Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: cafe la vie en rose

With cafe la vie en rose, I've finished off the building that MfactCAFE and Pondichery are all located in. Rose is on the third floor, and is the most relaxed of the 3 places, although it's also the more structured. The space is a little confined, with just enough room to hold 20 people at the dark wooden tables and chairs, and another 3 or 4 at the bar. The walls have a light pink wallpaper with little roses on them, and the place is fairly well-lit. Not a lot of posters or signs on the walls, and the daily special board was actually sitting propped up on the floor to one side.

When I arrived, the two maids talking to some of the customers looked like they really weren't expecting customers at that time. There were 3 guys sitting at the tables, and I was directed to the free table of my choice. One maid brought me a menu in Japanese, and a few minutes later the second maid replaced it with an English menu. They told me about the daily specials, and then one of the maids brought over a notebook for me to write in. It's apparently a personal project and not owned by the cafe itself, but there were some REALLY nice drawings in the notebook, plus a number of written pieces. I drew a small sketch and added a paragraph in English, making me the first person to put anything in English in the book.

Regarding the food, the focus seems to be on the lunch menu, with a variety of entrees and soft drinks. During the evening, the menu largely consists of mixed drinks and beer, but there are pasta and rice dishes in the 1000 yen range and you can choose from 4 or so different toppings for the pasta. Drawings in catsup or mayonnaise on top of the dish is an extra 150 yen. Soft drinks are 500 yen, or 300 as part of an entree or dessert order. The maid cappuccino (hot or cold) is 700 yen. The hot cappuccino consists of a small espresso with steamed milk, and a drawing of your choice on top of the froth in chocolate syrup. Desserts are mostly sponge cakes, in the 700-800 range. I ordered a hot maid cappuccino and a blueberry yogurt cake. Along with the 500 yen maid photo, the total came to 1850 yen. Fortunately, cafe la vie en rose doesn't have a cover charge.

The coffee came out first, as I was writing in the notebook. The maid drew a nice little cat face for me, and placed a stick of sugar on the plate before leaving. The cafe makes a point of enforcing the "no camera" rule, so I didn't even bother asking if I could take a photo of the food. Wouldn't have mattered though, because by the time I could have gotten the camera out, the chocolate had blended into the foam and the cat didn't look so good anymore. I added the sugar, stirred the coffee, and the entire mix tasted pretty good. I just wish it had been served in a bigger cup for the price. Then the cake came out. It was a small slice with plain sponge cake on the bottom, and layers of blueberry yogurt, plain jello and blueberry jello on top. It tasted ok, but again, it was kind of over priced for what you got.

Two of the three guys left pretty quickly, but were then replaced by 4 others about 15 minutes later. The customers were all male, mostly dressed in the standard black "salaryman" suit jacket with white shirt and tie. One of them seemed to know one of the maids, since he brought her some KFC for dinner. The maids were all wearing dark green dresses with white aprons, but it was a mix of summer knee-length skirts and winter ankle-length full dresses. The women were all pretty casual, joking with each other as they worked, one of them calling another "nee-san" (older sister) all the time.

The main attraction for this cafe is the electric piano sitting next to the door. For 1000 yen, you can ask one of the maids to play or sing for several minutes. At one point, when it was just me and one other customer in the cafe, one of the maids sat down at the piano and began playing several fairly complex classical pieces. Then she switched to a j-pop song that she also sang along with. She was really good for the classical music, but struggled when having to play the j-pop song with just her left hand and holding the sheet music in her right. Later, she brought over the camera for taking the maid photo. Here, 500 yen just gets you a photo of the maid. She posed at the piano for me and I ended up taking the shot (usually, with maid photos, the customer is in the photo with the maid and another maid handles the camera) giving me a little more control over how it turned out. A few minutes later, she returned with the customized photo, complete with "egg-chan" in the corner.

There is a points card. 1 point per 1000 yen (1 point per 500 yen for female customers), plus one point if you leave within 60 minutes, and 1 more point if it is raining outside (AKA: "a rain day"). 30 points gives you a standard maid photo, with you included in the shot.

