September 11, 2017

Tokyo’s Themed Dining

While Tokyo has many themed dining experiences, it hard be hard to pick out the good spots from the scams. This guide will provide some pointers.

People cross a busy intersection in Tokyo's Shinjuku area at dusk

Themed dining experience are one of the things that Tokyo has no shortage of. Sadly though, the foreign media tend to only focus on a few places such as the Robot Restaurant or the Kawaii Monster Cafe (not to mention the ubiquitous maid and cat cafes). When combined with Japan’s poor efforts to digitize in English, this means that the best spots are often completely unknown to visitors from abroad.

Due to the lack of available information online, it can be really hard to tell the good spots from the bad. Before we delve into the options however, it’s important to note that many themed dining experiences are NOT the best places to go for a top-notch gourmet experience. Remember, just because the presentation is superb it doesn’t necessarily mean the taste is too!

Unfortunately when it comes to themed dining, there are only a handful of locations that offer both the experience and quality food and drinks. As you might imagine, these places charge a premium and often require one to book well in advance. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of my recommendations for themed dining that DO offer both a great meal and experience.

Option 1: Ninja Akasaka

Ninja Akasaka, a shinobi-themed restaurant in Tokyo

Located in Akasaka, this place combines an entertaining themed experience with excellent cuisine. Besides, who doesn’t like ninja! From the start, a ninja will guide you from the entrance through the narrow corridors and obstacles to your table. Be sure to wear clothes that are easy to move in. Should you have anyone in your group that may need physical assistance, be sure to notify the staff when making a reservation.

Once you’re seated, you can order either from the course menu or select dishes à la carte. While certain courses may require making a reservation well in advance, the full menu is available in both Japanese and English on their website. Be sure to check in advance. Seeing as how the restaurant is made with entertaining foreign guests in mind, you’ll find that they cater to a variety of different dietary needs (no pork, vegetarian, etc.).

When it comes to the ninja themselves, you’ll find that some are part of the restaurant’s facade while others will actually help to prepare your meal. That’s right! When it comes to this themed dining experience, you’re servers are first and foremost ninjas. As such they are incredibly adept at performing all sorts of tricks when serving your food. Prepare to be entertained.

During your experience you should look forward the ninja to stop by your table for a fantastical ninjutsu performance. Like with all other restaurants in Japan, you’re not required or expected to tip the staff. Just kick back, relax and marvel at the production quality of the entertainment while enjoying your meal. It truly is an unforgettable dining experience!

Before moving on, let me end this section with a quick word of caution. The layout and nature of this restaurant can be fun for all ages. Nevertheless, the twists and turns can at times be dangers for young children. Because of this, young kids are not allowed after 7 PM on weekdays. Furthermore, when they are allowed, adult supervision at all times is a must. This is after all some serious ninja business!

Option 2: Aquarium Dining

Tokyoites dine by an aquirium full of fish

This type of themed dining has become very popular over the past few years in Tokyo. Because of this though, you’ll need to very very cautious of phonies; don’t trust anyone trying to promote themselves on the streets with touts peddling their “aquarium izakaya!” Always remember, the legit places don’t need to pull their customers in from the streets.

Failing to head my warning risks dining beside some depressing fish tanks with even an even worse meal. Don’t ruin your vacation by selecting the wrong restaurant! The below list are some of the tried-and-true options in Tokyo. Any of these should be able to provide an aquarium themed experience that will leave you feeling both entertained and satisfied.

