I’m about to try to explain why, together with the woman who does the English language voice of Hello Kitty, Audrey and I stalked a couple of girls in rabbit suits, only to end up in a big pink room eating scrambled eggs and ketchup served up by teenage Japanese girls in French maid outfits singing high-pitched children’s rhymes.
A G-rated reality wrapped in the potential for a XXX-rated fantasy.
As Bill Murray said in Lost in Translation, “This is hard.”
What Is a Japanese Maid Café?
Maid cafés first entered our realm of interest when one of our Japanese readers suggested we seek one out to appreciate the finer points, or perhaps the further reaches, of modern Japanese culture.
To vet the idea further, we asked our guide, Pascal, if he could recommend any maid cafés. His response: he whipped out a frequent visitor for one.
An interesting sign.
We dug deeper. “What’s it like?”
You go there and you order food or a drink and the maids do things for you, special things for you, they take care of you. They stir your drink, maybe bring you extra ice cubes.
I’m picturing gymnastics, fireballs and all sorts of nudity. My interest growing, pitching and heaving, by the second.
He intimated, however, that it’s all clean.
Interest waning. Clearly, we were lost, lost again in translation.
Seeing my disappointment, he continued, “But they can do a ‘shaka-shaka’ dance for you.”
We were confused.
There, in the middle of the high-speed train from Kanazawa to Hiroshima, Pascal stood up, formed a heart by ringing the fingers of each hand, joining them together into the shape of a heart against his chest, and bobbed back and forth singing “shaka, shaka.”
Those maids clearly made an impression. Our interest: maxed out. I got that interplanetary feeling.
We asked him to do it again so we could take a video. Rather wisely, he declined.
Maid café. Now on the “Tokyo, before you split” bucket list.
Searching for a Maid Café in Akihabara, Chasing Young Girls in Bunny Suits
We met Soness, our newfound friend and the official English-language voice of Hello Kitty, at Akihabara station. In all her years in Japan, she’d never been to a maid café. It was time to do something about that. Engulfed in a sea of electronic pop culture, Sega and Taito buildings, games and sounds, beeping and buzzing, streams of humanity rippled deliberately in all directions and we struck out to find ours.
“Where should we go?”
Then we saw two women in French maid-meets-bunny outfits, bunny ears and all, pasteled as if they’d crawled out of a giant Easter basket.
“Let’s follow them.”
They were fast bunnies. We trailed them down the main street, across a big intersection, onto a side street and finally up the stairs inside an unmarked building. They ducked into a nondescript white door and disappeared. A video production company? Maid tryouts? Porn? Nobody knows, but clearly they weren’t doing the shaka-shaka dance for us anytime soon. Comic.
We pressed our ears against the door. Silence. No din of customers talking, women singing, anime music blaring.
No shaka-shaka. Tragic.
We realized we probably looked like stalkers. We were done with the bunnies, this chapter of our Alice in Wonderland Tokyo adventure was over.
Inside a Maid Café: Maidreamin’
Back on the main street, we looked up amidst the flashing lights and signs and saw this:
Up to the fourth floor we went; we knocked on a white door with a small sign pasted on it: “Maidreamin”. The door opened and a group of Japanese girls with high-pitched voices welcomed us with warbles, claps, cheers, bows and a whole lot of jumping. No, not ordinary jumping — that sort of jumping where the legs scissor out like a pocket knife and the feet never leave the ground.
Never had we felt so popular, except maybe in Bangladesh.
Inside and to our left stood a three-tiered bar with pink benches. Men sat scattered, drinking glasses of juice. It reminded me of Hollywood Squares. To our right stood a tiny stage, empty. Further back, a booth of young Japanese men with giant hair snapped photos of bowls of eggs and rice. A table full of young Japanese women, perhaps university-aged, gathered nearby.
