A ninja takes you through a dark narrow path, serves you food and drink and performs magic in a restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka district where the likes of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and famed film director Steven Spielberg have dined.
The Ninja Akasaka theme restaurant, opened in 2001, has been attracting around 3,000 to 5,000 customers a month, according to Will Planning Inc., its managing company.
Ninja Akasaka “is like a fusion of Disneyland and ninja. When customers come out from the path (that takes them from the entrance to their seats), their faces are beaming with excitement,” said Isao Kuramochi, the restaurant’s manager.
The environment surrounding the nation’s food-service industry is severe.
According to the Food Service Industry Research Center, the market fell from ¥24.590 trillion in fiscal 2007 to ¥23.915 trillion in fiscal 2009.
As for “izakaya” pubs and beer halls, their figures have dropped from ¥1.097 trillion in fiscal 2006 to ¥1.018 trillion in 2009.
Reflecting the gloomy circumstances, a price war is heating up, experts say. While many izakaya and standard restaurants are trying to draw in more customers with low-priced fare, some are striving to survive by offering entertainment.
“In recent years, the food-service industry has raised the bar. Cheap fare used to not taste so good. . . . But today, most restaurants serve tasty food (regardless of price). To stand out from other restaurants, we offer entertainment,” Kuramochi said.
His restaurant offers 100 Japanese-theme dishes, including “shuriken” (ninja star-shaped snacks), a dessert in the shape of bonsai and a turban-shell plate served with a “thrill,” Kuramochi said.
While customers dine, a ninja visits each table to perform magic tricks.
When Ninja Akasaka opened, similar theme restaurants were popular, Kuramochi noted. Although there is no exact figure on their number, many became popular with young people but few offered fare considered satisfactory to older generations, according to the manager.
“Our concept was to open a restaurant that offers both entertainment and good food that older people can enjoy,” Kuramochi said.
The Akasaka eatery became popular with young diners in the beginning. It was later that older, richer executives began to occupy the seats, Kuramochi said, adding that as many as 50 percent of the customers are foreigners.
But like other food-service establishments, the Ninja was also affected by the 2008 Lehman Shock, as many of its customers who splurged the most were securities company employees.
The number of customers dropped from around 5,000 to 3,000 a month amid the economic slump, according to Kuramochi.
However, by broadening the price range to include cheaper wines and courses while maintaining the level of entertainment and service, customers began to increase from around the end of last year, he said.
Diamond Dining Co. is another company that has been turning a profit in the sluggish economy. It recorded ¥16.7 billion in sales in fiscal 2009, up 81.7 percent from the previous year.
Known for its concept restaurants — including establishments based on Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books and Ryoma Sakamoto — the company has been opening new restaurants almost every year since it launched Vampire Cafe in 2001.
“We now run 94 restaurants and each has a different menu and style,” said Yasuko Kameda, manager of public relations at Diamond Dining.
For example, since Ehon no Kuni no Alice (Alice’s Picture Book World), an Alice-themed restaurant, opened in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district in 2008, it has been packed with women in their 20s and 30s, according to Kameda.
Its entrance is made to look like a huge picture book. The act of opening and passing through the huge door gives customers the feeling of “stepping into another world,” she said.
“Many say that concept restaurants quickly become stale. But by constantly reviewing our menu, service and interior, we can keep customers from getting bored,” Kameda explained.
The company opened its 95th restaurant, using the Sengoku Period (1477-1573) as its theme, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, last Friday and plans to add five more restaurants by the end of fiscal 2010, according to Kameda.
“Some concept restaurants have been converted into franchises. And that deprives the restaurants of freshness. So we are making each restaurant original, providing an environment that people can feel or experience only by going to that place,” she said.
Experts agree that uniqueness helps.
“Though those (izakaya and restaurants) with entertainment elements are not the mainstream in the food-service industry, there is a niche market where they are doing good in differentiating themselves (from others),” said an expert who works in the food industry but didn’t want his name used.