We didn’t know what to expect. Navigating our way through the Akasaka district of Tokyo, we nearly missed the entrance, as it was nothing more than a small black door against a large black façade. Our only clue was the elegantly dressed man standing out front, clipboard in hand. Nervously I approached and attempted my best Japanese greeting: “Konbanwa.” Good evening.
Maybe it was my accent, or perhaps just my hair color, but he responded in practiced English. “Do you have a reservation?”
“Hai. Turco. T-U-R-C-O.”
“Hai. This way.” And with that, the door opened just a crack, and we walked into a small antechamber, that barely fit the five of us: four guests and one…well, I wasn’t sure what he was. Bouncer? He quickly darted through a set of black curtains, and we were alone. We looked around anxiously, searching for clues. The room was almost pitch black. One could just barely make out the fine mahogany paneling. Suddenly he returned, lifting the curtain, inviting us to follow.
We walked into a second, larger anteroom. There a pretty young woman dressed in a tight black uniform began to speak. It was English, but I’m not sure what she said. Her accent was too thick even for me. I made out the words ninja and journey. “Here we go,” I thought.
All of a sudden, we heard a crack and to our right, a hidden door, no more than two feet tall, burst open. Stealthily, a ninja, dressed in a loose-fitting black kimono with a thick headband over her forehead, somersaulted into the room. Up in a flash, face hidden but for her eyes, she looked anxiously from side to side, as if anticipating a fight. “Follow me,” she whispered.
Instantly, a second secret door hinged open, as if by magic. We looked through it. Nothing. It was too dark. “Come,” the ninja insisted. And we followed her down the rabbit hole, desperately trying to see beyond the darkness.
Through the door, down the dungeon-like stairs, up a steep incline and then down once more we followed. Eventually we came to an impasse: “the bridge is out,” she whispered. Her finger to her lips, she asked for silence as she surveyed the area, alert to any dangers. Sensing we were safe, she began an incantation, slowly at first and then a loud “aaaeeeeiiiiiii!” and a drawbridge, unseen before, slowly descended from nothing to mend our path.
“Hurry,” she insisted.
We darted across the bridge, stone walls on either side, a cavernous pit below. Quickly we piled into the room beyond. “Repeat,” she said. “Ni-gni.” We attempted, but some of us had better accents than others. She corrected. “No. Ni-gni.” Again, we complied. “Once more, ”she insisted.
“Ni-gni!” we said.
“More!” she exclaimed.
“Ni-gni!” we shouted. And poof, the drawbridge began to rise, leaving our path safe, protecting against any that may follow.
“Almost there,” she encouraged. And ducking to avoid hitting our heads, we took our last few steps through the narrow passageway until we found ourselves standing in a large, cavernous room. Lit by flaming torches, we could make out numerous small cells, separated by prison-like bars. Our guide ushered us forward until we reached our own compartment: “the dragon room.” The chamber was small and ill-lit. But included a nice sturdy table and a very cheerful looking woman, also dressed in traditional ninja garb.
“Welcome!” she beamed. “So sorry,” she continued. “I no speak English. But I try!” And with that she led us to our seats and nimbly handed us the heavy, leather-bound menus.
I looked back to find our guide to thank her. But she was gone, vanished into the caves below.
This may seem like an unusual way to enter a restaurant. Back in the states, you walk up to the hostess and ask for a table. She stares down at her list, makes up a wait-time, and then goes back to texting her friend, eyes sky-high with boredom.
Japan lacks the ironic detachment that pervades modern American culture. Here, there is no shame in throwing yourself into a job or hobby, even one that might seem uncool or ‘lame’ to others. For example, last week we saw a fifty-something man covered head to toe (literally) in ‘flair’ featuring the faces of teenybopper pop stars – male and female. His enthusiasm was reminiscent of a 13-year-old One Direction fangirl. And here, that’s ok! (Sadly, due to Japanese law, cell phones must make noise when you take a picture, so I have no photo evidence.)
As a result, themed restaurants are very popular here. While you may be laughing at the very idea, the “cast members” never break, which makes it all the more fun. Previously, we’d tried the famous “Alice in Wonderland Café,” where female servers don provocative blue crinoline dresses with thigh-high stockings and doll-like makeup. The food, too, sticks to the theme. As you eat lunch at a sickly-sweet booth attached to a working carousel, course after course of cat-shaped ice cream and spaghetti with the caterpillar’s face arrive. The music of Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” plays overhead, and the luxurious velvet drapes tell you that you have seriously fallen down this rabbit hole.
Apart from kids’ fairy tales, you can enjoy dinner at a traditional sumo stadium and watch a live match as you partake in a sumo wrestler’s traditional 5,000 calorie stew. If you have a prison fetish, you can spend a few hours behind bars, eating your proverbial last meal. Or you can watch ninja cartwheel in and out, light your food on fire, and perform, frankly, pretty awesome card tricks tableside. Not wishing to scare our guests from ever returning, we felt the Ninja Restaurant was probably the tamest!
The food was absolutely delicious. These ninjas have some mad culinary skills. You can choose between a 5,7,8 or 10 course pre-set meal. (This will set you back a pretty penny or two). We chose a-la-carte, as the course selections were not exactly appetizing to our Western palettes. (I’m not sure I’ll ever really enjoy tuna and white fish tartar…)
We thoroughly enjoyed our freshly fried vegetable chips, sprinkled with “snow” (Parmesan cheese); the “wings of fire” with cashews that lit up our tongues; the hot pot of beef and potato, which also included a fun surprise: tofu; sweet and sour pork – the only familiar dish we ate; slow-roasted pork which literally came inside a clay pig; and some mysterious curry dish that Alex ordered – pork inside a rice ball, covered with black bean paste and then drizzled with a black curry gravy. To call it unique is an understatement.
The desserts, too, were over the top. (Though I didn’t particularly like having my frog cheesecake also covered in “snow.” (Again, Parmesan cheese…)
Like the food, the cocktails were luminescent. Most of the other patrons we saw enjoyed acid-green absinthe, with an egg of sugar served on the side. I ordered a strawberry sorbet champagne – truly decadent. And the boys drank black beer from thick black goblets. Clearly, ninjas like black.
Two-thirds of the way through our meal, the “Magic Ninja” came to call. He performed card tricks and coin conjurings just for us. His finale was actually pretty amazing. (I won’t go into details in case you visit yourself!) After he left, we spent five minutes trying to solve the inevitable “how did he do it?” But to no avail. It, like much of the ninja culture, will remain a mystery.
Was it realistic? Of course not. It’s made for tourists. Steven Spielberg had signed the wall next to us with a black light pen. But it was totally awesome. I’ve never had such a unique meal, or met nicer ninjas. A solid five out of five, I will most definitely return to the Ninja Restaurant. Only next time, I’ll wear all black! 😉