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Monday, July 30, 2018

Exploring Japan Vol. 8 - Robot Show, Monster Cafe and Kaiju Sakaba!

So to wrap up this short series on cafes in Japan, I want to focus on what are hands down, three of the most outlandish in all of the ones we’ve tried.  The first is pretty famous.  It's been featured on Food Network and Travel Channel shows repeatedly.  Of course, I'm talking about the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku.

Now, a quick word of warning.  The Robot Restaurant is located in a slightly seedier area of Tokyo.  Shinjuku has some seriously cool stuff to see if you're there with your family.  Aside from the Robot Restaurant, they also feature a gigantic Godzilla which I'll cover in another post.  However there are also a plethora of bars, host clubs, video stores and the occasional adult toy shop.  

If you've got issues with walking past any of that, put them aside because this place is absolutely worth it.  You'll present your ticket and be escorted up to a bar area where you can get your one free drink and purchase more if you're so inclined. 

There's a robot band playing which leaned toward jazzy versions of funk songs when we were there.  Soon you're led down into a room with bleacher style seats along two sides.  If you're eating here, you'll be served before the show, but the great thing about this place is you don't have to buy a meal.  Your ticket pays for your admission completely.  The show is long but there are breaks in between "acts" so you'll probably want another drink or two, plus they do have some killer popcorn.

What takes place over the next hour or so is supposed to tell a story, but we couldn't really follow it.  It didn't matter though.  Giant robots parade through the room, sometimes doing battle with each other, sometimes just leading or carrying parades of musicians.  Everything is lit in neon and the effect is sensory overload.  Once it's over, you're likely to ask yourself, "What did I just see?" and that's usually not a bad thing.

You do generally have to buy your tickets in advance for this, so if you're looking to go you may want to look them up online or get your hotel concierge to help you.
Let's say though that you want something similar but don't really like the idea of traveling to Shinjuku at night.  There's a pretty good alternative right in Harajuku.  The Kawaii Monster Cafe ("Cute Monster Cafe") celebrates weirdness on every level!

Yes, that's a giant rabbit drinking from an inverted milk bottle... you know, like they do in the wild.  Imagine a place so colorful and outlandish that it seems like it sprang from the imaginations of Sid and Marty Krofft  during their most surreal acid trip ever.  It makes the set of H.R. Puffinstuff look like  a police procedural  show.  

During your meal, you’ll get to see the hostesses perform on this rotating stage.  If you’re not careful, you may be called up to help them sing and dance. In between the shows, you're encouraged to get up and walk around to other areas.  Every inch of the place is strange.
However, I wouldn’t be writing about this place if it weren’t also for the lengths they go to in order to make their food just as colorful and outrageous. 

The plates above look like artists' palettes and what’s really cool is that each one of those “paint smudges” is actually a different sauce.  Color does not necessarily indicate what it is.  For instance, the blue is just butter.  Others may be ranch, mustard, etc.
If you’re there, splurge on a drink.  They are just as outlandish and if you have someone who has a sweet tooth, then get this beast!  Each color of icing is a different flavor!

The Kawaii Monster Café is very close to Takashita St. in Harajuku.   They suggest you make reservations but we just walked up around 2:30 on a Sunday and got right in for a late lunch.  Also, if you like what you see but think it’s a little too kid-like, then make it a point to reserve a spot in the evening.  The Kawaii Monster Café is adults only at night where they take the same theme and steer it toward a more mature direction.

So yeah, we all loved both of those places but there's only one that is my hands down favorite.  It's a very special bar/restaurant in Suzuki called Kaiju Sakaba.  Themed after the Ultraman TV show that’s been airing in Japan (in one incarnation or another) since the 1960’s, the premise is just awesome. 

Basically, every enemy that Ultraman has ever fought has finally gotten tired of losing.  Instead of world domination, they've gotten together to form an exclusive club where they only serve other evil doers. The result is one extremely fun place!  

