It’s not Japan, but it is surely Japanese.

When I was twenty three, my brother, parents and I went to Paris. At the top of Montmatre, in a fit of nostalgia for a visit my whole family had made when I was 12, Nick and I decided to get our portraits drawn.

Nick’s portrait artist was a self-aware scam artist. Not only was he going to cheat you out of money, he had no interest in wasting your time doing so. In about 10 minutes he whipped off a portrait of a 17 year old boy that almost, but not completely, looked nothing like my brother. Who was 28 at time. 

Mine took much longer. He painstaking worked for almost an hour. To this day, I really do believe he might have just done his best. In the end, while the girl portrayed looked nothing like me, he did get, with really startling accuracy, my left ear just right.

I always think about this man, taking an hour to draw a lifelike portrait and getting only an ear, compared to those caricature artists – in ten minutes flat they draw a cartoon head that is obviously, unmistakably you. It doesn’t look like you, exactly. It has none of the photorealism of my left ear. But it couldn’t be of anyone else.

Anyway, all of this is to say that if you’re ever in Japan, you guys should really go see the Robot Burlesque Cabaret.   

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Could I use a vehicle other than the robot cabaret to illustrate the themes I want? Could I, for instance, talk about the really beautiful mix of ancient and modern by telling you about the group of octogenarian ladies doing tai chi in the rain under a highway overpass? Or by talking about the shrine tucked between Louis Vitton and Chanel in the Kobe mall? I mean, sure, I could. But then I wouldn’t get to talk about Robot Cabaret. And I really want to talk about the Robot Cabaret. 

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Our first two days in Japan were among the most overwhelming of my life. Within an hour of getting off the ship, I was standing at the famous Shibuya crossing (you know the one. That one in every documentary where they want to demonstrate modernity and they show a time lapse video of a bunch of Japanese people crossing a road in six directions at once? See! I told you you knew the one) and from there we only stopped moving long enough to slurp, chomp or nap.

Tokyo is a shot of pure adrenaline, and for 36 hours I had been unable to sit still. I dragged myself home from dinner in a high-rise mall at midnight and jumped out of bed at 5am to go see a market. We got lost on subways (more on that later) ate ramen across from strip shops, saw quiet Shinto shrines and bustling Buddhist temples, mucked about in pre-dawn fish markets getting yelled at (repeatedly) by the police, stood on a glass floor 350 meters in the air, had enlightening if at times unsettling experimentations with toilets, slurped oysters for breakfast and noodles for lunch, wandered down dark alleys, bumped into temples and stuffed ourselves into miniature bars with top-hatted bar keeps. I personally found two new foods I hate (mochi and smoked eel sushi with fermented plum sauce) and many, many new foods I love. Finally, in what I still consider to be among my top 3 experiences in Japan, if not life, I discovered that you can get hot cans of coffee from vending machines.

Hot vending machines! Our nation is woefully behind. 

This is all to say that by the time the Robot Burlesque Cabaret at the Robot Restaurant happened, I had sort of run out of steam. If by “run out of steam” you mean, “become exhausted and cranky and started systematically alienating all my friends.” (Really! You should ask them! They tell delightful stories.) But all that was about to change. 

Let me tell you what happens when you get to the robot cabaret:

First, you are greeted by one of the ship’s psychologists running down the street, jump-tackling you, and yelling ROBOTS! Then you notice that somehow, largely by coincidence, about a third of your fellow staff members are here. One is buying drinks for everyone at the convenience store. Another is ambling out of the men’s room, making no note of the fact that he sent you an email at 2am that morning that said “Met a girl in Yokohama and may have a date. Don’t think it will work out. Probably meet you in Tokyo,” as if Tokyo isn’t an urban area of thirty-eight million where you don’t just run into people. But everyone comes to the Robot Cabaret.

You are led into an elevator by men in giant yellow jackets – the elevator is gilded. You will begin to notice that a lot of things are gilded. It lets you out into a room whose decor is inspired almost singularly by slot machines. You notice that the head of student life is drinking something called Ninja Beer while sitting in a giant golden clam shell. Things are no longer really surprising you.

After a few minutes you are called downstairs – the stairs are decorated with black walls and reflective butterflies, because of course they are. Downstairs you are seated and women serve you beer out of jet packs. 

Finally, the show begins.

Let me tell you what I remember of the robot cabaret:

There was a giant panda riding a cow, stampeding into a ring to break up a fight between two robot warlords. A snake hissed steam at a woman in metal hot pants while Ave Maria blasted over a techno beat. There were taiko drummers in rhinestone bikinis and rainbow wigs riding on remote-controlled platforms. An audience member was given boxing gloves and invited to knock out a robot. Two singers rode in atop 12 foot rhinestone merry-go-round horses to the sound of Japanese folk music and then proceeded to belt out Lady Gaga’s Telephone. Anime versions of Shinto goddesses performed a duet on the LCD walls while a mermaid (rhinestone tail, of course) rode a shark across the stage. The stage hands were break-dancers. More beer came out of jet packs.

Was any of this a realistic portrait of Japan? Obviously not. If we had spent an hour trying to get a real portrait of modern Japan, we might have, if we were lucky, gotten a single, well-crafted ear. Instead, at the end of the hour, they took our glow sticks away from us, shot us up four floors in a golden elevator and left us to stumble, dazed and energized, into the neon lights and karaoke bars of Shinjuku, certain that whatever the hell it was we just saw it was, unmistakably, Japanese.

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