When I was done, my maid walked me to the elevator, and bowed until the doors closed. Overall, I had fun. cafe la vie en rose is a little pricey, but it's a fun place, and if someone else pays for a song, you get to listen to it for free. Definitely worth the visit.

Name: cafe la vie en rose
Location: 3 blocks west of Akihabara JR station past Chuu-ou Dori, in the same building as Pondichery and MfactCAFE, on the third floor.
Price: Moderately high. Prices make up for the lack of a cover charge.
Cover: None.
Food: Extensive lunch menu. Dinner includes various pasta dishes and similar entree items in the 1000 yen range. Soft drinks are 500 yen (300 if ordered with an entree or dessert). Desserts are mostly sponge cakes in the 700 yen range.
"Love": Writing on the entrees in catsup or mayonnaise (for 150 yen extra), and on the cappuccino in chocolate syrup.
Outfits: Dark green dresses with white aprons. Dresses are both knee length and floor length.
Photos: 500 for a photo of just the maid. To get a photo of yourself with a maid, you need to fill up one of the points cards.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: There's a piano in the cafe. For 1000 yen, you can have a maid play the piano and/or sing.
Recommendation: cafe la vie en rose is very relaxed compared to some of the other maid cafes in the area, and the maids have a lot of fun working with each other. They're also pretty good on the piano. The menu items are a bit on the high side, but at least there's no cover charge. It's a fun place to kick back and relax. Recommended.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Maid non-cafes, part 10 - Games Bars

About half of the maid cafes allow you to play a board or video game against one of the maids for 3 minutes for about 500 yen. The games can include the Pirate in a Barrel, seeing who can take out the most red beans from a bowl using chopsticks, and the Chomping Alligator game (pull a tooth from the alligator's mouth until it snaps shut). Winning the game may get you a free maid photo.

And, there are a lot of bars that offer games. But, there are a few maid cafe/bars that are specifically designed for one kind of game like darts or mahjong. Most have a cover charge (usually 500 yen for 1 hour) and none offer cash prizes. If you win anything, it's either an ashtray or a maid photo. (At Akiba Guild, it's the right to *buy* an ashtray.)

I've been to Akiba Guild, which is a fun place to lose $10-$20 at roulette, and Mermaid, which wasn't as much fun. I don't play mahjong so I have no idea when I'd go to MSN or Tempane. I'll eventually get to PSX, after I've gone to the other regular maid cafes. (PSX charges a cover, and I don't like going to places with a cover charge.)

Akiba Guild (Vegas-style gambling games)
Little MSN (Mahjong)
Little PSX (Darts Bar)
Cafe Mermaid (Darts Bar)
Tempane (Mahjong)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review: M-factCAFE

M-factCAFE isn't all that showy or flowery, but it is a nice place to sit and enjoy a cold beer or a hot cup of coffee. It's on the fifth floor of the same building that has Pondichery and cafe la vie en rose, at the west end of Akihabara. Actually, you take the elevator up to the fifth floor, then immediately go up the stairs to the sixth floor where the cafe is (the kitchen is on the fifth floor). The space is split into two seating areas on either side of the stairs. Both areas have small wooden tables and chairs for holding a total 24 people each. When I arrived, there were about 6 guys in one area, the other being used only for taking maid photos. The walls are white enamel, and the space is brightly lit. Large plush dolls from various UFO Catcher machines line the window sills. Posters of various young women ("idols") line the walls. The tables themselves have little clear plastic sleeves at one corner to hold manga sketches identifying the table numbers. J-pop plays on the speakers in the background.

The first time I tried visiting, which was on a Tuesday, M-fC was closed, so I ended up going to Pondichery instead. Looking at the hours listed on the door, I couldn't quite figure out why they weren't open then. So, I came back the following day and got inside with no problems. Normally, one of the maids will be waiting next to the elevator, or going back and forth from the kitchen, to be able to guide customers up to the sixth floor. But, they were all busy with orders when I arrived so no one noticed me until I'd gotten up to the register area. There, I was given the standard "welcome home, master" greeting, shown to the table and given a small laminated card with the menu on it in Japanese. None of the maids tried speaking English to me.

