Monday, June 29, 2009

Why Maids?

Why Maids?

According to uniforms.com, domestic servants worked for wealthy families in England and Wales starting around 1850. About 1.5 million people had held this position from 1850 to 1914, although this number includes butlers, cooks and gardeners. A government center in Market Harborough was one of the earliest training centers, and among other things, women were taught to make their own maid uniforms. In the 1920's, clothes manufacturers started making maids uniforms more fashionable and running ads in women's magazines. Some of the outfits were designed for different times of the day, with more formal outfits specifically intended for evening use.

Job titles were developed based on the work performed, from Lady's Maid, Chambermaid, Parlor Maid, Nursery Maid, Kitchen Maid and Scullery Maid. The French Maid's outfit, according to wikipedia, is a modified version of the black and white afternoon uniform, and has evolved to emphasize its erotic elements.

Because having house servants costs money, it's rare to find live-in domestic help outside of wealthy mansions. For this reason, maids, butlers and gardeners are all symbols of wealth easily incorporated into works of fiction, such as novels and video games. This is where we really start to care. In Japan, manga is very common, and concepts like western clothing designs and brick mansions are considered exotic to the Japanese audience. So, when a manga artist wants to tell a story featuring someone rich, they'll often set the story in a mansion, and give the character a large staff of French maids. From here, it's a short step to video games where the player tries to seduce all of the female characters, including the maids. Thus, maid characters have become highly visible in various media in Japan.


("Hello Kitty moe-caramel", strawberry flavor)

Why Maid Cafes?

Why not? There are theme restaurants all over the world, and many themes are chosen specifically to make the restaurant stand out from the competition. In a country where maids are recognized as being the ones that serve the meals in the homes of the rich, it's little wonder that someone would want to try using the same idea within a restaurant setting.

Additionally, there's a tradition in Japan for women to wait on men, specifically within bar settings. Gesha are trained not only to play instruments and dance gracefully, but to also pour sake and listen attentively to the customers. Maids are just an updated form of gesha.

Why Akihabara?

In the mid-1940's, Akihabara (again, according to wikipedia) had a series of small electronics shops open up to support the students at the nearby technical school. Over time, Akihabara became a storage district for consumer electronics, and then an outlet for customers wanting to buy those electronics. But, it wasn't until the advent of laser disks that stores started selling anime, because if customers were there to get the players, it was reasonable that they'd want disks at the same time. Then, when video game consoles came out, stores sold the games as well. This is why today Akihabara is one of the biggest outlets for anime and video games in Tokyo. (Other districts around Tokyo concentrate on sporting goods, musical instruments, used books, fashion and so on.)

What is Akihabara?

Technically speaking, Akihabara is a shopping district about 6 blocks square surrounding the Akihabara train station on the JR Yamanote line. While there are some apartments, businesses, office complexes and even two major temples, the majority of the buildings here house electronics shops and other forms of entertainment. Generally, this description fits all of Tokyo, since the entire city is so over-developed, and the major street, Yasukuni Dori, which runs from Shinjuku all the way through Akihabara and into Chiba, is lined with shops and office buildings. It's like Tokyo is one huge store. But, the greatest concentration of video game, anime and manga shops is in Akihabara itself. And in "geek central", that's where you find the "otaku".

Why the "Otaku" digs?

"Otaku" started out with the basic meaning of "a fan of anime or manga", then turned darker in the 1990's. More recently, otaku has been reverting to it's earlier form of "anime and manga fanboy", but the news media, especially the English newspapers in Japan, have continued to treat "otaku" as an insult. Writers like Peter Galbraith, working for the Japan Times and Metropolis, prefer to treat manga fans as "geeks" and "nerds". It's a lazy shorthand used by lazy writers.

Because Akihabara has so many video game and manga shops in one place, writers like Galbraith insist on using the phrases "otaku heaven" and "geek central". Yes, there are fan boys here, but it's a small percentage of the total population, and most people still come here to buy consumer and home electronics. But you can't tell the news media that.



Who cares?

Well, because the maid character type had become so common in anime, manga and video games, it was only a matter of time that someone opened up a real cafe that matched the fictional places. And, since maids were derived from manga and anime, that such a cafe would be in a place with the highest concentration of manga and anime fans. That place of course is Akihabara. One tourist map (current as of June, 2009), lists over 30 maid cafes, and even a maid eyeglass store. Customers like being treated well, and the store staff treat this as a chance to dress up and have fun.

In the beginning...

Cure Maid Cafe opened in March, 2001, making it the first official maid cafe in Akihabara. While its initial customer base was male otaku, there's now a more general clientele that includes salary workers and office women. Depending on the cafe, upwards of 50% of the customers at any given time may be female. The idea that maid cafes only attract no-life fan-boy geeks is a myth perpetuated by the media. However, maid cafes generally are more expensive than regular food shops, so customers go principally to be greeted by, and to look at, the maids. No duh...

