It’s finally here–the famous Monkey Izakaya. It’s been featured on TV numerous times, and in too many blogs to count, such as La Carmina‘s. I was torn with going here–a bar with monkey waiters that also perform shows doesn’t sit well with me regarding animal welfare. This bar is also very hard to get to without a car, as it’s in an industrial district in Utsunomiya–near a rock climbing wall and pole dancing classes as well, but otherwise, industrial. Go figure.
However, I went to a bouldering gym with a friend, and I convinced him to YOLO. I’m pretty glad we did.
The first thing to know about the “system” for this restaurant is that the monkeys are not exactly waiters. I believe they make an appearance every night, but only for a small, irregular time frame, so you’ll need to call in advance to get a general idea of when they’d come out. When I called, the lady said, “Probably around 8:30.” When I called in later to make a reservation at around 9:15, I asked to confirm that the monkeys would still be there, and she told me that they can’t make reservations for 9:15 (for some reason, but you don’t need them really), and that she couldn’t guarantee the monkeys would still be there. Come quickly.
Okay. Well. That thoroughly confused me, but we headed out as soon as we could.
The izakaya is obvious because it’s in such a discreet location. It’s in the middle of a residential area in the middle of an industrial area. It’s super local, even without the monkeys. They technically have parking spaces, but it’s on a side street a couple minutes walk down from the pub, and unmarked, so I had to get out the car to ask the shopkeeper for directions. Again, super local.
As the lady walks us from the parking area to the restaurant, she lets us know that we are right in time–the monkey show is about to start.
So we go in and are placed at the same table as another foreign couple from California (super local, besides the foreigners, basically. Word gets around). And this show kicks off with a photo shoot–you can sit with the monkeys and have people take pictures of you. The best thing about this is that the owners have made the monkeys various masks that they can put on–everything from a traditional smoking man to Carnival to a terrifying monkey mask. Another cool thing is that they understand Japanese really well. The master doesn’t put the masks on the monkeys, he tells them to put them on–“No, the other one. It’s backwards. Nope, still backwards. There we go.”
They monkeys are obviously incredibly used to people, but do note that they are still monkeys, and still wild animals. I got bonked on the head and scratched by one, and my friend got nipped, just because. They’re trained, but still do their own thing. And honestly, the staff won’t even bat an eye at your mini-assault (even though I did get a fairly sizable cut from the scratch…).
This goes on as long as the customers want–basically until everyone’s done taking their pictures. And they let you take pictures for a long time. 5 minutes per person, even. Then the mini-show starts. The master will bring out some monkey-sized hula hoops and stilts, a basket ball, some cones, etc. One of the adult monkeys will walk around on the stilts, take a hoop to the cone while balancing on the basket ball, and do a “sexy dance” (which is more of a sexy pose to sexy music with sexy lighting). There are a couple more shenanigans, but after that, the monkeys are done and go back home.
Of course I didn’t see any behind-the-scenes look at how the monkeys are treated or raised, but there weren’t any clear red-flags going off from what I saw. They “work” only about an hour each night, seem cool with people, and are well-trained–but still kind of do their own thing. It seems the owners care for them pretty well, but they’re still wild animals in a domesticated setting. I can’t comment more on it than this.
Also note that the monkey “master” is also the chef, so once the monkeys come out, food orders stop (except for very basic items). They give you a nice otooshi of scallop and wasabi, and we ordered a bowl of edamame during the show. Afterwards, we ordered the beef horumon-yaki, which was stir-fried entrails, which was really very good. The table next to us left before us and also left a lot of food on their plate (spicy stir-fried chicken), and one of the workers heated it up and gave it to us for free. They were both very good, and the portions were quite sizable for Japan, although they’re definitely something to share. It’s a lot of one thing.
The rules written on a laminated page said that the charge for pictures with the monkeys was ￥1000 per camera, but they ended up charging us per person. Which is fair. At first I was thinking 1000 is a bit steep, but we had a fun time, and the food was so cheap that the whole thing (one drink per person included as well) was right about ￥1500 each. Definitely worth it. If you have the chance, this is a place to visit.