I can't say anything about the lunch service, but for the evening, M-fC is primarily a bar, serving "original maid cocktails", beer and soft drinks. The food entrees consist solely of omelet rice and hayashi rice (the poster outside the building implies that you can have the maid write something on the rice in catsup, but I didn't ask). Along with the regular sodas, they also offer "high end" teas, with the featured tea being Earl Grey, and three different coffees, including Blue Mountain. The desserts consist of some sponge cakes, and french toast. I've seen a number of cafes now that list french toast as a dessert item (I grew up with it as something part of a breakfast set) and I finally broke down and ordered it this time, just to have something to eat with my coffee.

The hand-drip coffee was featured fairly prominently on the menu, so I wanted to see how they'd handle this. First, the maid came over with a small glass carafe with a cloth filter sitting on top, and the ground coffee already in the filter. Then she slowly poured hot water from a small pot over the grounds. The entire process took several minutes, so I started out asking her what M-fC's primary attraction is (contrasted with Mermaid's darts bar and Akiba Itchome's performance stage) and she replied, "probably the coffee". Of course, I then had to follow up this with "most Japanese prefer tea, do you like coffee?" and she immediately shook her head, saying that it's too bitter. We continued talking for a while. Then, when all of the water had been poured into the carafe, she went to get a coffee cup, sugar and creamer. She poured the coffee from the carafe to the cup, laid the cup, creamer and sugar sticks out on the table and left. By this time, the coffee had started to cool down, but it was still pretty good. No guarantees it really was Blue Mountain, but they charged the same for it as for the two other blends on the menu. One comment: in Japan, Blue Mountain is often abbreviated to "Blue Man".

Then the french toast arrived. They have two flavors - regular and cocoa. I got the cocoa. It consisted of 4 large, thick slices of bread coated in egg batter with chocolate powder mixed in and then grilled, with chocolate syrup and powdered sugar sprinkled on top. The bread had been soaked in the batter and was still soggy inside. But, it was just like eating fried donuts with a liquid chocolate pudding center, so it was pretty good. It was also pretty filling. With the coffee at 800 yen, the french toast for 700, and a maid photo at 500, the evening came to 2000 yen (about $22 USD). A bit on the high side, but still typical for a maid cafe. At least there was no cover.

When I arrived, there were two businessmen drinking beer, and a couple others having coffee. Later, an otaku carrying a guitar arrived to get a beer, and a younger guy in straight street clothes came in for coffee. No female customers at that point. I was running a little tight on time, so I only stayed for 45 minutes. The maids, realizing that I was in a hurry went out of their way to ensure that I got out when I wanted to. Otherwise, they would have been happy letting me stay and talk for as long as I wanted. The staff here was much more open and accessible than Pondichery had been.

For the maid photo, we went to the other seating area and I was told to stand on one side of the tree and do the heart pose again. It's looking like more cafes are settling for the heart pose as the standard default for maid photos now. Afterwards, the photo was embellished and brought to my table. I was also given a points card and asked for my birthday. It's 1 point per 1000 yen. 20 points gets you a free soft drink and a "message card". 40 points gets an unspecified present. I'm not sure I want to spend $400 just to find out what the message card and present are. But, M-fC does make a nice meeting place for sitting around and drinking beer, so if you want to become a regular here, getting the points card is a decent perk. And, if you bring the card in on your birthday, you get a free cake and a message card, or something.

Because I did need to leave quickly to get to work, as soon as my receipt arrived I got up, put on my jacket, grabbed my backpack and headed for the stairs. All three maids were busy with other tasks and none of them noticed me go. But, as I was near the bottom of the stairs, my maid let out a "are, mou inai?" ("what, he's already gone?") and she raced down the stairs to tell me "please be careful, master" and to bow me out when I got on the elevator. Overall, I enjoyed myself here, and wouldn't mind coming back.

