Sunday, May 31, 2009

Akiba Guide Book

The Hiragana Times magazine (for those of you unfamiliar with it), is dedicated to teaching Japanese through dual-track English/Japanese articles. Each article has one paragraph in English followed by its Japanese equivalent. The paragraphs aren't always word-for-word identical since there's often information given in the Japanese version that's missing in the English paragraph. But, the articles are generally Japan-specific, and occasionally deal with anime and manga-related topics.

(Ad for the Akiba Guide Book, from the website, used for review purposes only.)

One such topic in the May, 2009 issue is the "Akiba Guide Book". Apparently, author and self-publisher Toshimichi Nozoe realized that there weren't any guide books to Akihabara in English, so he set out to interview tourists about what they wanted to see and the problems they were having in getting around, and then he compiled a list of "best-of" shops for various categories. He published this book himself as the "Akiba Guide Book". The book uses "moe" (cute and sexy) manga characters to lead you through the various kinds of shops and to illustrate the walking routes to selected shops from each category (not all shops are included in the book).

Of interest here is the section on maid cafes. The featured shop is @Home, which has several locations around Akihabara, both on Chuu-Ou Dori near Popopure, and across the street from the UDX building in the Donkioti Building (think Don Quixote). I'll tackle one of the @Home cafes next.

The paper copy of the guide can only be purchased from within Japan, but the online download is available for $10. There's no way a paper book can remain up to date with all of the new shops opening and going out of business, so it's best to treat this as a simple starting point for your travels. But, if you need a guide book to work from, this is one of the few (if not only) for Akihabara in English.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Review: Popopure

I'll be honest - I had a specific motive for visiting Popopure for my first maid cafe for this blog. The Metropolis (the weekly English rag in Tokyo), had run an interview with a Spanish woman working as a maid, and on a hunch I decided to follow the URL given at the end of the article. Their website billed themselves as an "animation studio and maid cafe". Being a fan of a wide variety of animation from different countries, I wanted to know more. So, last Wednesday, when I had a little time before the start of work, I swung by, half-ready to call the whole thing off. But, it was close to 6 PM and I hadn't had lunch, so "why not".

(The front of the building, with ad banners.)

A tall blond woman in front of the cafe's building was holding an advertising card for the cafe, and it turned out that she was from New York. One of the selling points for Popopure is that several of the staff speak English. She guided me inside, and I was showered with the expected "welcome home, master" in Japanese. The maids largely have a black dress with white lace uniform, smile a lot, and are very friendly. My maid ran me through the routine, brought me a menu and told me about the day's specials.

(More of the ad banners.)

Popopure, on the second floor of a building one block west of Chuu-ou Dori, is fairly spacious for Akihabara at maybe 30'x50', able to seat up to 30 people. It's relatively new, having opened around the Summer of 2008, but in a different location. It's well-lit, clean, and has wooden tables and chairs. There's framed animation artwork on one wall, and the two big flat panel TVs play the three short anime titles created by the staff themselves. Two of the titles are limited in movement, while the third (featuring two super-hero-style maids) is very well-drawn and runs about 5-10 minutes.

(Main entrance leading to the elevator to the 2nd floor.)

The food is pretty typical, including rice omelets (actually a pile of rice with a scrambled egg placed on top), curry rice and rice pilafs, coffee, tea, various soft drinks, and some deserts. The main dishes are in the 1200 yen range; the drinks are 600 yen, no refills; and the desert sets (a slice of cake and a drink) are 1200 yen. The prices are on the high end for a regular restaurant, but in keeping with the other maid cafes. I ordered a coffee and the omelet rice, plus a photo with one of the maids for an additional 500 yen.

I was told that I could have any kind of design drawn on my omelet, including hearts or some kind of kanji. Not realizing what I was getting myself into, I asked if it was possible to have one of the cafe's anime characters drawn on the plate. After some agonizing, one of the girls ran into the kitchen and brought out "sensei" - another young woman who was apparently one of their main artists. Immediately, I had 5 other maids standing around the table, watching "sensei" at work. 5 minutes later, I had a pretty catsup drawing of one of the characters. I thought it was cool.

Beyond having English-speakers on staff, one of the selling points for Popopure is that for 1500 yen, you can voice one of the characters in the anime, and get it burned to a DVD. I settled for just getting the photo. I could ask any of the maids to join me, and was told that the three standard poses were: forming a heart with our hands (the one I picked); to form a heart with our arms over our heads; or, placing our hands up near our faces like cat paws. After having the photo taken, I returned to my table and waited while my maid added her embellishments to the picture.

