One could elaborate on many an oddity found in Japan, but this one probably has a lot of tourists amazed: the maid cafes.
Walking around the Tokyo district of Akihabara can easily make you feel overwhelmed. Shiny displays and flashing lights everywhere, electronic billboards left and right, blinking advertisements climbing the highrises to heights that make one’s neck hurt. The average newbie visitor is so distracted they could easily walk against a signpost of some sort. But when the eyes return to street level, it is quite hard not to spot them: young women in fancy dress.
Is there a costume party nearby? Is it just one of these quirks about fashion for young women in Japan, and school girls enjoy doing their shopping in costumes?
Although different costumes, they are always along the lines of one theme: maids. Maid costumes everywhere. One might think they are inviting passers-by to a fancy dress party with the flyers they hand out. But as soon as you take a look at the flyer, and the signs they are holding, in the middle of the road in the electronic district, you realise they are actually waitresses – at maid cafes.
Slightly sceptical at first, I decided to accept the invitation to a maid cafe. I was intrigued, to say the least. Always eager to explore the local cultural quirks and cafe scene, I followed my maid into her maid cafe right at the corner of the street, on the first floor of an electronics store.
I couldn’t believe what I found on entering her establishment. A regular cafe only in the sense of what could be bought and consumed, and the fact that the cafe had chairs, tables and a checkout. Everything else was… over the top. Pink cushions on the chairs, frilly things and cutesy pictures of kittens hanging on the walls. I am shown to my table, and given a menu with English translations. Obviously I am not the first non-Japanese tourist frequenting the cafe. I am so baffled by the girlieness, innocent music and puffy pretty stuff everywhere I don’t quite know where to look. It feels like being in one of those Japanese cartoons for children. I am being assigned a maid, and to my great surprise, she is blond and wearing a dirndl. It turns out she is actually from Bavaria.
I found the slightly subservient and cutesy behaviour by her Japanese colleagues somewhat endearing and definitely a good laugh, but seeing and hearing the same from her was just bizarre, albeit a hilarious experience. She took my order for some exotic fruit juice and shortly returned with the same. In true maid cafe fashion, she put the juice on my table, kneeled down on the floor and put her hands together to form a heart. She then said a few lines in Japanese, sounding a bit like a cartoon figure, and moved her hands over the juice as if she was putting a spell on it. In fact, that was exactly what she was doing, as she explained to me in English a moment later – put a happy spell on it so that it would taste even better!
I cannot remember what the juice tasted like, as my senses were taken over by other events in the cafe. At one point, another patron, a teenage boy of about 16, got on the small stage with his maid and grabbed a microphone. I thought they were going to do karaoke, but no. The projector started, and suddenly a cartoon was showing, with subtitles. The maid and her guest started dubbing the cartoon, to everyone’s amusement – everyone that understood Japanese, that is.
As I learnt later, maid cafes popped up in Tokyo around the millennium, and are popular with locals and tourists alike. Unfortunately one is not allowed to take pictures inside the cafe, but a picture with the maid can be taken by the resident photographer and purchased upon leaving. Cutesy drawings and happy spells included!