I finally made it to a a Sushi Bar last week. But there's another type of restaurants in Japan which are about as stereotypically Japanese, hard to find in the US, and experience worthy. Just on a whole different scale.
I'd been warned that Maid Cafes were expensive. I certainly wasn't going to go back to Akihabara, which is renowned for them, just to have a woman made to resemble the type of innocent girl found in mangas serve me. But after passing a woman standing out in a street, dressed as a maid and holding a menu several times, I decided to try.
I went over, looked at the menu, and said (in Japanese) 'It looks delicious.' (That was one of the structures we'd learned to make this course. I'm sure all five Japanese teachers I've had in my life would be thrilled learn where my Japanese skills are getting me.) Then I followed her down into the basement.
She had some difficulty opening the door (it was a pull, not push) but then we were in. At first glance, it looked a bit like a normal restaurant, with a stricter dress code than most. It's in the menus and the waitstaff that things are different.
Maid Cafes are designed for otaku- Japanese nerds. This was clear from the design of the walls. There were large patterns made up of smaller words and images in varying colors- like a fractal kind of pointillism. The smaller writing that I recognized was mainly math or video games- level up, e^(i*pi)=-1, etc. One of the larger pictures that I saw was of a castle, complete with two 'window' video screens.
There were video screens around the cafe, and manga characters who would make their way around. Like the waitresses, they were all female and dressed like maids. Unlike the waitresses, they all had the ears and tails of different animals. There was a rabbit, a bear, a cat, a dog, and a creature I couldn't identify. The each made their way slowly around the restaurant, walking/dancing between different screens.
Hanging from the ceiling were rubix-cubes-looking lights. On the hour, they changed color, the music changed, and the characters started running around the screens looking scared. When the lights were touched, a video-game sound effect played and the characters all grew bigger for a couple of seconds.
I was shown a seat, and then a waitress came over and knelt on the floor next to me. She asked if I spoke Japanese, I responded 'a little,' and then she spoke in English for the rest of the time. She had sheets with written sentences to show me too. It was 500 yen per hour, and I needed to order something.
'Drink- OK. Food- OK.' Something pointing to herself '-OK.' I smiled and nodded, trying not to look too terrified.
She brought out an electric candle, and blew on it. Then she counted down from three, and said we should do that together. I nodded, and then we counted down. She blew on the candle again (then a few more times because it didn't work) and then the light went on. She said it, as a light, had turned on (it's a single verb in Japanese) and then said something else. Then I think she took the candle away, because I looked for it later and couldn't find it.
She asked if I was hungry, and I tried to ask to just look at the menu. Then she started to write down 'Are you hungry,' so I said no. She showed me the drink menu, and it was clear she wasn't going to go away until I ordered. I settled on a latte. I kind of meant to pay the extra hundred yen for her to do a drawing on it while I watched, but when she asked 'No drawing OK?' I nodded.
She brought me the drink, said something in Japanese, and made each of her hands into half a heart and brought them together. I stared at her. 'Together!' Another smile and nod, and I mimicked her hand gesture. She repeated the words, and I hoped it was OK that I didn't.
This was the first Sunday that I'd been able to navigate myself around Tokyo but had not gone to the Cat Cafe. I ended up comparing the two. I'm not sure which is more disturbing- the fact that the basic service for the Maid Cafe was cheaper, or the fact that the maids were more friendly.
Several maids came up to me and asked questions. Only one of them spoke to me exclusively in Japanese. One of them gave me a pair of cat ears, then several of them commented on it. About half of them told me their names and paused, clearly wanting me to repeat it after them.
At some point, I think they realized that I was simply a tourist seeing what it was like and wasn't likely to spend any more money, so they stopped coming by. That, or they ran out of waitresses who spoke English and I wasn't being that talkative. In any case, I was left at leisure to explore the menu.
There were several English phrases,like 'one of our maids makes a float just for you. Any kind of float is fun!' or 'one of our maids makes a drawing on your coffee' or 'You can take a picture with your favorite maid.' (All had prices next to them, of course.) There were a fair number of phrases in Japanese with no English translation nearby.
At some point it occurred to me that there are two main types of people to visit a Maid Cafe. There would be the Japanese nerds it was designed for, some of whom would come back multiple times. And there would be the foreign tourists like me who would have heard about them, but wanted to see what they were like.. The simple solution to accommodating both would be to not translate some of the kinkier things.
Once I realized that, I rechecked the menu and found the most expensive item on it. I'm not sure I want to know what the fifteen minutes of dream time was.
I will say this for Maid Cafes- they know who their primary audience is, and they appeal to that. At the end of the visit, I got a card with forty-nine numbers on it, and the first one stamped with today's date. The last box is labeled 'Rank Up.' If I were to fill in every box, I would level up to another card. After I did that four times, I would get a VIP card. This card would entitle me to... a five percent discount.
That would be a lot for a normal cafe. Starbucks could not institute that kind of system and have a significant number of people bother keeping the card. But it's only another forty-nine visits, and then I'm at the next level!