When I left, I was guided to the door and told, "master, be careful". In total, it came to 2,300 yen. I was also asked if I wanted the points card (pictured above), and I answered "sure". It's 1 point per 500 yen spent. 10 points gets me an "Ichigo-chan poster print" and a free drink. 20 points is a free drink and a maid photo. 30 is a free entree and drink plus maid photo. And the big prize is an anime DVD, maid photo and a free drink for 50 points.

Some of the cafes have wireless service, but I didn't check if that was the case here.

Location: 1 block west of Chuu-ou Dori
Price: Moderate
Food: Standard food and soft drink selection, and quality
Service: Very friendly and outgoing
"Love": Drawing of your choice on the food or on the plate
Outfits: Black maid dress with white frills
Photos: 500 yen, with one maid
Wireless Internet: (?)
Specialties: Native English-speakers; staff makes their own anime, DVD with your own voice-over available for purchase
Recommendation: Recommended. I had fun.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Do's and Don'ts

Here's some Do's and Don'ts for when you visit a maid cafe, or if you see a maid on the streets.

1) Don't touch the maids.
You'd think that this one would be obvious, but many tourists seem to think that the maids are some kind of playthings that you can just throw your arms around, poke, or try to feel the materials of their dresses. You don't want a complete stranger coming up and poking you, and neither do the maids.

2) No photos.
This is an easy one to misunderstand. You'll see a number of maids out on the streets around Akihabara, handing out fliers advertising their cafes. As a tourist, it's natural to want to have your photo with "one of the cute little natives in the funny dress". Doesn't work that way. The cafes make some of their money by selling photos within the shop, and if you take a photo on the street for free, it's money that the cafe doesn't see. If you really want your picture taken with a maid, go into the cafe and pay the 500 yen for it. Not only will the maids pose happily for you, but they may even spend 5 minutes signing the photo and adding little drawings to it.

3) Don't stare.
Yes, maids are dressed up in fancy outfits which are designed to attract attention, but just staring at someone is creepy. Don't do it.

4) Don't tip.
Tipping is not a common practice in Japan, and the wait staff is paid well to begin with. So, it's ok to not tip at the end of the meal.

5) Do have fun.
Maid cafes are intended to be entertaining. Relax and just follow common sense.

6) Do watch the other customers.
If you're not sure how to behave, watch the other customers for cues. In general, you'll be guided to a table, showered with greetings of "welcome home, master". At the table, you'll get a menu and a list of the day's specials. To get their attention for placing an order, just speak out "sumimasen!". If you order food like a rice omelet, curry rice or pilaf, you may be asked what you want written on it. The maids "add love" to the meal by drawing hearts or something similar on the dish in catsup, and some places let you choose what you want drawn. Pay at the table. Again, get the server's attention with "sumimasen", and they'll bring the bill to you. Put your money in the tray they bring you, and wait until they bring you your change. Then, when you leave, you may be escorted to the door with a shower of "please be careful, master", or "please come back, master". If a given cafe has different rules, you'll be able to pick up on them by watching the other customers.

Places like @Home advertise English-speaking staff, and they will post online (or at the front of the store) the hours when the English-speaking staff are on duty. Otherwise, many maid cafes will at least have menus in English. If you look like you can't speak Japanese, they'll give you the English menu automatically.

7) Do ask for the points card.
If you listen closely at the end of the meal, you may be asked if you want to get the points card, but not all places offer them. The cards should be free, and they make a nice little souvenir. And, it just might be fun to come back to the same place once or twice in order to get the "service" from the card. No, "service" doesn't mean what you think it does. It's just a free present for spending 5000 yen or so at the same place. You can expect that a present will be something like a free photo with one of the maids, or a free drink.

8) Do get your photo while you're at the cafe.
As mentioned above, the cafes make some of their money by selling photos. For 500 yen, you can get a unique souvenir with yourself posing with one of the maids. These maid photos are called "cheki", which is the Japanese version of the "click" sound the camera makes when the photo is taken. Generally, "checki" are little 2"x3" Polaroid photos embellished with hearts and writing by one of the maids.

9) Don't go drunk.
Alcohol is great for making people do stupid things. If you're not careful, you can get yourself kicked out of the cafe for harassment, or buy yourself some time in jail. Maid cafes are not suitable places for going in drunk. Stay sober, have fun. (On the other hand, there are maid bars and many cafes do serve some alcohol, so don't drink yourself stupid in these places.)

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.