The alternatives

Akihabara isn't the only manga/anime/video game district in and around Tokyo. Nakano Broadway, a department store complex in Nakano (a stop on the Chuu-ou train line leading west from Shinjuku) has many shops in one building selling used manga, collector toys, animation artwork and cosplay outfits. It's a more relaxed, countrified version of Akihabara. And Ikebukuro, a station on the Yamanote line, 2 miles north of Shinjuku, is the home of many stores selling used amateur manga (doujinshi), and goods aimed at female fans.

Nakano really doesn't have enough space to hold many maid cafes, but Ikebukuro does. Ikebukuro's cafes cater to a female customer base by having butler, "little brother" and "dan-sou" (cross-dressing) themes. The dan-sou cafes seem to be influenced by Takarazuka, the all-women theater group. And, at least one dan-sou cafe has opened in Akihabara, recently.

Coming back to the maid uniforms

While the idea of dressing up as maids or butlers and acting subserviently might seem offensive in western countries, this is actually part of the larger culture in Japan. Japan is a homogeneous country, and people are raised to be sensitive to how their behavior affects the rest of the group. In this way, children grow up trying to fit in with their group, wearing uniforms in school and at work. If you go into a bank, everyone's wearing business suits and white, starched office blouses. Naturally you have McDonald's with its uniform as well. Maid dresses are just another kind of uniform, but they're fancier and more tongue-in-cheek.

As for subservient... There was an industry report issued in 2008 regarding the tourist value of some roadside towns in southwestern Japan, and one complaint that had been raised in it was that the employees in the tourist traps didn't greet customers cheerfully and wholeheartedly. That they lacked training in how to behave. This means that it's not normal for the Japanese kitchen staff at a sushi restaurant to yell out "irasshaimasu!" when you walk in the door. That cheerful welcoming cry that you find in every single store has to be taught. So, this means that the behavior at a maid cafe is no different than at a sushi restaurant - staff everywhere have to go through similar training to bow and scrape before the customer. It's just more open and above-board at a maid cafe.

Summary

Maids are cute, as are some of the butlers. Maid and butler cafes are designed to make you feel like you're entering your mansion at the end of a long day. If you don't approve of this sensation, that's cool. But, maid cafes are meant to be fun, and if you don't mind spending a couple extra dollars for the food and drinks along the way, then by all means go to a maid or butler cafe and have fun.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: Pinafore 1


(Napkin)

Pinafore also has two locations in Akihabara - #1 just outside the south side of the JR Akihabara train station, and #2 on Chuu-ou Dori just west of the UDX building. I visited #1 this time.



Pinafore 1 is very easy to find, but it's in kind of a grimy area right next to a dirt plaza used by travelers and business people as a smoking zone. The easiest path is to take the Denki Town exit from the station, cross the street over to Yodabashi Camera, and then walk through the tunnel to the other side. You'll be facing the plaza, so just cross the small side street and Pinafore will be on your left at the middle of the plaza.



Pinafore 1 has got to be the most relaxed, "natural-feeling" maid cafe I've been to so far. The women seem to enjoy cosplaying, and have picked the outfits that they prefer (a couple school girl uniforms, and a couple maid dresses). This is a cosplay cafe, and the outfits may change from day to day. The women were all friendly as they greeted me, seated me and walked me through the menu. I don't really know Kansai-ben, so I don't know if there was kind of an "Osaka feel" to the place, but I got that kind of a vibe. I didn't hear "welcome home master", but there was a "welcome to Pinafore" greeting of some kind, anyway. And, there's no cover charge, although they "encourage" you to stay no longer than 1 hour at a time.



The cafe is small, brightly lit, clean and with round white tables and metal chairs that can seat about 15 people. Benches along the wall and at the bar can hold another 15. Posters, pictures of the maids, and manga-version drawings line two of the walls. 3 glass cases behind the bar hold pinned-up maid dresses along with little figures and other toys. The bar has a limited selection of liquors and hard alcohol, and the menu offers some cocktails plus a "Pinafore Special" drink.



The main menu includes the standard omelet rice, curry rice, hamburger steak and pastas for around 1000 yen, salads for 550 yen, desserts (pancakes, ice cream and parfaits) for 850 to 900 yen, and soft drinks for 350 to 500 yen. There are various menu sets, including a 1300 yen "Ladies Set" that includes pasta, a salad and a soft drink. The menu did not mention maid photos. They had an English version of the menu, but none of the maids spoke English.



Pinafore doesn't have any specific gimmicks like @Home does, but they do host special events once or twice a month, as well as during Tanabata (around Aug. 26 this year) and Christmas. They also have video game tie-ups. When I visited, the game was "Kono Aozora ni Yakusoku wo - Tenohira no Rakuen" (The promise to this blue sky - the paradise in your hand), a new port of the game for the PSP. The tie-up seemed to just consist of handing out postcards advertising the game. Then again, the game's not due out until the 26th, anyway (I visited the cafe on the 23rd).