Upon entering, each person has to stick their hand in the mouth of this wall decoration.  It then tells the server if you have any “hero DNA”.  If you do, then you can’t enter.  If you don’t, then you’re more than welcome! 

You’ll walk by a bunch of models and some memorabilia from the Ultraman shows, but once seated, the real fun begins.  In the main room, there is a wall to wall mural of Ultraman’s enemies in battle.  

The TV monitors show bits and pieces from different Ultraman episodes (but only the parts where the bad guys are winning).  There are also videos that show the villains starting the restaurant and what it looks like when they all begin to party there together. 

How’s the food?  I’m glad you asked.  This was the best food (in my opinion) of any of the cafes we visited. The portions are big and intended for you to order for the table and yes, the food is themed.  For instance, a sausage that we ordered was coiled on the plate like a snake with a plastic dragon head on one end and the tail on the other.  It also smoked when the cover was lifted.  A cheesy dip served in a bread bowl bore the logo in cheese on top.

Beer is served in Ultraman mugs (available for purchase also) and for each entrée you order, you get a special coaster featuring a different villain.  It’s the perfect place to go if you have a group of 4 -5 people and you want to party for a few hours. 
There are tons more themed places that we haven’t visited, including ones that recreate Edo era experiences, gothic churches,and of course the vampire and prison cafés.  We’ll probably hit one of those next time.

Still, I have to wonder why something as cool as these haven't sprung up in this country.  It seems like with the right theme, it'd be a slam dunk.
Next week, we'll look at how you can spend a day celebrating all things Godzilla.

See you then!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 12 - How Santa Inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is the very best movie about a Chainsaw Massacre that doesn’t actually show a chainsaw massacre.  That's true!  Not one chainsaw actually touches flesh in the entire runtime of the film.  For those who have never seen it, I know you don’t believe me.  You’re thinking that I’m fooling you into watching something that’s going to be super gory and gross.  I’m not though. 

Yes, a chainsaw does appear in the film, repeatedly and yes, the film is about a family of violent murderers.  No, it’s not something for everyone, but a common misconception that started in schoolyards nationwide back in the 1970’s is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a supremely gory movie.  Instead, it gets its chills and scares from superbly measured camerawork and a phenomenal script that oozes dread.

Now, most people who love horror movies can point right away to the inspiration behind this one.  While we don’t see Leatherface and his family carving up human victims, we do see artifacts of their past deeds scattered around their house.  There are ornaments made of bones, furniture with bone decorations and that mask our villain wears definitely came from someone else’s face.  This all brings to mind a real life serial killer named Ed Gein who famously dug up graves and took trophies to make everything from furniture to clothing.  I won’t go into specifics but if you want to read something truly disturbing, check out his page on Wikipedia.

What many people don’t know is that Tobe Hooper was initially inspired by something even more horrifying than Ed Gein.

Christmas shopping.

Hooper gave an interview where he detailed what happened.  He was in the hardware department of a store and the Christmas shopping season was in full swing.  Hooper was not a fan of crowds so already, he was anxious to get out.  As his anxiety began to build, he found himself staring at a display of chainsaws.  His next thought was (and this is a direct quote), “Well, if I pick this damn thing up and start it, they’ll part like the Red Sea and I can get out of here.”

I know that's not Santa in the picture above, but it's as close as I could find.

Hooper had been looking for a horror story to film.  He was a big fan of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and wanted to make an independent feature to get his name out there.  With the realization that the chainsaw was potentially a violent and bloody weapon and not just a tool for lumberjacks, he soon started researching and writing.

See, the Holiday Season really does bring out the best in all of us, right?

If you want more horror that happens around the holidays, check out my book The Wash.  Seriously, holidays are involved.  Check it out!

See you next time!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Exploring Japan, Vol. 7 - Themed Cafes: Butlers, Maids, Trains and more!