We’d been warped to another world. There was nothing high tech about the place; just simple white tables and an oozing, bubble-gummy pink décor. This warp came, however, with a price tag. We could take a seat in the Hollywood Squares section for a fee, fetch a table for a premium or sit on a couch for the highest. We chose the table, middle of the road.
A young woman with cat ears took our order, a package deal of an omelet over rice, a juice drink and a photo with our favorite maid. She had us write our names down so she could draft personalized cards for us.
As our food arrived, our maid stepped back to teach us a song. She motioned for us to cup our hands together to make a heart and urged us to move side to side, like we were doing a slow wobble — not quite a shaka-shaka dance.
I was certain this was a cult. A Japanese French maid worshipping cult. Kool-aid was likely being stirred in the back as we shimmied.
Then our maid led us in song, something about how delicious our food would be. “Yum!,” we chanted as a sort of anime-inspired blessing of our food.
At our request, our maid drew Hello Kitty in ketchup on top of our omelet, squirting out something vaguely cat-like onto the yellow puck of egg in our bowl.
Each time our maid approached, there was a flutter of claps and a high pitched cheer. Before we knew it, our voices rose a couple of octaves and we found ourselves clapping, meting out the occasional cheerleader-type “Yay!”
“But what about the shaka-shaka dance?” I asked.
Our maid looked puzzled. She even called another maid over, inquiring as to how we might get our own special shaka-shaka.
Nobody here knew the shaka-shaka.
I needed a drink. Several, actually. Throw in a few mind-altering substances so I could catch up with what was going on.
At the next table over, a young man spoke to his maid through a Teletubby hand puppet. The bounce policy is very loose at this maid café.
When I am benevolent dictator of the universe, all troubled beings will be given a Teletubby hand puppet.
Just as we were beginning to become one with the universe, our maid reminded us that our hour was up. It was time to have our photo taken with the maid of our choice. After a prolonged deliberation: “She looks more real….No, maybe that one, she’s cuter…No, maybe that one, I like her hair.” We landed on our maid and were called to stage.
One of the other maids grabbed the instant camera. “Act like a cat,” she said.
Audrey and Soness did as they were told. I however, acted like a ram. Clearly I need some remedial animal impression lessons.
And some help.
Maid Cafés and Japanese Culture?
So where does all this fit?
This is a point of great speculation in our household. I’ve even considered taking a sabbatical. Were I to spend seven whole years in Tibet contemplating this, I’m certain I would be no closer to understanding why. But I can speculate.
Japanese society is conservative, traditional, strict in its own ways, which is perhaps why fantasy, of which anime is perhaps the most prevalent manifestation, is everywhere. It’s why you see men in business suits reading anime porn on the subway, it’s perhaps why young girls dress up in cosplay costumes on the weekend in Harajuku.
So maid cafes? A curiosity? A release? An escape? From the pressures and expectations of society, work, family, of life, perhaps.
You look for your temporary suspension of what is in exchange for what can be. You look for the shaka-shaka dance and you hover over ketchup-decorated omelets dished out by young Japanese girls in short skirts.
It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, you watch your fantasy unfold in real life – if only for a short time. At the maid café.
How very Japanese? How very Japanese.
A few notes on visiting maid cafés in Akihabara, Tokyo
Tokyo’s Akihabara district – the center for computer game parlors, electronics, and all things anime – plays host to the greatest concentration of maid cafés. Take a stroll down Chūō-dōri street and you’ll find women in maid outfits on the streets advertising their cafés, each sporting a slightly different outfit or character angle. For the uninitiated, just go with whatever looks like fun, or better yet, make them sell you on the street so you can get a feel for what the café might hold inside.
Once you enter the café, charges will begin to rack up. You’ll pay an entry fee. In our case, how much we paid was based also on the style of seat we chose – community bar, private table or couch – by the hour. Fun, quirky, puzzling, but by no means inexpensive. Most cafes forbid personal photos inside, except of the food. Entry fee for three, a table for one hour, an unremarkable meal of an omelet on rice, two juices and a beer ran about $65.