“Hey, would you like to visit a maid cafe?” my colleague (let’s call him K) asked as we chomped down the last of the sushi at a small restaurant near Akihabara station.
“Of course I would” I replied without actually having any idea what I was letting myself in for. As he’d said it an idea had formed in my mind of a small Cotswold style tea room staffed by elderly Japanese ladies in black and White pinafores serving up buttered scones and marmalade with pots of tea in hand-knitted cosies, maybe even a selection of fairycakes in one of those tiered cake stands with frilly doilies.. My mouth was watering at the thought of it, apparently I’d forgotten that I was in Japan…
We’d been in Akihabara so that I could salivate over expensive cameras in Yodobashi camera, a single electronics store six stories high that’s probably bigger than the whole of cybermart on Huaihai lu. I’d met with one if their Canon specialists and managed to negotiate a damn good price on a 5d kit (who said there was no bartering in Japan??) and was in the mood for celebrating, a maid cafe sounded the perfect start.
So, after paying for the sushi we headed back to Akihabara station, walked straight through and back out the other side onto one of the streets lined with electronics shops. Almost immediately we were approached by a girl dressed in an exaggerated French maid outfit with a short skirt, petticoats galore, an enormous bow in her hair and furry cat ears, she pushed a flyer into my hand..
Some typical Akihabara maids, I didn't take a pic myself, it was dark so I nicked this off the net and then lost the link, if this is your pic please let me know and I'll restore the linkback!
“Ah, this will do” says K. I looked at the flyer:
“Errrm, what kind of place us this again???” I asked. We’d walked past a Hub a couple of minutes ago (British style bar that sells crisps and pints of bitter) and was starting to regret not just popping in there. “oh it’s fine” he replied, “it’s a type of manga cosplay” (costume play), don’t worry it’s not what you think.
We followed the smiling chatty girl (who unfortunately/fortunately, I haven’t decided which, only spoke Japanese) into one of the shop fronts to an elevator and went up to the third or fourth floor to an entrance hall. A receptionist rushed over gushing and giving such a hearty welcome that I had to check if she was an old friend of K’s, they’d never met… She handed over hot towels and explained the pricing, entrance was 1000 yen (8 quid) each and we had to order a minimum of 4 items from the menu (and strictly no photos of the maids before you ask why there’s so few pics), which included standard drinks and food (typical Tokyo pricing) and a number of “specials”, all of which were thousands of yen and all written in Japanese. We agreed to the pricing and were led inside.
My first impression of the place was of a strip club made of marshmallow, everything was pink. There were probably 20 tables with a central raised stage and an open kitchen/bar to one side, the place was staffed by half a dozen maids dressed identically to the maids outside talking in a constant very annoying high pitched whiney voice. I noted the clientele, a group of 5 or 6 ladies eating ice cream, a couple of amused/bewildered backpackers, several couples over at the far side and then a number of tables of “Otaku” (male anime/manga obsessives), some sitting alone and others sitting in groups.
I noticed that some of the Otaku had books on their tables (one had four or five, neatly stacked to one side), I don’t know what it was about them, but some of them made me nervous. The maid promptly led us across and sat us right in the middle of them, next to an overweight guy with a carrier bag of what i’d eventually figure out were Polaroid photos and a permanent smirk which became a full-on “here’s johnny” grin whenever one of the maids got into character, I made a mental note never to make eye contact with him and concentrated on the menu.
We ordered a couple of drinks and an ice cream from the menu and K started to explain more about maid cafes. Apparently they started around 10 years ago and as I understand it they have filled the gap that geisha left behind, with businessmen being replaced by Otaku and kimonos replaced by maid outfits influenced by various manga and anime. Some of the more popular “special items” include things like spoon feeding, where you order something like ice cream and pay a few thousand yen for the maid to tell you that it’s medicine which will make you all better while spooning it into your mouth (yes I was getting weirded out by this point…)
The maid reappeared with our drinks, knelt down next to our table and began talking in Japanese, K translated, “here are your drinks, I’ll help you to make them even more tasty with some magic, please follow my hand symbols and repeat the words after me”. She made us join our two thumbs and forefingers together in a heart shape and wave them round the glasses while chanting some unintelligible magic words which would apparently have the desired effect. I was totally weirded out by this point, even more so when a couple of the Otaku on neighbouring tables chanted along with the maid and looked absolutely delighted with themselves, I’d just about had enough of the place at this point I was so freaked out, I just wanted to leave.
Shortly after our ice cream arrived. The maid had decorated it for us, as a cute puppy, of course that was only half the job and we had to help her chant a new magic spell to make it “super tasty”, the Otaku beside us was having the time of his life, I decided that I definitely wasn’t going to be ordering anything else, even if my life depended on it.
To be fair though the ice cream was pretty good and took my mind off the place for a while until some loud music started and one of the maids danced on stage while miming to the song, it was all very clap your hands, turn around, point to the right, point to the left etc. I was very confused, was I supposed to find it sexy? cute? or what exactly?? I certainly wasn’t finding it sexy..
Shortly after the song finished one of the Otaku must have ordered one of the specials, the maids all gathered round his table, a couple of them with cocktail shakers and sang a song while dancing shaking the cocktail, pretty much all of the Otaku joined in.
K reminded me that we had to order 4 items and we’d only ordered 3 so far, I was running out of options if I was to escape further humiliation when I noticed at the bottom of the menu that you could get your photo taken with one of the maids for 500 yen (4 quid), perfect for the blog I thought!
Well, of course it never works out as easy as you’d hope..K explained to our maid that I wanted to buy a pic and as I was glancing around trying to figure out which quiet, out of the way corner of the room the pic would be taken K nudged me and told me to hurry up, “what?”, “she’s waiting for you”, I looked to where he was pointing and my heart sank, she was up on the stage beckoning me up with all eyes watching. I got up on stage and stood next to her as another maid came across with the polaroid, she spoke in Japanese to everyone, there were giggles and nods of agreement, “she says that you look like Totoro” K informed me, “she says you must both pose as Totoro”, I copied her pose, there was a flash and I left the stage.
Totoro, my new nickname in our Tokyo office
A couple of the Otaku wanted their photos taken too and got up after me, followed by the guy who had the 5 books on his table. When it was his turn he stood next to the maid and she told him how she thought they should pose. He disagreed, he had his own suggestion.. He promptly got down on the floor, curled up in a ball and asked the maid to put her foot on his head for the photo, which, hesitatingly, she did. The other maid took the photo and the guy left the stage looking very pleased with himself. Well, if I said I’d been weirded out before that was nothing compared to how I was feeling now… Some of the Otaku were talking to each other now and looking at the books, that’s when I realised they weren’t books, they were photo albums filled with polaroids from maid cafes, these guys obviously go from cafe to cafe collecting them. Some of these guys must have had a hundred or more pics and I’m just making a wild guess, there could well have been significantly more, it must cost them an absolute fortune!
Our maid came back with my photo, which she’d decorated for me and scribbled something which was supposed to be my name, I haven’t got a clue what she actually wrote
"Heavens Gate" was the name of the cafe, god knows what else she wrote
“Great, can we get out of here now” I asked K, “oh, the maid said there will be another dance routine soon, do you not want to stay for that?”, “errrrr… CHECK PLEASE!!!!”
We paid up and left and that was my maid cafe experience finished, I left none the wiser about what they were all about than before I went in, it was a little too odd for me, I just didn’t get it.
Mind you K mentioned that there’s one with a church theme where they all dress as catholic nuns! Maybe I could bear just one more trip, only for the blog of course….