When one thinks of Japan, one might immediately think of fantastical and unbelievable things. What's more fantastical than a robot? Japan is home of the robots. Whether you're thinking of Honda's Asimo - the helpful, soccer playing robot or Softbank's Pepper - a robot capable of recognizing human emotions. Japan is on the frontier of robotics, and perhaps the most beautiful example so far lives in Shinjuku - a ward in Tokyo, Japan. Amidst the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, there is a little underground room where robots and dancers bring magic to life.
Robot Restaurant (ロボットレズトラン) can be found just a short walk from the station. A stroll down a narrow pedestrian filled street alerts you to unusual products and arcades. Then you can't help but notice the very unusually coloured letters written in English and Katakana, "Robot Restaurant". There's a small entrance on the street and there are men in black armed with clipboards.
I was a little nervous at first, I always get a little nervous before a reservation - as though something is about to go horribly wrong. I went up to him and told him the name. We had to wait in line to confirm. Luckily, we were some of the first people for that show.
Waiting in line revealed a lot of tourists. Not surprisingly, some white people. When the time finally came, the velvet rope was moved and we purchased drink tickets. No one deals with any cash inside the restaurant - only tickets. Then we were informed that we had to go across the street to wait in the lounge on the something-th floor. We made a u-turn and walked out, following a staff member leading the way.
We walked into a shiny, mirror covered corridor and waited for our turn on the elevator up. The elevator was small and could only take a couple of people at a time. When it was our turn, we got in with a few other tourists and attempted to take as many people as possible. The elevator buttons wouldn't light up. Some people stepped off - no luck. A few more - there was a moment of uncertainty, but the buttons lit up and we went up to the lounge. The elevator itself was outfitted in decorative convex pexiglass bubbles. So far, things were seeming abstract.
Then we arrived, and oh, did we arrive. I was instantly agape. Everything was a beautiful hot mess of glass, gold and swirls. It was so over the top, it was brilliant. The walls were lined with flatscreens playing odd video footage of robots and warrior women, while the provided chairs nestled between rows of glass tables were giant golden snail shells, capable of turning 360. To top this amazing lounge off (besides the alcohol) was a band of musicians dressed like robots. So great!
We ventured underground to our destination and looked at our tickets. There are 3 rows of seats on either side of the room, and the seats are packed in tight. I felt very lucky to be in the first row and right in the middle. What great seats! Soon enough, the show began. They informed us of all the safety precautions - largely that we couldn't leave our seats until the intermission, and we needed to actively duck out of the way sometimes. I really liked that part. Audience participation at its finest. Look out for your own damn safety!
The lights dimmed to black, and two giant self moving stands of taiko drummers rolled out. As if in a duel, the teams of drummers began beating the skins intensely, filling the air with beautiful vibrations that hummed through my heart.
After the amazing drumming performances, pieces of a giant palanquin maneuvered out. Dancers climbed aboard and the magical contraption unfolded to transform into one giant stage. The dancers were mere inches away, and their beautifully synchronized routine was enthralling. I was completely in love with it all.
What next? Well, they took a moment during intermission to place heavy poles and after everyone returned to their seats, they added chains in front of the audience. We mused that it may have been placed to protect us from harm. Either way, it had the intended affect of creating an atmosphere for a story to unfold. The next thing I knew, they told us of a planet and its citizens at one with nature and in complete harmony...until the robot empire invades and disrupts their peace! So the people of the peaceful planet work together with nature to defeat the robot queen (think Rita Repulsa meets Queen Beryl). It's not long before dinosaurs team up with attractive women to beat back the evil robots.
Oh, and at the end they had a giant snake and spinning robot move around the room to a touching song. Then a pretend robot fight that appeared something akin to Rock 'em, Sock 'em robots. Yep.
After it was finished, I felt completely satisfied and more than that, I wished I had booked it every night. Shinjuku's Robot Restaurant was by far one of the greatest experiences I had in Japan. If I had to recommend for anyone to see just one thing in Tokyo, it would be the Robot Restaurant. No joke! I know it may seem ridiculous but it was unbelievable! Certainly underrated. So if you're in Japan, or if you're planning a trip to Japan - go online and find tickets to the Robot Restaurant. There are a couple of travel places that sell them - so you can purchase them in English. Go, enjoy and savour the experience for the rest of your life.
