Akihabara: ground zero for the weird & whacky otaku Japan that exists mostly in the fantasies of nerds who love manga & anime or shitty J-pop music. It’s niche rather than representative, but it’s an interesting little corner of Tokyo to visit at least once.
The vast majority of Japan simply isn’t like that, but Akihabara (aka Akiba) is where you find a Pokemon shop next to a porn DVD shop next to an Evangelion figurine shop next to a dildo shop next to an electronics shop next to an AKB48 shop, all drenched in the neon glow of anime dreams (don’t know what AKB48 is? Ignorance is bliss, but here you go). And out on the street in front of all that you’ll see the girls in French maid outfits touting for business.
The business in question isn’t anything of the red light nature, though it often has a (somewhat misunderstood) seedy reputation among those foreign tourists who’ve heard of it. A maid cafe is basically just a cafe where your food & drink is served by waitresses in French maid outfits. Apart from the outfits and the garish decor (think children’s play area with everything in bright primary colours), the main difference is that the maids play games or pose for silly polaroids with you, and sometimes give dance performances miming along to CDs of the breathlessly giddy bubble gum that is J-pop.
The only creepy thing you might see there is some of the other customers – solo grown men paying to play Connect 4 with young girls in maid costumes. But whatever their internal motivations, they really are just paying to play Connect 4. In 2008 a social misfit drove a rental truck into the crowd in Akiba before jumping out and going on a knife rampage in what is remembered as the Akihabara Massacre, and it’s definitely a place for misfits.
But it’s also a place where people don’t have to be as uptight as usual, in what is mostly a very uptight city – e.g. see the video at the bottom of this post. Maid cafes aren’t a sex industry business, but that said, it can definitely be an awkward and weird experience if you go to one as a non-Japanese speaking tourist. You’re certainly welcome to visit and they do their best to accommodate (they may or may not have English-speaking maids available), but you can expect the whole thing to be rather baffling.
It helps to have an idea in advance how it works – essentially you pay for a fixed amount of time in the cafe, and the price depends on which menu set you choose. You basically have to choose a drink (coffee, tea, fruit juice, simple alcoholic drinks), and you can also take a food option but don’t expect anything great – for example, an omelette served on rice with a big smiley tomato ketchup face on top. The cakes are probably the best bet if you want a bite to eat.
The other thing you select from the menu is which games or other extras you want to do with the maids. By which I mean stuff like having them sit and play a game with you, or posing for a polaroid photo together while you wear some comedy moose antlers. That sort of thing. You basically pay the maids to do comical stuff with you, and definitely no sexy stuff.
First time I went, I took the cup of tea and polaroid photo set, resulting in the monkey ears photo at the top of this post (my mate Paul got the moose antlers). Note that you’re not allowed to take photos inside, so the polaroid option is the only way to get a memento (we got these pics at the maid cafe called Maid Dreamin, which has multiple locations in Akihabara; their flyering staff should be easy enough to find near the station).
I’ve been to a maid cafe 3 times, all in Akiba (there are also a few across town in Ikebukuro and down in Osaka’s Den Den Town). The first time was great fun with a mixed group of guys & girls, Japanese & foreigners; the next time was with my American friend when he first moved to Tokyo and fancied checking one out, and last time I went was with friends (a British-American couple) visiting from Korea who again fancied checking one out. To be honest those second two visits were just weird and awkward, and if you go without any Japanese speakers in your group you can probably expect the same.
But yeah that first time was genuinely fun. We all ordered different things, and each was served with a different set of instructions – I was told she would pour the milk in my tea until I told her to stop, but the way I had to do that was bunch my hands on top of my head like cat ears and say “neko neko” in a squeaky voice (neko means cat). Someone else ordered a fruit shake, which involved repeating a series of actions and words the maid did & said while she made the drink in a cocktail shaker. We just all had a good laugh at each other doing all this ridiculous nonsense, and I guess it was fun because we were a decent size mixed group – it definitely helps to go with Japanese friends who can explain exactly what the fuck is going on.
So should you go to a maid cafe? Well it’s nowhere anywhere near the top of the list of cool things to do in Tokyo, but sure, if you’re curious there’s no reason not to. Just don’t expect it to be anything fantastic, and do expect it to be quite a baffling experience. And if you want a stupid picture of yourself like mine up top, you now know where to get it.
For something a bit more – for want of a better word – adult to do in Akihabara, go and check out the old Manseibashi Station just over the bridge. It was a grand old train station bombed out in the war, and the surviving base structure has now been renovated as a kind of artsy shopping centre with a couple of nice cafes and a craft brewery. The Chuo Line trains continue to run right over the top of it, and it’s quite reminiscent of similar places you see in post-industrial northern English cities like Leeds and Manchester. More info on Manseibashi here (along with a few other ideas for random things to do in Tokyo)
And finally check out the Tokyo Dance Trooper video. The first shot is in Akihabara, and when the maids all join in dancing with him on the crossing (the same crossing where the massacre occurred) I think that was genuinely spontaneous:
If you dig Japanese anime, check out my post here about post-apocalyptic future Tokyos
Japan travel guide here
Any questions about maid cafes? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you