A visit to Shibuya is starting to slowly feel like it used to. After months in which the Tokyo neighborhood saw its famous crossing deserted and streets left spacious, trips there now seem almost normal, with larger crowds of people zig-zagging around — masks on their faces, of course.

Look closer, though, and what has been lost due to the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 becomes clear. After 15 minutes of strolling about, it dawns on you — “Wait, where are the packs of tourists dressed as Minions driving go-carts?”

While the pandemic has impacted nearly every corner of Japan’s business community, tourism in particular has taken a major hit in 2020. After a decade of booming growth, the number of people entering the country plunged 99.9%.

Domestic-focused efforts to save the industry have popped up since: Go To Travel, slashed-in-half shinkansen tickets and deals that even a germaphobe couldn’t pass up.

One segment of the industry not getting any help, however, is the one concerned with the pastimes and venues that became cornerstones of the tourist experience over the previous decade. Largely reviled by non-Japanese residents but gobbled up by fresh-off-the-plane adventure seekers looking to escape into some 21st-century exotica, activities such as Street Kart (formerly known as MariCar, a semi-creative way to imply it is “real life Mario Kart” while attempting to avoid the liturgical wrath of Nintendo) and a trip to Robot Restaurant.

Both offered a new wave of visitors — primarily younger ones, seeking content for their Instagram feeds and YouTube channels — a novel take on escapism with a dash of “wacky” Japan. While one representative from then-MariCar sells it in a video as a way to “rediscover Tokyo,” the real draw is the chance to pretend a video game present in the lives of many millennials exists in the real world. “It’s something to take you out of your daily lives,” the rep adds.

That’s true of Robot Restaurant as well, a Kabukicho spot offering a hyper-surreal take on dinner theater. While not opened specifically for tourists — after all, office workers need spectacle too — the venue’s neon tank, troupe of dancers and robots played into long-standing ideas of Japan as a futuristic playground and a home to all things weird. It became a backdrop for music videos (Muse, Charli XCX) and countless YouTuber uploads, including one from Will Smith who declared it “worthy of time and attention.”

There’s plenty of reasons for the locals to ignore them, though. Street Kart has presented a safety threat to person and property alike and Robot Restaurant is problematic at best. And both offer the chance to scoff at visitors shunning “real” Japan activities — temples, sumo … uh, DisneySea? — in favor of fantasy. It’s easy to see a guy kartin’ through Shibuya in a cheap Yoshi costume and think, “Yeah, I know Japan better than him.”

Well, the high ground may not be around for much longer. Street Kart launched a crowdfunding drive to “Save The Street Kart” that managed to raise ¥11,569 out of a target of ¥2 million. Robot Restaurant has been closed since the spring, and booking website Voyagin wrote that it was done for good. Robot Restaurant hasn’t announced anything official, while information on Street Kart’s fate isn’t available (both didn’t reply to questions before publication). It’s hard to see them coming back in the way they were before, though, meaning they’ll most likely end up memories of the heady days of 2010s tourism.

The sense of fantasy and immersion they introduced, though, will play a prominent part in a post-COVID world. Tourists will eventually flock back to Japan when they can — the country is already topping lists of where people hope to go after a vaccine is developed — and following the glumness of 2020, these visitors will want to dip into something very much unlike reality. Instead of go-karts and flashing lights, perhaps they’ll be drawn to an elevated escapism provided by Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan (opening next spring), the Studio Ghibli Theme Park (2022) and a “Harry Potter” world (2023).

These parks will almost certainly be a more professional affair, run by massive corporations that will no doubt milk every yen out of a visit. However, I can’t help but look back with some nostalgia on the messy colorful fantasies daringly peddled by the garish robots of Shinjuku and chaotic go-kart tours through Shibuya.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.