In the weeks leading up to my first trip to the world’s largest megacity, I spent quite a bit of time giggling to myself at some of the options that were presenting themselves to me.
It seemed like anything and everything you could think of found a home in some corner of Tokyo.
While wandering the streets of Akihabara on one of my first afternoons in the endless city, I began to notice an unusually high proportion of young girls in maid costumes wandering the streets and cheerfully handing out pamphlets. As I stand on a street corner trying to decypher cryptic signage, I am approached by a young blond in Victorian maid attire. She speaks with a distinctly eastern European accent. I had read about the maid cafes of Tokyo, but hadn’t quite figured them out yet. The girl offers to take me up to the cafe, and although I’m not in the habit of going with strange girls I meet on street corners, curiosity gets the better of me.
She leads me to an elevator in a low-rise building down a short alley. On the way up she explains that she is a Bulgarian student studying Japanese at a local university, and working at the cafe is a good way for her to practice her language skills. The elevator stops, and she leads me into the cafe, where suddenly a number of cute, costumed Japanese girls stop what they’re doing to greet me with a warm konichiwa! This immediately results in a mild amount of awkwardness on my behalf, and after my own fumbling response the girls giggle and return to their tasks.
The Bulgarian maid leads me to a table, which, she explains, was where the Backstreet Boys filmed a music video. I have to get her to repeat herself, but the statement is quickly conformed by the commemorative sticker on the table. Yes, the Backstreet Boys were here. The girl excuses herself and heads back outside to wrangle more customers. Almost immediately a German girl emerges, and says hello. She explains the menu. There’s lunch, but having eaten recently, I opted for a simple piece of cake and a coffee. She tells me that each of the dishes are decorated by the maids. Sure enough, when the food arrives my plate is adorned with cute little characters in chocolate syrup. Tacky? Yes. Adorable? Definitely.
Before I can eat, she explains, she needs to lead me through a chant. Line by line she gets me to repeat a cutesy little recitation, complete with kawaii hand actions. “Now your food will be delicious!” she says after we are done. And with a childlike whirl she leaves me to eat.
The cake is delicious. But it’s not the food that brings people to these cafes. It’s the companionship. The girls are well versed in the art of the adorable, like anime characters brought to life. A little small talk, attentive service, and of course, mildly sexy outfits. But don’t be mistaken–maid cafes are not sexual by nature. Like Akiba itself, it’s about escaping reality for an hour or so. The patrons of this cafe aren’t a gawking horde of single men, but couples and a few pairs of women on their lunch break chatting over coffee.
Before I leave I opt for a photo with one of the maids. For a small fee, you get your picture with a maid who then decorates your polaroid with more cuteness.
And then it’s back to the streets of Akiba, ready and refreshed for another surreal experience on the streets of Tokyo.
Oh, and here’s the Backstreet Boys video, if you’re curious…
Popopure, the maid cafe I visited, can be found here (Japanese).