May 7, a Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at the Toronto Airport (Pearson). Then I took a $60 cab ride to my hotel in the Church-Wellesley Village - a celebrated gay neighbourhood. I was wondering what I should do for my brief time in the city. I only had one night and I would be gone the very next day. I don't know anyone in Toronto, although I do have some relatives - we're not close. It would have been awkward to contact them after so many years.
So I called up the front desk after checking in, and asked about nearby restaurants. A nice one over here, a decent burger place over there, but his first mention piqued my interest the most - a restaurant where you dine in the dark. I had heard about the Montreal location before, on tv and in magazines, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to visit one. Well, one night in Toronto with the likelihood of never returning, pushed my decision to a clear one. I would make a reservation at this unusual restaurant and take in a whole new experience.
What is this restaurant I speak of? A place called O.Noir. You sit completely in pitch black while blind servers bring you your meal. When I called the restaurant to make the reservation, they asked me for how many. I said, "Just me," to which he replied, "Just you? Are you sure? Are you afraid of the dark? Will you be alright?" I laughed easily at his response and reassured him that I would be just fine. So he tentatively made the reservation. I thought this restaurant was the perfect idea - not only is it a truly unique experience, but I also spent all day on a plane and didn't care to dress up. No one would see me! It doesn't get any better!
The time came around and I headed down to the restaurant, literally - it's underground. Which makes sense if they wish to create a completely pitch black experience. They would need absolutely no chance of natural light. The restaurant entrance features a long, dimly lit corridor that opens into a dead end with a bar and a few tall tables and a couple of low benches against the wall. It's quiet, a bit dark, and the ornate carvings around the bar along with the library wall make the place feel classier. On another wall there are large painted circles representing the alphabet in Braille. A nod to what the restaurant really features - a blind experience.
Upon entry, a hostess checked my reservation by memory and handed me a menu. You can choose either 2 courses (appetizer/entree, entree/dessert) or all 3 (appetizer, entree, and dessert). There were just a few selections for each course. I ignored them altogether. I noticed you could pick a surprise item instead, so when I ordered, I inquired about having all 3 courses be a surprise. I made one important note: I'm allergic to shrimp. Then I ordered a glass of Malbec and waited for my table.
I didn't wait very long before my table was ready. I was escorted to a door by the hostess where she released the name of my server and told me to wait. A small, brown man appeared from behind the door and stood erect before me. He repeated his name and made friendly banter. He asked if I was staying in the nearby hotel, I said "yes". He then said, "I thought I saw you in the lobby". I was dumbstruck for a moment, not really getting the joke until I realized that he was indeed blind and made it impossible for him to see me. I laughed and he smiled. I could tell he was a good server.
He asked me to put my left hand on his left shoulder and he would walk me inside. He knocked, then opened the first door. We entered a little alcove of complete darkness. Then he mentioned another door, knocked again and opened it. A waft of laughter and smells hit my senses as my sense of sight was completely cut off. He carefully navigated me through the dark maze and put my hand on the back of a chair. At first I attempted to sit down, but noticed I tried to sit on the wrong side. Then I tried again, but realized it wasn't pulled out. If it wasn't so dark, I might have been embarrassed. Finally, I pulled out the chair and sat down successfully. He asked, "safe landing?" I replied with a happy "yes".
That's when he introduced me to my close surroundings. There was a place mat, a fork, a spoon and a napkin. He told me to align my place mat with my chair. I then noticed the place mat was off center and quickly fixed that. The server disappeared and returned with my glass of wine which I carefully placed near the wall. I sat and waited in the dark. I could hear the chatter and hum of nearby conversations but struggled to make out the words. I noticed that the tables were separated by large gaps - so there would be a enough room to maneuver. I also noted that there must have been only 7 or 8 tables in the section. How could I tell? I listened to the different areas conversation emanated, I paid attention to noteworthy outbursts, and who left.
I know a few things about perception and sensation (due to my time in university). One of them is that it takes 8 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. After 8 minutes, there was no difference. I waved a hand in front of my face, I blinked, and saw nothing - no difference. I have never been swallowed by that amount of darkness before. I've never known what it's like to sit in true pitch black. I didn't feel afraid - and I think it was in large part due to the fact there were so many happy voices. Although, I must admit, if I had to spend an eternity living in a place with darkness and muffled voices, it might be a little too much like hell. I suddenly have a new understanding and empathy for the visually impaired.
