Fantasy Meet Reality: An Afternoon at a Japanese Maid Cafe

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.

Tokyo Maid Cafe Card - Japan
Membership at a Tokyo Maid Cafe. Interesting.

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.

Akihabara Maid Cafe Women - Tokyo, Japan
Following the bunnies through Akihabara.

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:

MaiDreamin Maid Cafe - Tokyo, Japan
MaiDreamin Maid Cafe – Tokyo

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.

Hello Kitty on Omu-Raisu (Omelet Rice) at a Maid Cafe - Akihabara, Tokyo
Hello Kitty on Omu-Raisu (Omelet Rice) at a Maid Cafe

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.

Dan, Audrey & Soness at the Maid Cafe - Tokyo, Japan
Smiling for the camera at Maidreamin’ Maid Café.

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.

Maids on the Streets of Akihabara - Tokyo, Japan
Maids on the Streets of Akihabara

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.

Disclosure: We extended our stay in Tokyo on our own dime, including this experience above. However, the rest of our trip to Japan was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    Japanese culture is so different from us in the U.S. it’s sometimes to hard wrap your head around the things you see and hear about it. It’s also completely and utterly fascinating. Thanks for the post.. had never heard of this one before!

  2. says

    I like your analysis of maid cafes as fantastic release from the pressures of reality. Having lived in Japan for 5 years and even attending the Japanese school system while I was there, I can totally agree to that. The Japanese society is very conformist, and there is huge societal pressure to be like everyone else.

    Hence, vacations are important for Japanese people. I moved to Guam for a year after living in Japan, and that allowed me to see what Japanese do and how they act when they’re outside their own society. And how different it was. They have a saying, “tabi wa haji shirazu” which broadly translates to “one leaves one’s inhibitions when they travel”. It was so cognitively dissonant to see raucous behavior just because they’re only in Guam for a week. Indeed, it was fantasy away from reality.

  3. says

    Oh my god, I LOVED this post. I sat next to you guys (offered you a mint) at the WDS and it made reading this that much more entertaining. That, combined with the fact that I used to live in Japan and I find it really hard to explain to people the idiosynchracies of the country…you kinda just have to go. I think your analysis is pretty spot on. And overall a highly entertaining walk down memory lane!

  4. Sutapa says

    Very Kafkaesque! Thanks for writing this. I would never have known!

    Having never visited Japan, I could not comment why things like this would exist but you might be right about why.

    One question, though: were the “maids” really teenagers? Isn’t there something about child labor laws? Or did they just look like teenagers?

  5. says

    @escaping: It is different, but perhaps in ways that are both surprising, and obviously difficult to adequately explain.

    @Jeruen: Thanks so much for your comment and perspective, particularly the aspect of conformity. Your observations of Japanese on vacation are also fascinating. However, I suspect your quote applies to a number of cultures who seek travel as a means of escape.

    @Heather: Yes, of course we remember! What’s funny about Japan is how underpinned the culture seems to modernity and all things West. But there’s something more going on, and to your point (and to others who have written in on previous posts), there’s something unique and idiosyncratic to Japan that is very challenging to articulate.

    I’m glad to hear that my attempt to characterize Japan, via the maid cafe, was fair and didn’t entirely miss the mark.

    @Sutapa: The experience certainly defied description. As we understand it, most of the maid cafes employ young women over 18. However, when they reach 21, it’s time to turn in the maid outfit.

  6. says

    Great article, I loved it. It’s only heightened my need to get back to Japan as quickly as possible.

    It does make you think though, this obviously stems from a demand, but whose? Travelers or Locals?

    Happy traveling.

  7. says

    @Stephen: Good question. When it comes to maid cafes, the demand is almost entirely local Japanese folks — at least if our experience was any measure. We were the only foreigners in or around the place.

  8. says

    What a wonderful article with tons of interesting information and experiences about such an incredible and different country as Japan. This article reflects perfectly the necessity to go deeper inside one culture knowing trivial daily things that make you really appreciate the cultural richness of one place.

  9. says

    @Peter: That’s always the hope, to go deeper. Actually, even when it’s not the aim, we can’t help but do it. Travel piques a curiosity: why are things the way they are? Japan and those maid cafes were no different.

  10. Sutapa says

    I love it how they say ‘Omu-Raisu’ (Omelette-Rice) for the dish…unless you gave it a seconds thought, it would just feel like a Japanese dish, although nothing particularly Japanese about Omelette-Rice. :)

  11. says

    Japan is such an interesting and quirky place! Given their deeply rigorous work ethic, it’s understandable that they would need creative outlets to let loose. The maid cafes are a PG-13 way to have a little fun in a culture that celebrates all things cute. (They also have cat cafes where you can drink tea surrounded by dozens of friendly felines.) I can’t wait to go back!

