Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own.
One of the things I love the most about going to Disney back in Florida is how they execute a theme from the moment you approach the ride to the moment you leave, and maybe that’s why I love the themed eateries in Japan so much. American themed restaurants seem to have a reputation for being famously mediocre if not cheesy, with the food, the decor, the entertainment/service, or a combination of all three. I have not seen that to be the case in Japan, at least in my experience. I wanted to write about my experience eating the food in Tokyo. (This will also include some special first-time foods for me, like conveyor belt sushi!)
One thing that you have to take into account, though, is that some eateries in Japan require the customers to order at least one food item and one drink, some charge a service fee (the ones I went to charged about JP¥500, or US$5), and some restrict the eating time to two hours. One drink, one entree, and a dessert or appetizer cost me ¥4,000 (about US$40), give or take a couple hundred yen, at each themed restaurant I went to, so this was a treat for me. I had seen video reviews of these restaurants by Emma from Tokidoki Traveller (Alice in Fantasy Book and Vampire Cafe) so I knew I wanted to go here; if you’re on a tighter budget, I would highly recommend doing your research and going to the one you like the most (for instance, if you’re like me and are not a huge seafood fan, the Ninja Restaurant in Akasaka might not be for you, as cool as the presentation and décor appear).
Shirohige’s Cream Puff Shop/Tolo Café and Bakery, Setagaya
As a Studio Ghibli fan since I was six years old, this was a dream come true for me. This one doesn’t have as stylized of a theme as the other themed restaurants I visited (e.g., servers did not wear costumes), but there were Totoro plushies and references to Studio Ghibli EVERYWHERE, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that it’s nicknamed the “Totoro Café”.
Okay, so technically, the cream puff shop (apparently run by the sister-in-law of Hayao Miyazaki) is on the first floor while the bakery and cafe are upstairs and run by a different group, but nevertheless, the cafe serves the cream puffs too.
From Shinjuku Station, I took the Metro to Setagaya-Daita on the Odakyu line, and it was a relatively straightforward walk from the station to the cream puff shop. At the end of the road, there’s a little Totoro on top of a nearby building that says “Well come [sic]” so you know you’ve wandered into Studio Ghibli territory.
One thing I didn’t realize is that the Totoro cream puffs have cute decorations depending on what flavor they are. Since I ordered the strawberry cream, my Totoro came with a little cherry blossom on his head. The result was the first food that has made me feel like a heartless monster to eat, since it was just too precious!
The shop also sells little cookies in the shape of natural patterns like mini Totoro, leaves, mushrooms, and acorns! I got a box of assorted cookies for just over ¥1000, you can also get cream puffs to go for ¥400 (according to the Tolo Café menu). I ended up spending just over ¥2000 total (about ¥1000 for a cream puff and a coffee, and just over ¥1000 for the cookies). If you can’t get to the Studio Ghibli museum (which I couldn’t; all the tickets for the entire month were sold out), this will likely be a great substitute. My childhood was so happy here, and when the lady at the counter (who I’m 70% confident was the aforementioned sister-in-law, but I didn’t bother her since the store was pretty busy) handed me the cookies, it almost felt like I was being handed the bundle of nuts and seeds Totoro gave Satsuki and Mei in the movie.
While we’re on the subject of Studio Ghibli: as I mentioned before in my article about Kiki’s Delivery Service (you can find the article here), I’ve been looking for a Jiji mug. I FINALLY FOUND ONE at a Donguri (Studio Ghibli merchandise) store in Skytree Solamachi! As I picked up the mug, I kid you not, my favorite song from Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (the end theme from Castle in the Sky, in case you’re interested) started playing over the loudspeaker. I saw that as a sign to buy it, along with a phone charm with the Laputa crystal from Castle in the Sky. They had a lot of merchandise for Studio Ponoc’s new movie Mary and the Witch’s Flower, as well as Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, but not that much for the other Studio Ghibli movies like Howl’s Moving Castle (my favorite after Kiki), which kinda stunk but I’m not complaining!
Alice in Fantasy Book, Shinjuku
One of my favorite Disney movies is Alice in Wonderland, particularly the Tim Burton version; lucky for me, Alice in Wonderland is apparently really popular here in Japan, so visiting this restaurant seemed to be a no-brainer. This is in the T-Wing building of Shinjuku, and this was an experience. I did not have a reservation (if anyone from Alice in Fantasy Book is reading this, I’m sorry!), so they went over the rules about the service fee and one food and one drink before asking me to sit and wait for Alice (I think now’s a good time to explain, as far as the guests are concerned, all the servers are apparently named “Alice”) before showing me to my table.
