Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Introduction to Maid Cafes

Maid Cafes are one of the primary tourist draws in Akihabara, an area that's about 6 blocks square in Tokyo, surrounding the Akihabara JR train station. According to one guide, there were at least 80 "maid cafes" as of about November, 2008. I put "maid cafes" in quotes because not all of the listed places followed the same pattern of girls wearing maid outfits and greeting customers with "Welcome Home, master". The Heidi Cafe and Goods Shop, as an example, was an authorized shop connected to Studio Ghibli's "Heidi, Girl of the Alp" children's anime TV show, and the staff wore 1800's Swiss period costumes. They greeted the customers with a plain "irasshai" (welcome). Unfortunately they closed their doors last December, but the point is that not all cosplay coffee shops are the same, but they have been all classified together.

This blog is intended to be a record of my visits to some of the maid cafes in Akihabara. It's going to be a slightly expensive hobby, but I'm hoping to review one cafe per week, with new entries going up each Friday (or, the following Monday or Tuesday at the latest).

What are Maid Cafes?
The general definition is that these are small coffee shops or sit-down restaurants that serve soft drinks and possibly a limited food menu, where the staff is all female, and are all dressed up as maids. Again, as part of the definition, the maids greet you as you walk in with "welcome home, master", and send you out the door with "master, please take care" (or, "master, please return again soon").

Are Maid Cafes demeaning to women?
There's kind of a myth that the employees at maid cafes are being put on display to be oogled, and that most of them dislike the work. That may be true in some cases, but you'd find the same attitude among workers at McDonald's or WalMart. This is the kind of job where you go into it knowing that you're going to be on display, and as long as everything remains fun and light-hearted, and the money is good, you're going to enjoy it.

Are Maid Cafes really "all that"?
If all you want to do is get something to eat or drink and then move on, you'll probably not like going to a maid cafe. Prices for a cup of coffee or a glass of soda can be about 600 yen ($6 USD, no refills), and a simple plate with rice and an egg on top is 1200 to 1400 yen ($12-$14). Lunch can easily run $25. So, yes, these places are much more expensive than a regular fast food joint, and the food's not all that special. Simply from a "dollar value" viewpoint, you're better off going somewhere else.

Why go to a Maid Cafe?
If the food is so expensive, why go? Answer: This is performance art. Dinner theater. You go to be entertained. The staff treats you nicely, and for a while you can pretend that you actually do have a fleet of maids attending to you.

But, the customers are all geeks and needy, old men.
Actually, about half of the customers that I've seen so far are young businessmen looking for a place for a coffee break. The rest are a cross-section of tourists, college students and, yes, some geeks. Not that many guys over 40, though.

But, the customers are just guys.
In a recent interview at one cafe, they said that about 30% of their customers are women.

But, the staff only speaks Japanese, and I don't.
A few cafes have English-speakers on staff. One place had a woman from Spain, and another from New York. But, yes, some places are Japanese-only. But, if you try to make yourself understood in Japanese, they'll go out of your way to help you out.

Aren't they all alike?
This is where we get into something called "marketing". If all the cafes were the same, there'd be no reason to go to any one in particular, except that it's the closest one to you. Therefore, at least a few of the cafes differentiate. Popopure in specific advertises itself as an "animation studio and maid cafe". The staff has created at least three of their own short anime titles, and for 1500 yen you can voice one of the characters yourself and get a copy of the DVD afterwards. As mentioned above, the Heidi Club cafe was also a goods shop for the "Heidi" TV series (it moved locations and eventually turned into strictly a goods shop). And, part of the reason for starting this blog up is to throw a spotlight on some of the cafes that really stand out for one reason or another.


Next time, some Do's and Don'ts.

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