  12. says

    The whole maid cafe phenomenon hadn’t really got going yet when I livid in Japan, so I never experienced one of these places. I don’t think I could have handled it anyway.

    Out of all the places I’ve lived, Tokyo is my favorite and I like a lot of things about the Japanese culture, but the whole “kawaii” (cute) thing did my head in. I can’t stand the high pitched voices and women acting like little girls and it sounds like these cafes are the epitome of that part of the Japanese culture.

  13. says

    @Sutapa: Funny. Exotic is in the eye of the beholder.

    @Heather: Yes, the Japanese pet rentals. We’ve heard of the cat cafes, dog rental agencies, too.

    @Daniel: “The whole kawaii (cute) thing did my head in…” I’m laughing. Completely understand.

  14. says

    LOL. Make me wonder if I could handle Japan though. I know it is a cultural thing but it seems so silly. Oh wait, I guess there are only about 1,000 Americanisms that someone could say the same thing about. OK. I will try but try to laugh along.

  15. says

    I have never seen, nor experienced anything quite like this. Reading about it sounds bizarre and humorous from my outside eyes, but awesome way of explaining about escaping the pressures of daily life. Different cultures and societies around the world will never become boring or old to observe. Well done with the story telling too!

  16. says

    @Mark: Thanks. Trying to explain this (again, without the help of photos of what I’d seen) was a challenge. Also, this is one of those cultural dimensions that on the surface looks straightforward, but after you’ve experienced it, you’re certain there’s something much deeper. Am glad I could capture even a fragment of that.

  17. says

    This. Looks. AMAZING! I’m surprised there’s not something similar in Korea (or at least, not as far as I’m aware). I like your analysis at the end as to why Japanese society seems to be so obsessed with fantasy and escapism and how it manifests itself in these kinds of ways.

    By the way, your maid did an impressive job with the ketchup Hello Kitty.

  18. says

    @Tom: Glad this is something new. When you get a chance, check it out.

    I’m pleased to hear that my analysis seems to fit. I had to find a way to channel my confusion!

    Here’s to Hello Kitty in ketchup!

  19. says

    Wow. This sounds like quite an….interesting experience. No wonder these kinds of stereotypes are perpetuated in America. As a self proclaimed feminist woman, I have to admit the thought of “maid cafes” makes me feel uncomfortable and frustrated. It seems like just another way that women are treated as objects to look at and play with, rather than human beings. Well, I guess America has Hooters, which sounds like a similar concept.

  20. says

    @Ruth: If it’s any consolation, Japan also features “butler cafes” as well. I’m also inclined to think that the objectification at work at Hooters is pretty much driven entirely by sexuality and the body, whereas the emotional workings of the what and why of maid cafes in Japan is less about objectification and — perhaps I’m being romantic about a culture since it happens to be one other than my own — a bit more nuanced.

    @Izy: How about that, your own entourage at every restaurant. Our maid cafe didn’t quite feel like that, but it’s an interesting idea. How about rent your own entourage?

  21. says

    @Audrey: Glad you enjoyed it. Japanese maids and the maid cafe experience, strange and entertaining indeed. We’ll pass on the omelette and rice next time around, unless of course we need another Hello Kitty in ketchup photo.

  22. Wilson says

    I can totally relate to some of your experiences. While I was at Osaka, I stayed with Frasers apartment hotels located smack in the middle of Nankai (great location, I must add), similar to the Akihabara district in Tokyo. There were a couple of cafes in my area, sounding exactly as you described but I never had the time (or the courage) to go in. I am stepping into one the moment I return to Japan again!

  23. says

    What a wild world Japan is!? It sounds like you had a really great time, and an extremely unique and incredible experience!

    I was curious if you felt like your experience was worth the money. You mention a fair amount of erroneous charges: was that annoying or still felt like it was worth it?

    This story seems like it’s right out of a fantasy novel!

    Thanks for the post!

  24. says

    @Wilson: Definitely, on your next visit to Japan, be sure to drop in on a maid cafe. Particularly if you go to a maid cafe outside of Tokyo, we’ll be interested to hear some details about your experience.

    @Travis: In a way, yes. Japan, very organized, but like anywhere in the world, it has its own history, its own culture. We are always thankful for this.

    Was the maid cafe experience worth the money? For our money, not especially. In other words, that’s the advice we’re going to give most people. However, if you are curious, then it might be worth it to you to see and experience it for yourself. From that standpoint, we’re glad we took the opportunity to visit a maid cafe. You never know until you go!

  25. says

    Lived in Tokyo and Osaka, about a year each. I LOVE Japan and would probably live there again. The BEST would be to live in Hawaii in the winter, Yosemite in the Summer, and spend Fall & Spring in Japan. :)

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