Name: M-factCAFE
Location: West of Akihabara JR station 3 blocks, on the 5th floor of the building with Pondichery. Across the street from Mai Dreamin' 2 and Akiba Itchome Theater.
Price: Moderate.
Cover: No cover, but you are asked to order something off the menu every hour or so.
Food: Limited menu. Entries consist only of omelet rice and hayashi rice; soft drinks; mixed drinks; beer and desserts. Specialties are the Earl Grey tea, and the drip coffee, at around 800 yen.
"Love": Standard "welcome home, master", and "please be careful" chants. Writing on the rice plates in catsup.
Outfits: Dark blue dresses with white aprons.
Photos: 500 yen for a maid photo.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: I specifically asked what M-factCAFE's specialty is, and the maid answered "the coffee". For the most part, in the evening, M-factCAFE is a bar that has a limited menu list. So, the idea is to sit down, have fun with your friends, drink and talk to the maids. However, the coffee is very good, and is prepared at the table in a special drip carafe.
Recommendation: M-factCAFE has a simple concept - put cute girls in maid outfits and have them serve beer, and good tea and coffee. It's very similar in look and feel to Mai Dreamin', except there's fewer food items on the menu. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Maid non-cafes, part 9 - Gambling

Gambling for money is frowned upon in Japan. While for the most part it's considered illegal, the law is enforced sporadically, if at all. Pachinko parlor, which are usually run by the Yakuza, get around the law by doing two things. First, they pay out the winnings in candy bars, packs of cigarettes and cans of beer. Each item has a fixed yen value. Second, they move the payout window a short distance from the parlor, and exchange the chocolate, beer and tobacco for cash. So, no one *directly* wins money from the parlors, but they still get their cash payouts somehow.

In Akihabara, though, the maid casinos definitely do NOT pay for cash You get the chance to buy branded items (laminated cards or ash trays), and you can advance up the rankings to become top dog of the casino's gambling set. The two casinos I know of so far are Guild, and Tenpane. I don't play Mahjong, so I don't know when I'll visit there. Guild could be considered to be a maid cafe that offers a chance to play poker against the maids, except that no one's there for the food. Instead, this is a casino that offers snacks and drinks while you play poker, roulette and baccarat.

Akiba Guild (Casino)
Tenpane (Mahjong)

Just as I was about to write up this entry, the Metropolis decided to run Galbraith's latest drivel. The caption "Japanese fanboys are discovering that luck, too, is a lady" is particularly insulting to everyone involved. Maid casinos have been around for a while, so it's not like they're being "discovered" now (except maybe by Galbraith himself). Most people visiting Akiba Guild are businessmen or office ladies. You don't see the classic "okatu" (as defined by Galbraith as being a socially inept male college student who's only interested in anime, manga or video games). And, the focus of the article is on pachinko parlors that are now installing machines that are designed to attract anime fans - of course, if you target a specific market, you're going to see more of that market arriving for your product or service. In this case, the idea is to get video game fans to come in to spend their money in the parlors rather than at video game stores. Thing is, this isn't a new idea either; anime-based pachinko machines have been around for years and you can find them all over Japan, not just in Akihabara. If Galbraith had just focused on reviewing the machines and stayed away from commenting on the people there to play them, he might have had something to write about.

Read at your own risk.

Otaku Gambling

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review: at-Sweet - RIP

Edit - @Sweet seems to have closed its doors as of early July.


I'll come right out and say that I had fun at @Sweet and hope that more people visit there. But, that I'm a little selfish and would rather keep the place to myself. To be honest, they're on the third floor of the maid-themed UFO Catcher arcade at Kandamyojin Dori, one block west of Chuu-ou Dori.

@Sweet just opened a couple of weeks ago, and it's still trying to build up a clientele. Because of this, I was the only customer that Wednesday night. Normally, I'm hesitant to enter an empty restaurant, but I'm glad I did this time. The maids were more than willing to talk to me, and we spent the entire hour chatting and I got to hear a lot of free music.

The room is fairly wide, with a small stage in the center and the counter bar built in a "u" to face the stage. There's a small synthesizer in the middle, and one of the maids played and sang j-pop songs while taking requests from the rest of the staff. I'm not sure if they normally charge per song like cafe la en vie rose does, but it was free that night. The room is well-lit, and the tables are white formica, with seating for about 30 people. Don't remember if there were any posters or photos on the walls. I received the standard "welcome home master" greeting and was invited to sit at the counter, closest to the stage.

