September 26, 2009
It’s funny how you as a foreign tourist constantly walk around in Tokyo expecting to be shocked, appalled and freaked out by the weirdness of the Japanese. Maybe it’s the over-hyping guide books, maybe it’s Scarlett Johansson’s robot watching and Bill Murray’s submissive hotel whore experience – or maybe it’s just what enters your mind when walking down Akihabara street with its melting pot brain damage invoking techno supermarket vibes. Tokyo is different and you feel it instantly. And therefore you start to expect this feeling when you turn every street corner. It’s like the first time you try heroine – after that you just spend the rest of the time chasing that first feeling of another world.
And so we brace ourselves for another shot of Tokyo as we meet up at Akiba Eki to visit a maid cafe, the hangout for the so-called otakus – the Japanese nerd generation obsessed with games, movies and things that rarely see the real world or even daylight… Hitting the streets of Japan, around the year 2000, different cafes sprung up featuring a new element of fun for the bored Japanese, constantly in search of escaping the 17-hour workshift life.
The essential thing in all the places is the behavior of the waiters – they perform a role and you play along. Some of them just act very politely while others take it all the way to Hollywood and perform particular characters from fx video games, movies or certain fairytales. The cafes are themed, in the beginning mostly 1800 Victorian maid-style decor and costuming with the servants in classic maid uniforms, serving cake, food and the lot. But many offshoots have exploded in recent years – and you can now treat yourself with cafes sporting a church theme with waiters dressed as nuns, a Little Sister Cafe with waiters acting out the interesting role as your annoying but cute little sister who pours chili in your pancake while you look away, and even a place where you can pay to get slapped in the face while enjoying your de-caf latte.
But hey, game otakus, umami otakus – it’s all the same, right? So what better venue to meet each other and celebrate otakuness than at a maid cafe?
Anders and Rene got a cute note on the back of a Pinafore pointcard from the maid at check-out:
I’ll take the baton from here and describe our experience at the maid cafe. The maid cafe team was comprised of Anders, Rene and I. We chose Pinafore because it came recommended from my husband’s coworker, who works at a manga publishing company. Pinafore was really close to Akihabara station and we were greeted with a long line of about 20 people. The cafe looked dingy on the outside, with lo-res posters of manga girls lining the windows preventing passersby from getting a peek into the cafe.
Oblivious to how long it would take to get through the line, we joined it anyway, sticking out like a group of goth kids in Disneyland. That’s where we first came in contact with a man who we later dubbed “Fishboy” (his cheeks were a bit droopy resembling the jowls of a fish). Fishboy was an otaku decked out in gaudy Chanel sunglaases, a black vest and what looked to be home-made pants – one leg jeans, one leg cords. It was quite impressive and very apparent that he “dressed up” for his Pinafore outing.
As we inched forward in the line, I started taking pictures of the exterior of the cafe. That was when he shot Yugio-powered laser looks of disgust at me. He totally scolded me and said “You can’t take pictures inside (bitch)!” I proceeded to take more pictures of the exterior despite his venomous utters which sounded like a combo of “ugh”s and “tsu”s. It was from his reaction that I concluded that he was acting out of being protective of his maids. Fishboy probably felt that I was violating “his” girls and turf.
After about an hour, we were finally seated. It was pretty tame, as the girls just used a polite form of Japanese, but did not go as far as to greet us with “Welcome home master.” Some girls were dressed in maid uniforms while others were dressed in Sailor Moon-esque outfits. The skirts were short, but nothing outrageous compared to the girls you usually see in Tokyo out in public. We were seated in the middle of the cafe, which had a maximum occupancy of about 20. As we ordered, our maid tried to start up a conversation asking us if we were enjoying Akihabara and added that we make ourselves feel at home.
Although the actual maids did not act so “maid-like,” it was the guests that were much more entertaining. Fishboy, sat at the counter, scowling at us as we talked away. The only moments he seemed to turn his attention away from us was when he was being helped by a maid.
About ten minutes into getting our drinks, a man of about 40, greasy and wearing all black entered the cafe. He was a bit overweight with oversized engineer glasses. As he sat down, he pulled something out from a plastic bag he was carrying. It was a stuffed animal- a penguin of about 18 inches in height to be exact. He placed the pengin in the seat in front of him. At that moment, Rene commented, “He’s dating the penguin.” Penguin-dater downed his soda pretty quick and scooted out of the cafe in about 20 minutes.
Fishboy is pictured on the very right with the shades and hat. Penguin dater is the one on the left with the tote-bag.
Another creepy customer sighting was a middle-aged couple who seemed like they were married. They sat together in silence. The man however, had his eyes glued on the youngest-looking maid- who looked to be about 16. Every move she made across the cafe, behind the bar, to and from the kitchen, his eyes followed. All the while, his wife was focused on her drink.
My only chance to take pictures within the cafe was in the bathroom.
There was something very unsettling about Pinafore. Although it wasn’t outwardly erotic, it was a place that validated disgruntled fashionistas, mal-adjusted penguin daters and borderline-pedophiles who are married.
Given that there are hundreds more maid cafes in Tokyo, it’s disturbing to know that there is a substantial population that should be going to therapy, but instead rewarded and validated by the maid cafe industry.
Nakayama Building 1F 1-19 Sakumacho
*Yoko lives in Tokyo. She loves dips, dashi and deals.
*Anders is based in Copenhagen where he draws kids books and refuses to cook unless he has guests.