So last week, we talked about animal cafes in Japan.  They’re pretty epic and if you’re an animal lover, chances are there is a café out there with some of your favorites just waiting for you to interact with them.  Like I said in that post, there is another kind of themed café in Japan that goes in a completely different direction than the animal cafes.   These are restaurants and bars that pick a theme and then go all out to give you an experience along with your food and drink.

Some of the more popular and famous include a prison-themed café where you dine in ‘cells’ and a vampire café where you’re served by the undead with the food and drinks themed appropriately.  There are tons more though and we’ve visited a few.  Here are some that may appeal to you if you're heading to Tokyo.
Maid Cafes – This is probably the most famous type of cafe.  I'd heard of maid cafes long before any of the others.  We felt that we had to go to one just for the experience, but honestly it wasn't our thing.  Basically, you get assigned a hostess who dresses in a stylized French maid outfit.  She then waits on you while making cutesy faces and singing songs (some of which you’re required to sing along with).  Japanese patrons will come, eat and talk/flirt with their maid although you should understand that there is nothing sexual about this.  That's a big difference in Western sensibilities and Japanese.  The maids will be glad to converse with you, but the discussion will be about where you're from, what you like to do, etc. It's entirely innocent.

Every food item is made to look “kawaii” (cute) but flavor isn’t necessarily a selling point.  Face it.  If you're eating a Japanese curry that's been colored pink, it's probably going to taste at least a little like food coloring.

It’s actually that way at most themed cafes.  You’re there for the experience, not necessarily because of their culinary delights.  There are two or three exceptions to this, one of which Karen and Lil both declared to be their favorite.
Butler Cafes – You may think that this is the male counterpart to a maid cafe but you'd be wrong.  The Swallowtail Butler Cafe in Ikebukuro is the ultimate high end tea house experience.  Karen and Lil went and while no pictures are allowed inside (Karen snapped the one below on the sly), they told me that it was better than any actual high tea service they've ever experienced. 

One thing that they had to get used to quickly is that you’re not allowed to do anything for yourself.  If you drop something, the butler appears and picks it up for you.  If you want more tea, the butler appears and pours it for you.
To top it off, the food here is magnificent.  Karen and Lil both said that the tea service of tiny sandwiches, etc. was better than they'd had at real tea houses here in the States.  They loved it so much they bought a photo of their butler!

Alice Cafes – These are Alice in Wonderland themed.  There are more than one but we visited Alice in Fantasy Book located in Shinjuku.  
This was an epic fun time.  You actually enter the lobby from an elevator and are escorted through an arch that is shaped like a large book.  You're also given rabbit ears or bows that you're required to wear.

Once inside, there are playing card and white rabbit themes everywhere.  The Mad Hatter’s tea party is in full effect.  The food here is actually very good and the deserts are even better. 

This was something we would definitely go back and do again.  Even the menu was epic with this killer pop-up page inside the cover.  

Now not every café is worth the effort.  For instance, the train café in Akihabara is well past its prime (if it ever had one).  The pictures we took of this place make it look way better than it actually is.  

While technically it’s a themed restaurant and yes, your food comes out in miniature trains, there are videos of trains playing as you eat and you can sit in train seats, sipping drinks named after different train lines, it’s kind of a craphole.  Plus, the theme is barely hanging on by a thread.  

The food is just so-so and if you go, you’re really only going because you love trains.  For us, it was a late night option for dinner that we happened to be right next to, so we took a chance on it.  We won’t go back.  It's overpriced, the food is just so-so and it was also pretty smokey.  Many restaurants and cafes no longer allow smoking inside but there are still some that do.  This is one of them.

Other cafes you may want to check out include the Gundam Café (giant robots) or some of the temporary cafes that pop up around the city.  These are generally sponsored by one of the chain manga stores and they last about two or three months.  They are usually themed around whatever the hottest animes are at the time.  We’ve never been to these to eat but we’ve looked in on an Attack on Titan one and it seemed pretty cool for what it was.  There will be posters and pictures on the walls and the food will be named for characters.
Now, next week I'll show you the two most over the top themed cafes in Tokyo as well as my favorite themed bar of all time.  It's dedicated to the Japanese superhero Ultraman and I'm being honest when I say that if I had the chance, I'd take the ten hour flight just to spend another few hours there with a bunch of like-minded friends.   
Until then, ponder why none of this stuff exists here in the States.
See you next week!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 11 - The Expedition That Inspired King Kong!