Now for the meals - as I mentioned earlier, I ordered all surprises. The first course was set in front of my plate and my server commented, "I hope you like it alive and kicking". I laughed and heard him shuffle away. I stabbed my fork in to the plate and brought it to my mouth - I took the bite and discovered it was leafy. I kept eating and put my palate to the test. What did I think I was eating, exactly? Since I have quite a lot of experience with flavours, I thought I was up to the challenge. My best guess is that it was a spinach, arugula salad with kale sprouts, dried cranberries and a drizzle of lemon/raspberry vinaigrette. I had a difficult time getting all of the salad on to my fork, so there were a few times I assisted with my fingers. Thank goodness there was a napkin and no one could see.
Whenever I felt the need to quench my thirst, I would have to reach blindly in front of me, carefully feeling for the wine glass. I would sip just a little at a time, and take time to consider the weight sloshing around in the chalice. The next meal was the entree. I once again blindly stabbed at my plate in the dark before bringing the fork to my curious lips. My tongue greeted the bite with new found excitement. My teeth chewed the seared animal flesh with delight. The texture, the savoury taste, the warmth tickled my senses. Each bite brought me closer to knowledge. I finally decided that it was braised pork tenderloin medallions with wild rice, roasted potatoes, and tomatoes. The tomatoes were probably the most frightening aspect. I'm not a fan of any kind of cooked tomatoes. The texture is unappealing. I pierced my fork into one and brought it to my mouth. Much to my chagrin, the thing burst inside of my mouth like a polyp. I immediately spat it out. Something I've literally never done before in my life. Eating in the dark caused me to behave with a little less discrimination. After my unfortunate bite, I avoided the tomatoes altogether. Then I heard a shrill scream, and an exclamation about an eyeball. I knew immediately that the girl meant the tomatoes. It was like an eyeball. I reiterate, cooked tomatoes are unpleasant.
I was quite satisfied with the meat choice, however the potatoes were boring, the tomatoes were frightening, and the rice was very difficult to eat with a fork. I felt like it was a poor choice for eating blindly. I certainly used my fingers a little. I would have used a knife to push food on to my fork, however they only provided a fork and spoon. Probably a wise decision in the vast scheme of things.
I sat in the dark for long stretches of time between meals and sips. I tried to eavesdrop, however most of the talking was muffled by space and other conversations. There was a couple who sat behind me, I met them briefly in the foyer before entering the dining space. They were my closest conversation, and from the pieces I could hear, they were there for their anniversary. What made me a little frustrated was the lack of attention from my server. Not his fault, I understand his priorities, but I felt neglected. The mix of muffled conversations, doors closing, and shuffling feet, left my with a fuzzy silence. I sat in contemplation, letting my mind wander over every topic. Mostly, eating alone in the dark is not ideal.
Before dessert even arrived, it was brought to the couple behind me - they eagerly proclaimed that was it cheesecake. I waited until they had finished their dessert and were escorted out of the dining room, before I received my dessert. It was cheesecake. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy cheesecake. It just wasn't a surprise after all. Despite that, I dug into the cake indiscriminately. I savoured each thick, squishy bite. It was a little heavy, but it was still good. It was covered in a berry and chocolate drizzle, which I licked greedily from my fork.
After I finished, I sat there and listened. There were all sorts of people coming and going. Each time I would want to leave, someone else would ask the server's help. Eventually, I was able to ask the server for his assistance. He escorted me out of the restaurant and I thanked him for his help. He was a sweet, short man with a nice smile. He departed with a little head nod before slipping back in to the darkness beyond the door. I squinted, suddenly grateful for the dim lighting. After a brief, friendly chat with the hostesses and clearing up my bill, I headed back to my hotel room.
O.Noir is probably the most memorable, strangest dining experiences I've ever had. The food was honestly a tad mediocre. There wasn't any real flavour, and the meals were too simple. I was desperately hoping for food that made my senses jump for joy. Although I wasn't blown away by the dessert or salad, the pork tenderloin in the entree was delicious. Out of all the meals, it was the one saving grace. Despite the food being average, the experience is so unique and mind bending, that nothing can compare. You're forced to rely on everything but your eyes. I've never experienced darkness like that before, and I doubt I will again. I'm grateful for that experience, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to step in someone's shoes. I would definitely recommend dining at O.Noir (or any similarly themed restaurant) for the chance to share some true privacy. It's a world unexplored by most.