The lunch sets all run 1000 yen, and include a drink and salad, plus curry rice, spaghetti or hamburg steak. For dinner, the entrees are in the 800-1000 yen range, and are the same selection as for lunch but with the addition of omelet rice. The drinks are 500 yen, 700 for a cappuccino with something written on it in chocolate syrup, and 700 yen for floats (basically adding a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream to any one of the soft drinks). Sponge cakes are 500 yen. Maid photos are 500 yen, and you can play a game against the maid for 500 yen for a few minutes. I ordered a hot coffee, spaghetti with carbonara sauce and a maid photo. Even with the 600 yen cover, the total only came out to 2300 yen, which wasn't too bad. The coffee arrived in a small cup, with the sugar and cream on a separate tray. The spaghetti came out a little later. The serving wasn't all that large, but it was filling and the sauce was very good.

Normally, the maid photo is taken towards the end of the meal, when the maids have a break between bringing out orders. This time, though, the photo was taken almost immediately. My maid asked me what pose I wanted, and before I could ask for suggestions, offered the "heart pose with back to the camera" shot, which I liked. A little later, she returned with the embellished photo, asking if it was ok. My impression is that we could have taken another shot if this one wasn't good enough I was amused by the way she wrote the date and the name of the cafe, coming up with "sweet 16". She hadn't realized what she'd done, and then ran around telling the rest of the staff about "@sweet 16" (which may become some kind of event later on).

As we were talking, I suddenly found myself being given "presents", including an @sweet keychain, and name cards for the maids. I also received the points card and a flier explaining the system. The point cards are kind of similar to what @home uses, except with @home it's one point per visit, and you upgrade from bronze to silver status after 5 points. With @sweet, it's one point per visit, 1 per maid game and 1 per maid photo. 15 points takes you from pearl level to emerald (50 to sapphire, 100 to ruby, 500 to diamond and 999 to "legend"). With pearl, the cover charge is 600 yen, and it drops to 400 yen at emerald, then 300 at sapphire, 200 at ruby and then after that it's no cover. The presents for reaching each new level include free maid photos, post cards and the like, but the flier only describes up to ruby level and there's no mention of the card on the website.

There's also going to be a Christmas event from Dec. 19 to the 25th, including laminated cards and dessert specials, and I'll try going back this Saturday for that. I definitely had fun, and I think that maids kind of forgot that I was a customer because as I was leaving, they suddenly realized that they needed to give me the "please be careful" chant and to bow me out. I hope that they get a lot busier and start bringing in more customers soon. Just not while I'm there...

(Points card, Pearl.)

Name: @Sweet
Location: Kandamyojin Dori, about one block west of Chuu-ou Dori, above the maid-styled UFO Catcher shop, third floor.
Price: Moderate
Cover: 600 yen lets you stay 90 minutes.
Food: 1000 yen lunch sets (hamburg steak, curry rice, spaghetti); for dinner, entrees in the 800-1000 yen range include curry rice, omelet rice, spaghetti, and hamburg steak. Soft drinks are 500 yen, ice cream floats are 700 yen. No beer or mixed drinks on the menu.
"Love": Writing on the cappuccino and omelet rice. Standard greetings when you arrive and leave.
Outfits: No standardized uniforms. The website shows a black dress with white apron, but only one maid had that combination when I was there.
Photos: 500 yen.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: @Sweet is still very new, and I think it's trying to find its niche. At the moment, the focus is on singing and playing the synthesizer.
Recommendation: I had a blast here. The cover is bit higher than most other places that charge one, but the food prices are lower as a result. It was a slow night, so the staff spent all their time talking to me and taking song requests. The food was good, too. Definitely recommended.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Maid non-cafes, part 8 - Goods Shops

(Usagi no Jinja)

It's a little tricky, trying to decide what a "goods shop" is or isn't. My initial sense was that we're talking about souvenirs, which immediately includes Usagi no Jinja and Maid Club. But just about every maid cafe has some kind of souvenir available, such as laminated cards, pins or CDs. The @Home chain has a shop attached to the cafe in the Donkey building that could be considered a large display stand that's just an extension of the cafe, but it is listed separately as a goods shop on the Akihabara maps, so I'm adding it here. Then we have Cosmate, one of several shops that sells anime character costumes as well as maid uniforms. Other shops specialize in contact lenses, wigs, boots and so on, but unless the items are sold by maids, I won't include them here. On the other hand, a new shop just opened up last week called Jeans Mate, which is a 24 hour shop with souvenirs on the first 2 floors, and clothes on floors 3-5, and it's attended by maids. I love Akihabara.