For years now, a small subgroup of movie fans have argued about which monster would win in a fight;  King Kong or Godzilla.  Many people who like one of those also like the other but you’ll find some rabid fans in both camps who fixate on their favorite.  Personally, my favorite will always be King Kong (1933) but that’s tinged with nostalgia.  Growing up, one of our local stations (WTOG Channel 44 out of Tampa, FL) used to show it once a year, uninterrupted by commercials and let me tell you, it was an EVENT!  At least to middle-school-aged Cary it was an event.

That said though, I’m still a sucker for a Godzilla movie and what you may not know is that without a real life giant lizard, the story of King Kong may never have been written.  It’s a fact and it all begins with an adventurer who was born into the Vanderbilt fortune. 

His name was William Douglas Burden.  He was Harvard educated and in 1928, absolutely dying to find an adventure he could hang his hat on.  Burden wasn’t the kind of guy who enjoyed the plush, lavish lifestyle his parents and relatives enjoyed. Instead, he was more comfortable with a machete in-hand, hacking through a jungle and soon he figured out how to make his dreams of adventure happen.  There was an animal discussed among scientists that begged for further research.  The problem was, no one had been able to capture one.

The Komodo Dragon is a meat eating beast that lives in what is now Indonesia.  At the time, the island fell under Dutch rule, so Burden wrote for and was granted permission to lead an expedition to Komodo and bring back at least one of the giant lizards. 

Long story made short, he did just that.  In fact, he brought back three and two were put on display at the Bronx Zoo briefly.  They died in captivity.  However, they made quite a sensation.  Estimates put crowds at close to 30,000 people a day, visiting just to get a glimpse of the dragons.  Also on display in the Komodo dragon exhibit was a stuffed gorilla.  Believe it or not, that garnered crowds as big as the ones waiting to see the dragons themselves.  

Which is where Kong comes in.  See, one of Burden’s close friends was Merian C. Cooper.  Cooper had turned his attentions to Hollywood after leading a life of adventure himself.  He’d spent time as a bomber pilot and was a prisoner of war in a Soviet camp for nine months.  He escaped from the camp and made it to the Latvian border and freedom.  By the time he and Burden were palling around in New York, he was already enamored with film and while his Wikipedia page will tell you that Cooper thought of the idea for King Kong in a dream, it’s hard to ignore some signs that point directly to Burden’s Komodo Dragon.

For instance, Burden and his expedition brought cameras and filmed their exploits.  The films were used to drum up the excitement around the exhibit.  Cooper borrowed that angle for Kong.  Burden’s wife accompanied him on the expedition.  She ran the cameras and at one point came face to face with a Komodo dragon while the hunter assigned to accompany her was away.  He came back and shot the beast before it could get to her.  The idea of a beautiful socialite along on the expedition was another thing that Cooper borrowed for the film.

Finally, Burden had come up with a special name for his find.  He called them “King Komodo”.  Yep.  Cooper borrowed that also.  He kept the setting in New York and added something that he and Burden had talked about.  That was the idea that maybe the dragons died at the zoo because they were homesick for their native land. 

Now, this takes nothing away from King Kong.  The film is groundbreaking and the script is fantastic.  I say this a lot here but, this movie is a classic for a reason.  King Kong is one of those movies that everyone should see at least once.  That said, without Burden’s expedition to capture a living dinosaur, Cooper’s giant gorilla movie would have been a completely different film altogether.

And go watch King Kong!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Exploring Japan, Vol. 6 - Animal Cafes!