I wasn't looking forward to yesterday at all but it seems no matter what you can still be surprised. I might have to admit as well that having a good day is largely dependent on yourself. No one else is responsible for your happiness, just you. It's a hard pill to swallow but every day is only as good as you make it. I digress.
Yesterday truly was a great day. It started off with my partner waking me up with breakfast in bed. That's truly impressive since they have to work early in the morning, yet they took the time to make sure I had breakfast. Very sweet. While they were at work I slept in a little then woke up and just lounged around instead of my usual write, write, write business. I watched a movie and played a video game. It was nice just to relax and not stress about submission dates or pages I need written.
My partner came home from work early just for me. It was nice to spend some real quality time together. We relaxed a bit before getting ready to go downtown. The day before my birthday I decided what I wanted to do. First we visited the art gallery. I love strolling through the rooms looking at all the different forms of art. We saw modernist paintings from the Automatiste Revolution (1941-1960). Many of them captured the essence of motion. I wish I could share my favourites but they did not allow photography. The best part of the art gallery was the exhibition of contemporary art and the baroque entitled, Misled by Nature. Never in my life have I ever felt such fascination and awe while I gazed at these installation pieces. I so badly wanted a million photos of each one. They were all spectacular. One piece could best be described as a yeti decomposing into the earth. Another was an impressive chandelier hanging in a room full of mirrors (there were even mirrors on the floor). There was also a magical hut that was made out of what seemed to be wax. It looked and felt like a fairy getaway in the middle of a forest. I particularly liked that one. My partner's favourite was three panels of framed decorative patterns made out of bindis. The most interesting installation was this giant open sphere that you could describe as a world under construction. There were so many facets to it that it was truly something to behold.
After the amazing exhibitions we had a dinner reservation with a restaurant I have always wanted to visit named, La Ronde. The restaurant is at the top of a hotel on the 24th floor allowing for a magnificent view. The best part, the restaurant rotates, doing a full rotation in 90 minutes. We were able to see a unique and stunning view every time we looked out the window, whether it was of the rolling river valley or the lights of downtown. What made it truly romantic was the sunset during our dinner. As though the view wasn't spectacular enough, the food was absolutely stellar. The menu is superb and thoughtful. To start we had Classic Steak Tartare with brioche toast points and Escargots Bourguignonne En Croute. The steak tartare was delicious but the escargots was phenomenal. The little dish had a pastry top that when eaten together with an escargot made me wish I never ate anything else. For the main course my partner had a lovely prime rib while I ordered Roast Brome Lake Duck Breast with bigarade sauce and roast baby potatoes. I have always wanted to try duck and thought it was the perfect opportunity. I made the right decision, I have never eaten anything so succulent. To round out the perfect entrees my partner ordered a seafood melange of shrimp, scallops and lobster. I'm allergic to shrimp but let me tell you, scallops are usually bland but these scallops were delectable, not to mention the outstanding lobster. To top it all off we had dessert. What I haven't mentioned was the outstanding service we received. When I ordered my Cinnamon Creme Brulle the waitress remembered it was my birthday and brought it out with a sparkler. She also tastefully sang happy birthday. It was a lovely touch. I love sparklers! The creme brulle was perfect while my partner's pistachio and white chocolate slice was amazing. All in all it was an amazing dinner. I would highly recommend LaRonde to anyone, just be prepared to pay the price for a truly wonderful experience. You won't forget it, I know I won't.
We returned home, happy and more than satisfied. My partner then gave me my present. It was delivered in a giant box from Amazon and had been teasing me for days. I had ideas about what it was, one in particular but the size baffled me. So I finally opened it. It was the Harry Potter Wizards Collection! All 8 movies on Blu-Ray, DVD and in digital copies! Not only that but it came in the most wondrous and impressive box that included 2 different maps of Hogwarts, many pieces of art, beautiful books and the Horcrux necklace. I had been looking at it online for months but I never knew how big it was! It's enormous! Not to mention heavy! The only downside about the box is the decision about where to put it!
After all that excitement we sat down for a relaxing movie. I picked one of my very favourite movies all time (should have included it in my Top 10). It's called "The Flight of Dragons". It's a brilliant animated film about the struggle for magic to survive in a world turning to logic and science. I really love it. My partner had never seen it so it was nice to share it with them.
All in all it was a stupendous birthday. I'm truly thankful to have such a loving partner. Now you can enjoy some scenic photos! (They were taken with my iPhone 3GS.) On a sidenote, today is the first day of snow!
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