Goods shops:
@Home Shop (@Home goods)
Akiba Usagi no Jinja (General souvenirs)
Maid Club (General souvenirs)
Cosmate (costumes and supplies)
Jeans Mate (Souvenirs and street clothes)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Pondichery

Pondichery is a combined cafe and reflex shop located in with the same cluster of cafes as Pash Cafe Nagomi, Mai Dreamin' 2 and Akiba Itchome Theater. In fact, it's right across the street from them, on the 4th floor of the building that also holds M-factCAFE and cafe la vie en rose. The name apparently derives from the French spelling of a city in India that still has remnants of the French occupation.

As you come in through the door, you're greeted with the "welcome back master" chant, and are requested to put on a pair of slippers. To the left is a small group of little cubicles with thin cloth curtains drawn closed for the reflexology (essentially just hand and foot massages) and to the right is the cafe. The entire space is maybe only 30-40 feet long, so any strange grunting sounds would be easily heard by everyone there. And, there were no strange grunting sounds.

The cafe space is kind of cramped, and dimly-lit (candles at all the tables) with a bar that holds 3 people, and round wooden tables and chairs for another 7 seats. There's lots of anime and manga paraphernalia on the side tables and walls, with a collection of books for those that want something to read. The bar has a selection of liquors for the mixed drinks, and a tiny kitchen area. There were three maids that night, two working the cafe and one on the reflex side. No real uniforms; one was in a kind of school uniform and the other two had goth-lolli outfits with big, heavy rubber-soled boots. None of them tried speaking English to me, and the menu was only in Japanese.

The menu was printed on four small laminated cards. The food list consisted simply of curry rice, omelet rice and some pasta (in the 1000 yen range), soft drinks (around 500 yen), mixed drinks (600 yen) and beer (700 yen) and desserts (various sponge cakes, 700 to 800 yen). Most of the items have a "maid special" variation where you're paying an extra 100 yen to have the item customized for you by the maid of your choice. I decided to get a hot coffee, a maid dessert and a maid photo. With the 500 yen cover for a 90 minute stay, the total came to about 2400 yen ($26). Fairly pricey for what you get, and they neglected to give me both the receipt and the points card.

Probably the highlight of the evening was the preparation of the coffee. Pondichery uses a vacuum brewer, which is essentially a pair of pyrex flasks suspended over a sterno flame. Water in the bottom flask is heated to boiling and the resulting pressure forces the water up a pyrex tube through the chamber holding the coffee grounds up into the top flask. When the heat is removed, the vacuum pulls the water down into the bottom flask again and the brewing is done. The maid making the coffee apparently was a new-hire and she'd never done this on her own before. She stood watching the process, repeating "sugoi" (wow) over and over again. But, when it came time to put the cover over the sterno flame, she panicked, expecting to get burned. Then, she brought the coffee over, poured in the cream and sugar and stirred it for me. Unfortunately, she probably didn't pack in enough coffee to start with, because it was kind of watery. Hopefully, she'll get it right with practice.

The dessert was a small molten chocolate fudge cake, and the customization consisted of putting dollops of whip cream on the plate, topped with honey. The cake was a thick, heavy unsweetened chocolate and the whip cream-honey flavor complemented it quite well. The only thing missing would have been a glass of cold milk. So, the cake was good, and the coffee just marginal. When it came time for the photo, we walked out to the space in front of the elevator, and the maid spent about a minute trying to get my hand to do the heart shape properly. A few minutes later, the photo was fully embellished.

About the time I was getting ready to leave, a group of 8 people arrived and tried to get into the cafe. There were already 5 of us there at the time (a young couple at one table, two guys at the bar and one other guy playing video games at another table; one guy was an obvious otaku, one may have been an artist, and the video game player was a businessman in an expensive suit. The male half of the couple looked like a dandied-up college student and his girlfriend looked like she spent a lot of time shopping in Harajuku). The couple left and 3 members of the party came into the cafe to take their table; the others may have gone to cafe la vie en rose 1 floor down.