When my waitress told me I had to call “Alice” loudly if I needed her, that kind of threw me off; I personally hate yelling, even if they expect it, and I kind of wish that they had a different system for people that don’t like yelling, or are nonverbal. I was thinking of something like the Vampire Café’s bell or like the “Run Forrest Run” license plates at Bubba Gump Shrimp, but with card suits or the white rose and the red rose—Diamond Dining (the company that owns both the Alice in Fantasy Book restaurant and the Vampire Café) is making good use of their imagination in executing the Alice in Wonderland theme so far, so I have full confidence they can come up with a good alternative to “go ask Alice” (yes, reference to the song intended). I kind of cheated and called for her at a normal volume when she was done introducing herself to a group that was seated nearby.
Needless to say, these restaurants are geared towards people who come in large groups, possibly for special occasions (quite a few groups were celebrating birthdays). Alice ushered me to a small table that would have been hidden to people who were walking in. (A similar instance happened in the Vampire Café, so it wasn’t an isolated incident.) I had a nice view but it did feel like I was being somewhat partitioned off from the other guests. I’m not sure if this was a foreigner thing, an eating by myself thing, or a this-is-the-only-table-that’s-suitable-for-one-person thing, but I didn’t mind; I imagine this is something I as a solo traveler have to get used to.
In terms of what I ordered, I ordered the Beef and Guinness pie with broccoli, carrots, and beef, the fries with cheese sauce (served in a teacup because why on earth not), and a seasonal (non-alcoholic) strawberry drink that gave me a Cheshire smile. I was also served a standard (if I remember correctly, it was complimentary, at least in this place) appetizer: a cracker with a heart shape in it and a cup of what I believe was a corn-based hot drink (this was obviously a reference to the “drink me” potion and the “eat me” cake). After I paid for my food, I was given a packet of strawberry tea as a sort of party favor; I guess it was to keep the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theme going all the way to the end.
Final verdict: the food was pretty good, presentation was off the chart, but I could have done without the Disney songs being played (maybe cute instrumentals instead would have been nice). Given that Alice is so popular in Japan, that might explain why they went balls-to-the-wall with the theme.
Bonus #1: Gansozushi, Akihabara
There really is no special reason for why I chose Ganso; I just Googled “best keitenzushi [conveyor-belt sushi]” where I was in Akihabara, and Ganso came up, so I headed over there to try Japanese sushi for the first time. I had tried sushi and sashimi in America, with disastrous results, so I decided to give sushi another try in Japan, and even though I’m not quite sure if I like sushi just yet, I’m glad I ate here.
A very basic description of the way keitenzushi works: I sat at a diner-like bar counter that had a conveyor belt with plates of sushi going around on it (keitenzushi is often translated as “sushi-go-round” on signs). You take the plates from the conveyor belt and eat as much as you want. Each plate design shows how much it costs, so you keep the plates in a stack, and then you pay based on your stack of plates. I was able to have some kind of salmon nigiri (a type of sushi with raw fish on rice), an egg (tamago) sushi, and a tuna wasabi nigiri (it was then that I learned I do not like the taste of wasabi… I kind of liked the pickled ginger, though). I ended up having four plates for around ¥1,000 ($10 USD), which I find to be a decent price, considering the location in downtown Tokyo and the amount of food.
Final verdict: It was much better than I thought it would be, but I still feel like sushi might not be my thing just yet.
Bonus #2: Kin-No-Torikara, Shibuya
Once again, this particular suggestion was from Google, but the original idea was from word-of-mouth; I heard from a friend who had been to Japan that fried chicken almost anywhere in Japan was really good. Kin-No-Torikara is a takeaway stand at a shopping center in Shibuya, and I ordered fried chicken and loaded fries. I loved experimenting with all the sauces; my personal favorite (the red-tinted one on the left in the photo) tasted like a sweet chili sauce—for those of you who are familiar with the American fast food chain Popeye’s, it tasted almost like the Sweet Heat sauce. For about ¥500, I got a decent amount of food (but then again, I get stuffed with a small amount of food, so keep that in mind).
Final verdict: If you’re looking for good fried chicken in Shibuya, you might want to check this place out. That said, they do not have a place to sit and eat, so be prepared to walk and eat or awkwardly stand around their waste bin like I did.
Vampire Café, Ginza
Moving to the dark side of the themed restaurant spectrum, my second night in Tokyo, I headed over to the Vampire Café in Ginza. This was in a building that had a lot of different restaurants—one on each floor (I didn’t catch the building’s name, since I was following Google Maps). For a Monday evening in Ginza, it was rather empty (again, no reservation… don’t do what I did, kids).
