Maid cafés? What’s it all about? Obviously, it isn’t real service from maids, as we aren’t rich aristocrats who can afford to have them. But, one can always dream and despite the obvious fakeness of the whole thing, ‘it’s fun to be dumb’, to suspend our disbelief. They are actually a new and unique kind of service industry in Japan, aiming to offer a kind of ‘emotional fulfillment’. The nearest thing to them might be Japan’s hostess bars, where tired salary-men can have drinks poured and cigarettes lit by attractive young ladies who have to pretend they are interested in them. But the big difference here is that there is much less intimate service and, except for the odd beer, no alcohol, leading to a much lighter atmosphere, much more about ‘kawaii’ cuteness.
Generally the defining feature is the attire, which varies a lot from place to place. This too is quite a Japanese thing, illustrating the fashion of ‘cos-play’, dressing up in costumes for the fun of it, and the popularity of uniforms here generally. People here like to dress up, even for small occasions. Some places the classic French maid’s outfit, with long or short skirts (the latter being popular everywhere here, anyway). Others have branched off into other anime-inspired dress. One very popular place, which you have to wait up to two hours to get into on a busy time, called ‘saburo kitchen’ has all the girls wearing yukatas. They serve traditional Japanese foods and powdered green tea, which they whisk up in front of you.
So what actually goes on at a maid café? Well, the first thing is being greeted nicely at the door, in an even friendlier way than is usual in Japan. Japan has much warmer service than most other countries, and it is generally sincere- people really are generous in looking after others. Perhaps I am also lucky in being a foreigner who, not being so large, has the ‘exotic’ qualities of a foreigner without being threatening, but generally it is always a pleasure to go out in Japan for just this reason. Service industries simply don’t have the cynicism you often get in other places. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but the exceptions (generally when things get so busy there is no time to pay attention to people), prove the rule. Anyway, I digress- the point is that this greeting is a very important thing in Japanese culture and the fact that it is so nicely done is enough of a reason for someone to even go to a maid café in the first place! This may seem absurd to some, but the longer you stay in Japan, the harder it is to do without the warm service to be found here, which makes Japan a kind of oasis in the modern world and the maid cafés aim is to take this to a new level.
After this and being led to your seat, it is time to order from the menu. Now this is where things get interesting- in a maid café kind of a way. You have the usual selection of coffees, teas and other soft drinks (yes, at slightly inflated prices) and some meals that probably come straight from the microwave, but if you’re hungry, they only cost a bit more than the drink. Then you have the ‘extras’. If you want, the ‘maid’ (let’s remember, they aren’t really maids any more than someone wearing the right uniform is a policeman!) will draw a cute little picture on your omelet with ketchup. Sometimes the cutie pictures drawn by the girls are for sale, and I suppose some of them may become collector’s items some day. You can take a photo with the girl of your choosing for another charge, leading to a kind of ‘print-club’ for men, and believe it or not we did see a group of three super-otaku, showing off their albums to one another like high-school girls. Amazing, but true. Another option is to play a video game with the girl, who will join you on the stage and make squeals and giggly sounds as she tries to ‘kick your ass’ at virtual fighter or a Nintendo Wii game, inevitably losing to the ‘technically superior’ male, who equally inevitably is a kind and self-depreciating winner.
A typical example of these cafés is ‘Maid in Heaven’, where the Ozzy Osborne’s daughter worked for a stint, which is one of the first ones I went to. The place is nicely done-up, with cosy seats. The menus are all hand-decorated with the girls’ doodles so you get the sense that they made the place and all the foods are hand-cooked by them. On the walls are decorations and also poster-guides to each girl, along with their nicknames. Aside from the very pretty waitresses wearing maid-like clothes, there isn’t really much going on, but every now and then the girls will giggle with one another very loudly about something (in a way that seemed totally false to me, as they’d usually be too embarrassed to do that in front of others). Also the ‘cute’ services are visible from time to time- someone ordering a ketchup drawing on their om-rice (omelet with rice in the middle, a kid’s favourite here), or playing a game of jun-ken-po (stone-paper-scissors) with the waitress with the hope of winning a little hand-drawn cartoon she’d made.
Some other activities, like ‘maru-batsu’, true or false quizzes, involve all the audience at once. They might be questions about anime characters or general knowledge, all to evoke a kind of elementary-school type atmosphere where people can enjoy being a child again. One café off the beaten track takes this to an extreme by having a ‘gako-no-seki’ (school-style seating area), where you can wait to be served whilst sitting at a replica school desk, leaving your shoes meanwhile in the similarly school-style ‘shoe-box’. I actually found this one to be a little disturbing, as apart from the gako-no-seki, it looked like a typical office building, but I suppose at least it shows that there are people experimenting with something new.
One place that seems to be trying on the maid theme for something else is ‘Mai Flexology’, where there are shiatsu-style massages from- you guessed it- an attractive girl dressed as a scantily-clad maid. Shiatsu is well known for it’s therapeutic, energising properties and they claim that having a maid involved makes it that much more relaxing. They do stress there that what they offer is only massage and you can just choose whether it’s on your shoulders, hands or feet, so there is no ‘funny-business’ going on here!
In one of the most interesting places and probably my favourite one, ‘Amuse Café Akihabara’, there are also karaoke numbers sung by the girls, who can be chosen juke-box style by paying a small fee. When they are about to sing, they go up to the stage and ring a little bell. The large flat-screen TV then changes from showing images of frolicking puppy dogs (which is what cutie girls like to look at whenever they have the chance, presumably), to some kind of music video. The singing, while a bit twee perhaps, is also really good and what makes it interesting is the crowd of regulars chanting along to their favorite numbers and cheering on the girls as if they were real ‘idoru’ idols. There seem to be particular chants they have that I think involve the girl’s names and it shows how keen they are to support them, but the whole thing has a kind of surreal atmosphere to me. Depending on when you go, this may be a place where the true ‘otaku’ are to be found.
This fan-worship, which is incidentally a big part of the ‘moe’ phenomena ever since such heroines started appearing in manga comic-books, has even spilled out into the streets of Akiba on the evenings, when similarly young girls turn up with a guitarist to promote their numbers. A crowd of admiring onlookers are clustered around them, often snapping away with mobile-phone, ‘keitai’ cameras and of coursed other passers-by like myself are drawn to the scene. Concert dates and prices for CDs are on display, but the main thing is the mutual enjoyment of a live performance without all the hassles of renting a venue. The vast open areas coming with the new ‘open’ building-style that has sprung up recently, around the high-tech Tskuba-Express train station, have made this kind of expression possible here, no doubt unexpectedly so for the planners.
Like most guys, the maid café clientele’s desire is both to be kind to the girls and to have their egos massaged by feeling stronger than them (something you see an awful lot of in Japan!), not to be domineering or anything like that. Compared to other ‘men’s clubs,’ the maid café has a much safer environment and you sometimes see whole families going to some of them. Which of course also leads one to wonder if the concept has been so commercialized as to be nothing much more than a tourist attraction, albeit a very interesting one, rather than the ‘platonic therapy for otaku’ that grabbed everyone’s imagination originally. I suppose it all depends on which one you go to. Either way, they are a rather different experience.
Here are the places I mention above. Please remember that you can expect long waiting times of up to two hours at a popular place on a weekend, though Friday nights seem to be okay-
Maid in Heaven
Amuse Café Akihabara
Thanks also to Tokyo Fox for his help in this article for actually researching the maid cafes in the first place. You can see his (much shorter!) article, here!