Pondichery does have an online site, but there's no menu list and no description of the points card. Because I wasn't offered a points card on my way out, I can't scan it and upload it here.

Overall, Pondichery is a nice little place to just sit and chat with friends, or play games on your PSP at the table. The staff is not overly chatty, but the smaller space does make the cafe feel more "cozy". The menu prices are a little on the high side and the cover inflates the total. The dessert was good, and maybe the coffee will improve with time.

Name: Pondichery
Location: West of the Akihabara JR station 3 blocks, across the street from Pash Cafe Nagomi and Akiba Itchome Theater, on the 4th floor.
Price: Moderately high.
Cover: 500 yen lets you stay 90 minutes.
Food: A small selection of entrees (curry rice, omelet rice and pasta), drinks and beer, and desserts. The molten chocolate fudge cake was good.
"Love": Standard welcome and goodbye chants, writing on your food, maids stir your coffee for you, and the maids shake your mixed drink for you at your table.
Outfits: No standard outfit while I was there.
Photos: 500 yen for a maid photo.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: This is a reflex and cafe combo, where you can get a reflexology session on one side of the room, or vacuum brewed coffee and food on the other.
Recommendation: Pondichery is kind of limited on space, only able to seat 10 people in the cafe at a time.But, it is cozy, and it's a nice place to sit and chat with friends over a beer. Recommended.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Maid non-cafes, part 7 - Izakaya

An izakaya is a distinctly Japanese form of pub, where the focus is on groups of people gathering to drink, and finger food gets served on the side. You order the food by the plate, but the plate sizes can be large enough to serve 4 or 12 people (party platters), and it's often very greasy dishes to offset the alcohol. The most commonly consumed beverage is beer, but you can also expect sake, whiskeys and mixed drinks to be on the menu. The idea is to create a party atmosphere, which is why many companies will hold their year-end events (bonenkai) at izakayas. And that's when things get crazy.

There's no real maid izakaya per se. Little TGV is based on a train chaser theme (staff dressed up as station personnel, with the menu items named after stations on various train lines), and Little BSD has the staff dressing up as various anime or manga characters. I have reviewed Little TGV before, but I want to list Maid Izakaya separately because these places aren't exactly cafes. There's no dinner menu, and they do advertise themselves for hosting group parties. As can be seen from the name, they belong to the same umbrella company and are just across the street from each other.

Little BSD
Little TGV

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Akiba Itchoume Theater

For those of you not really familiar with how addresses work in Japan, one "cho" ("丁") is a group of city blocks, and "me" ("目") is attached to the end of block numbers. As you travel along a specific street, you go from "itchome" (district 1), "nichome" (district 2), "sanchome" (district 3) and so on. So, Akiba Itchome Gekijou can be treated as "the theater in Akihabara district 1".

Akiba Itchome Theater (AIT) is a "maidoru cafe" (a play on "maid" and "idol") where the maids sing and dance on the small stage at the back of the cafe. To find it, go out the west side of Akihabara JR station and follow the tracks west 2 blocks past Chuu-ou Dori (to the next street light), turn right and at the next intersection turn right again. It'll be about 50-60 feet down, on the first floor. Right before Cafe Mermaid and Pash Cafe Nagomi, and in the same building as Mai Cure. In fact, AIT and Mai Cure share the same website. AIT is the cafe side, and Mai Cure offers reflexology. The cafe is in a long, narrow space, with the kitchen in the middle on one side, counter seating on the other, and about 4 tables plus the stage at the back. If you come during a week night evening, try to sit towards the back, so it will be easier to participate in the group games.

I arrived at 6 PM on a Tuesday, and things were still kind of quiet, the guy running the kitchen was out front preparing to hand out fliers, and was very eager to get me to come inside. The second I stepped in, I was handed over to one of the two maids working at that time and she gave me the standard "welcome home, master" greeting while walking me to the counter. There were two other guys sitting at the back; one left soon afterward but a third guy came in a few minutes later. All three were young salarymen in business suits. I was handed an English menu, which had a few mistakes in the prices and only listed about half the available food items; my maid referred to the Japanese menu for the correct prices. We chatted for a while and then she took my order and headed for the kitchen. Maybe it was the fact that the space is kind of restricted or that there were so few customers, but the two maids were both very friendly and willing to talk during slack periods. They did try using English off and on, but they were obviously much happier when speaking in Japanese.