You can’t really talk about weird fun in Japan without talking about themed cafes.  For those that don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, there are three types.  One is called an Animal Café.  These are generally places where you can go to interact with animals that are so tame that you can hold and pet them.   What makes the place a ‘café’ is that there are drink machines on site and you are usually given a token or ticket that allows you one drink from the machine. 

The second type of café is a full on restaurant who has given themselves over to a specific theme.  Imagine a place where every inch of decoration and all of the service staff dedicate themselves to portraying a prison setting, or a 17th century gothic church.   The final type is very similar to the themed cafe only it also involves a crazy/outlandish show.  As you can see just by those descriptions, there’s a wide variety of places out there you should check out if you visit.
In fact, this topic is so big, that I have to split it into three posts, so let’s begin with Animal Cafes.   

Say that you’ve spent your whole life loving owls despite the fact that they're silently judging you as illustrated above.  That's one very judgmental owl.  But hey, you don't care!  You’ve bought shirts with owl designs on them.  You’ve had favorite mugs decorated with owls staring at you.  In fact, even though you had a bad experience owning a parrot, if it were possible to own an owl that would let you pet it, you’d probably give it some consideration.
The problem is that owning an owl is a hell of a commitment.  You’ve got to feed them mice.  You’ve got to groom them and care for them, plus they live a long time!  Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you just had a place to go where you could pay someone $5.00 and pet their owls instead?
You’re damn right it would be!  

That’s what makes Forest of Owl in Asakusa such a great place!  First of all, there’s no time limit on your visit.  Many places will charge you by increments (15 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.).  Forest of Owl also doesn’t limit themselves to just owls.  They have meerkats, snakes, lizards and even parrots, almost all of which you can pet.  The owls are scattered around on various branches and rails throughout the café.  There’s a path you follow that makes its way completely through the room so you’ll see everything on display.  The owls also have convenient signs telling you if they don’t like to be touched or if they love being interacted with.

Karen got to experience something she never thought she would when she walked up and got to pet a gigantic horned owl as well as barn owls and others. 
The thing is, themed animal cafes are in almost every part of Tokyo and they run the gamut from cafes full of rescue dogs to cafes of cats and rabbits.  I’m highly, highly allergic to cats.  If I even pet our neighbors' cat while outside, my hands immediately start to itch.  This really stinks because I grew up around cats and actually like them.  

It’s worse for my wife and daughter though, because they never get to experience being around cats due to my allergy.  In Japan, the problem is solved easily.  I sit outside and play on my phone while they spend a little time in a cat café. 

The cats here are treated like royalty and the majority of them absolutely love the attention.

Ever wanted to actually hold and pet a hedgehog or a fennec fox?  Of course you do!  Visit the HARRY hedgehog café in Roppongi and you can hang out with this guy.  

They have a rabbit café next door also and if you think for a moment that all of this is just a giant waste of money, think again.  Animal cafes are typically the cheapest to get into and usually there’s no reservation needed although you may have to wait a little while if it’s a peak time.   The standard admission is usually between $5.00 and $8.00 U.S., but in some cases like the cat café in Hirajuku, it’s only a few bucks for ten minutes.  That will get you ten minutes of petting cats plus a drink.  Not bad at all!

Animal cafes are also excellent because they are stress relievers.  There is no way you can spend 30 minutes in a café where a Fennec Fox is running around and not walk out with a huge smile on your face.  It’s physically impossible.
Other focus on a specific area instead of a specific animal.  For instance, the Subtropical Teahouse in Yokohama houses iguanas, bearded lizards, turtles and snakes.  It’s like going to an indoor petting zoo in the Amazon.  Seriously, if there's a smallish non-venomous animal that you're a fan of, there is probably an animal cafe that will get you close to it.
So if you are in Tokyo for even a few days, make a tiny window of time and visit one of these places.  They’re a lot of fun and an experience you generally won’t find anywhere else.
Next week, we’ll talk about themed restaurants and visit some with maids, butlers, mad hatters and train conductors. 
See you then!