As far as decor goes, I say this in the most loving way possible: they clearly designed this with Mundanes (to borrow a term for “normal people” from the City of Bones series) in mind—red blood cell pattern on the light-up floor in the entrance hall, cobwebs, black and red textiles, blood, skulls, coffins, spiders, and bats. Everywhere. The decor was a bit too hardcore for my taste, even with my appreciation of the Goth subculture, but I will caveat that the red rose theme in the food presentation really spoke to my soul. So, if you’re at least somewhat familiar with the vampire or Goth subculture, be prepared for at least a small degree of eye-rolling.
They call the Vampire Café a “café” but it’s more of a restaurant. The same rules applied as in Alice in Fantasy Book—one food, one drink, ¥500 service charge—as the server explained the notice on the menu’s front page. One of the things I noticed in some of the reviews was that the staff were allegedly cold and not very accommodating. That was not my experience at the Vampire Café, but I did notice they were rather hands-off. The sentiment I think they were trying to go for with their vampiric characters was “we’re trying to be polite enough not to drive you off, but we’re trying very hard not to bite you so we’ll keep our distance”, so I can kind of understand that that’s not what some people have in mind for good service. I had no issues with my service, and I think the glaring issue was the language barrier, but that was nothing Google Translate couldn’t fix (like when I asked if I paid at the entrance or at the table). To call the server, you ring a bell, which is loud enough to hear in the relatively quiet place (barring the music), so I’m really grateful I didn’t have to yell.
This is a personal preference for me, but I like to be able to look around the venue, especially if there’s a loft area or a top floor to look out on the street below (I think in a past life I was a ranger like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, or possibly a bird of prey). In the Vampire Café, they had red curtains around the booths so I couldn’t see around the place. I imagine with a group of people that would make everything seem a bit more cozy and intimate, but by myself, it kind of felt like a warm and plushy form of solitary confinement. That said, if they were trying to get you feeling “whoa what was that” when the dark shadows of the all-black-clad staff walk past the gap in the curtains for a split second, they definitely hit that nail on the head. I heard a lot of nervous giggling from other patrons, but even if it was meant to be scary, the mystery just intrigued me more; I can’t deny the sartorial choices and overall aesthetics of the staff were a part of it (*shy blush*).
In terms of what I ordered, I got a non-alcoholic drink called the “Elizabeth Bathory”, the red-wine-stewed beef cheek (which was actually really good; it had a texture similar to that of pulled pork), and a strawberry-matcha ice cream dessert in the shape of a spider (I will admit, the spider was kind of cute with the big eyes, and I almost laughed out loud when I read that the spider ice cream was ¥666).
While the restaurant does have a good amount of English on their menu (though their seasonal specials card did not have any English—consider yourself warned), I used the website MyOrder to check the menu before I came to Japan, and they claimed the drink was blood orange, cranberry, and pomegranate juice with tonic water. Also, according to MyOrder, the beef cheek was called “the dead body of Van Helsing”; people who know me outside of the blog may understand why I found this hilarious (I had to flip a coin between the beef and a pizza shaped like a letter with a rose “wax seal”—the beef won). Be advised: the website seems to have not updated the menu in a while, so they might not have all the items you’re looking for when you eat at the restaurant.
Final verdict: Food was actually really good, design was a bit hardcore but I’m not complaining, and the style of service might not be for everyone. Also, if you don’t like enclosed dark spaces or sudden noises when the server opens and closes the curtains (they weren’t too startling for me, but I imagine that could get to some people), this might not be the place for you. For me, I’m highly tempted to go back before I leave Japan to get the rose-letter pizza that didn’t end up on my plate—after making a reservation, of course.
My experience with the themed cafes in Tokyo was really good, but I also noticed that they are either really cute and light and fun (case in point: Alice in Fantasy Book, or what I’ve seen of the maid cafes in Akihabara) or dark and creepy (e.g., Vampire Café and the prison-, ghost-, or ninja-themed restaurants I’ve seen on YouTube) with hardly anything in between. I imagine this either-or feeling is more apparent to me because I notice this in America as well as with my experience shopping in Japan; while I understand the ambience and the feelings you get at these eateries are meant to be temporary, like a sort of escapism, as someone whose interests are divided between both sides of the dark-cute spectrum, it was a bit annoying to have to choose. If they had a Phantom of the Opera café, or a Brothers Grimm-themed restaurant? I’d be on the phone booking a reservation in a heartbeat. (Ya hear that, Diamond Dining?)
What else would you want to know about my time in Tokyo? Let me know in the comments below! I still have a few more days in Kyoto, so until next time, またね!