(Front of "idol card".)

There's a small TV up in one corner of the ceiling, playing different anime each day. This time, it was Miyazaki's "Spirited Away", with the sound turned off. In the background were various J-pop songs. My cafe latte was brought out, and the maid poured the sugar in for me and stirred the cup, saying that the coffee was very "oishii", She was right - it was good coffee. Then she delivered my "tiramisu cake". In reality, cakes in Japan tend to be simple sponge cakes with various flavorings. So, my "tirimisu cake" was nothing more than a thin slice of chocolate sponge cake with chocolate frosting, some cream frosting in between the layers, and a dusting of bitter chocolate on top. It was still pretty good, though. Just not a real tiramisu.

(Back of "idol card".)

At 6:15, my maid came up to ask if I knew "janken" (rock-paper-scissors). After giving me a short demonstration, the maid got up on stage and ran through a short routine with various poses and the name of the cafe thrown in, followed by jan-ken-pon. One of the other customers won, and received a free maid photo using his own cell phone camera. A little after 6:30, we all gathered near the stage again, this time for the night's "mini live". Each mini-live varies from night to night (Wednesday, it's a maid cook-off) and this one was a dice game against the second maid. In the first round, everyone rolls one die; in the second, two dice; and 3 dice in the final round. Person with the highest total wins. I tied with the guy that had won the janken, which the maids claimed had never happened before. We had a 1-die roll off tie breaker and the other guy won another free maid photo.

AIT is pretty free with the maid photos. One shot with the maid of your choice is 420 yen ($5 USD), and 2 photos are 735 yen. Winning an event or maid game is another photo, and if you fill up an "idol card" (getting the signature of the same maid on three separate nights within 1 month) is another photo. I did get a photo, which was taken at a small space near the door, rather than at the stage. My maid just suggested the "peace sign pose" so that's what we went with. 525 each for the coffee and cake, 420 for the photo and 315 yen for the cover charge, for a 1837 yen total (about $20 USD). (Actually, there was another 210 yen charge for some odd reason, but I was then given a 158 yen discount for some other reason, which resulted in a slight 55 cent boost to the total.)

(Event card)

They don't really have a point card per se. Instead, you get one stamp on the events card for each mini live, event or maid game you participate in. 20 stamps and you get some kind of present (not explained on the card). I didn't see anyone challenging the maids to a board game or asking them to sing a song while I was there, but both are available for roughly another 500 yen each.

AIT was definitely one of the more fun maid cafes I've been to in a while, and it didn't feel like the maids were having as much trouble understanding me as has happened elsewhere. I recommend looking at the events list before going, in case there's something in specific being advertised that you want to watch.

Name: Akiba Itchoume Theater
Location: West of Akihabara JR station about 4 blocks, and north 1 short block. Right next door to Pash Cafe Nagomi and Cafe Mermaid. On the first floor.
Price: Moderate
Cover: 300 yen lets you stay 1 hour.
Food: A small selection of entrees (chicken rice and chahan, 630 yen; omelet rice, 1155 yen); soft drinks (500-600 yen; add 100 yen for the float version); 900 yen for the maid cocktails.
"Love": Standard "welcome home master" and "take care leaving, master" chants, and writing of your choice on the omelet.
Outfits: Blue top over a white blouse, and blue skirt.
Photos: 420 yen for 1 photo with a maid; 735 for 2 photos.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Akiba Itchoume is kind of a performance theater, where the maids sing on stage, and there are little rock, paper, scissors and dice games held throughout the game where the winner gets a free maid photo.
Recommendation: In terms of just kicking back and having fun, Akiba Itchoume is one of the most relaxed cafes I've been to in months (the last one that was this much fun was Mai Dreamin' 2). The maids are very willing to chat, and there are occasional free games that can net you a free maid photo. For 500 yen, you can ask a maid to sing on stage, or play a board game for 3 minutes. Each night there is a different event, such as the maid cooking performance on Wednesday nights. Highly recommended.