain dish with "blood" syringe shooters:
Severed limbs and Japanese grave markers abound and even the bathroom has "human skin" wallpaper.
Want to remember your visit to Yurei Izakaya? You can have a "funeral portrait" taken to remember your night in Hell.
The whole experience is meant to mimic a playful haunted house,"realm of the dead" atmosphere, with all the staff gleefully indulging in "death puns" and even ghost storytelling on the weekends.
While I've heard that some of the funeral and death decor might make the more squeamish uncomfortable, it's all intended to be "fun" as well as "funereal."
This is the one I'm extra curious about, so I'll definitely report back when I go. I suspect that as someone considers Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a hallmark of her development, I should do just fine.
These are just a few of the eerie establishments I want to visit. I have to admit that one of the reasons I was really excited to move to Japan was because of theme restaurants like the ones mentioned above.
When my inner seven-year-old finally gets to go to fulfill her dream of fantasy immersion, I'll be sure to tell you all about it.