  • Art Aquarium
    This night aquarium (pictured above) is the perfect thing for those who are not looking for a meal and would just relax with a drink while looking at some stunningly beautiful fish. Though only a temporary exhibit, the Art Aquarium bounces back between Tokyo and Kyoto every few months. During the months when it’s in Tokyo, you’ll find this visual masterpiece located in the historic Nihonbashi area.
  • Aqa Restaurant & Bar Luxis
    This impressive Ebisu restaurant features a stunning 5-meter tall aquarium that even boasts a sea turtle! The impressive decor of the interior further complements the luxurious atmosphere. While there is a seating charge for all tables, the spots right in front of the aquarium are well worth the higher fee. Despite the additional expense however, the total cost rarely exceeds mid-tier budgets. It’s a real steal when you consider the quality of the food and the epic aquarium.
  • Medusa
    Another restaurant in Ebisu, Medusa is less immersive and flashy than the Luxis (despite being operated by the same company). Nevertheless, Medusa is home to one of Japan’s largest jellyfish aquariums. The sleek silver and black interior is also very stylish and doesn’t feel as campy as some of the other themed dining experiences. In terms of food quality, Medusa is on par if not slightly better than Luxis and the price range is in the same ballpark.

Option 3: Zauo Fishing Restaurant

When it comes to fresh seafood, it’s hard to beat catching it yourself and this is exactly the experience that Zauo Fishing Restaurant provides. Since the early 2000s, this restaurant has been providing diners with the peculiar privilege of paying to catch their own food. The entire interior is shaped like a typical boat located in the middle of a “sea” of fish-filled water. After being seated, the staff will bring you fishing rods and bait but from then you’re on your own!

As you might imagine, the uniquely interactive experience is a lot trickier than it might first sound and especially so when it’s crowded. Because of this, the menu for the night can change on a whim depending on what you’ve caught. Once you’ve manage to reel something in, you’ll need to hail the staff and specify how you’d like it prepared. My favorites are either grilled with a little bit of salt or served raw as sashimi.

For certain types of fish, if you ask for sashimi, they will bring you the fish on a plate with it’s still-twitching skeleton. While this may seem grotesque, there is actually a reason for this. Once you finish the sashimi, the waiter will take the skeleton, deep-fry it to a crisp, and bring it back to you again. It will be so crunchy and brittle that you can easily chomp down all the bones. Trust me, it’s better than it tastes!

If the fish aren’t biting, you need not worry, Zaou Fishing Restaurant does have an actual menu that you can order from as well. This can help tide you over while you try to hook something yourself. Furthermore, even when lady luck is on your side, it’s probably a good idea to order some drinks and appetizers while you fish up dinner anyway.

Zauo Fishing Restaurant has several locations in and around Tokyo, including Shinjuku, Shibuya and Yokohama as well as a branch in Osaka. As prices are linked with each type of fish and you cannot be sure of what you’ll catch, it’s not a place that I would recommend you go on a tight budget.

Option 4: Owl-no-Mori

A girl holds a fox at an animal cafe in Japan

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve likely heard of Japan’s cat (and other animal) cafe craze. When sourcing material for this article I was originally planning to avoid any critters until I stumbled across Owl-no-Mori. This place is home to over 30 owls but that’s just the beginning! You’ll also find a collection of fennec foxes, meerkats, a bushbaby, flamingos and even a free-roaming capybara! Furthermore, there’s no limit on the length that you can stay (though business hours are only from 10 AM to 8 PM ).

The interior of Owl-no-Mori is decorated with wood, greenery and fish tanks making it feel more like an indoor jungle safari than an underground cafe. When on the hunt for Owl-no-Mori, be careful as there are more than one facility with the same name in the area. Note that only the store on Asakusa’s Orange Street (Koukaido-mae) location houses the special critters. When in doubt, just follow this map to the correct location.

As you might imagine, this is definitely a place that you will want to bring your camera to but for the animals’ sake, avoid using the flash. Owl-no-Mori is dimly lit to keep its long-term inhabitants comfortable and bright lights can hurt or at the very least irritate their eyes. Don’t be THAT guy or girl who is willing to go to any lengths just for their next Instagram shot. I would hope my readers are better than that but it is still worth saying…

Those interested in Owl-no-Mori should also note that while some of the animals can be handled others cannot. The owls for example they incredibly gentle despite their razor sharp talons and beaks. Though many of them will be resting due to their nocturnal nature, others are surprising active and playful during the day. Unfortunately the fennec foxes are OK to feed but not to touch. Likewise you can play with the meerkats but not pick them up.