There was also a special set menu, with four different items (two entrees, a parfait and a Pinafore Special cocktail) for 1200 yen. The set consisted of one item plus a special limited edition laminated maid card. I decided to get the parfait (1200 yen), plus an ice coffee (500 yen) and a small bag of candy (420) for 2120 yen total ($21). Now, Japanese parfaits are not like the U.S. versions with lots of ice cream, fruits and syrups. Mine had a scoop of ice cream, some drizzled chocolate syrup, jello squares, a layer of corn flakes and a maraschino cherry. It was good, and very colorful, but pricey for what you get. The ice coffee was good though.


(Laminated collector's card)

While I was there at 6 PM, I counted 8 other customers, 3 of them women, all enjoying themselves. Unlike @Home or Mai Dreamin', Pinafore doesn't do the "added flavor" chant, or stir your coffee for you. They do write a word of your choice (keep it clean!) on the rice omelet in catsup.



Pinafore is one of the more market-savvy cafes. Near the cash register, they have Pinafore-brand curry, "Moe-moe" hard candies, maid collector card cases, and other stuff. The Pinafore-brand curry can be found at other shops around Akihabara as well. The online shop offers tapestries of the maids, CDs and collector cards with photos of the maids on one side. The online downloads page includes a video of the maids introducing themselves and doing a little singing, and a small maid-based mini-game - "Pinafore Getter".


(The point card)

They also have a point card. I'm a little confused about how the card works though - it says that you get 1 point per 1000 yen spent, but at 2120 yen spent, I got 20 points marked off my card. I'm told that 30 points will get me a maid photo. I plan on bringing the card with me when I visit Pinafore #2 to see if it's really 100 yen per point. They gave me a flier, too, which has a coupon for one free drink, which I'll try redeeming at the same time.



I picked up a small bag of "Moe Moe" strawberry hard candies on my way out. The picture of the two maids in the bag is actually a sticker that you can attach to your notebook or locker if you like. The candies mostly tasted like just sugar. As I left, I was followed out the door with a very loud "thank you for visiting Pinafore, come again", or something like that (my spoken Japanese is still weak). Overall, I had fun.

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- Trip 2 -
"Desperate" to get my Pinafore maid photo, and finding myself with some time to kill in Akihabara before a work-related event, I decided that I'd try going to Pinafore 1 again. This time, the maids were in uniform (pink blouse, black skirt, white apron, plus "flair"), and one of the maids I'd met in 2 was doing duty here, too.



I'd gotten a handful of points at Pinafore 2 a few days earlier, but it wasn't enough to fill the card. Intent on getting the remaining 2 points, I hung out at the cafe for an hour, and ordered a cappuccino (700 yen) plus a banana crepe dessert with ice cream (800 yen). You have a choice of flavors, so I went with the blueberry sauce and strawberry ice cream. The crepe is wrapped around two large slices of banana and a little whipped cream, and the entire thing made for a meal in itself. The maid asked what I wanted drawn on the coffee and when I tried to tell her that I'd already had a cat drawing and I wanted something else, she misunderstood me and I got another cat. But, it was a cute cat so I didn't feel like complaining.



The crepe was delicious, and the iced cappuccino was good (the coffee flavor didn't really stand out, but it went well with the blueberry syrup on the dessert). But, still, it was 1500 yen for a coffee and a crepe, which would be overpriced if this wasn't a maid cafe.

At the end, I got my 2 points, and a card good for one maid photo. But, I have to make yet another visit to Pinafore to redeem the card. While I was waiting for my food, another customer got his photo taken with a maid, and he had to return to his seat before it was handed to him. So, this is not something to to get if you're in a rush. On the other hand, Pinafore seems to get a lot of repeat customers, so the photo is kind of a side benefit for them. The place always has a waiting line outside on Saturdays, and this Friday evening it was pretty crowded. About half the customers were women, and one woman had her 5-6 year-old son with her. It's fun for the whole family.

-=-=-==-=-=-=-=-==-=-=-==-

Summary:
Name: Pinafore #1.
Location: South of Akihabara station, near Yodobashi Camera.
Price: Moderate if you just get food.
Cover: No cover.
Food: Standard entrees, lots of salads and desserts, some alcoholic drinks.
Service: Friendly and very outgoing.
"Love": Words written on the omelet or curry rice.
Outfits: No standard design.
Photos: Apparently only available during events, or if you get 30 points on the points card.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Cosplay, video game tie-ins, events once or twice a month.
Recommendation: Pinafore was the first maid cafe where I really felt that everyone was having fun. My maid was very outgoing, and when I told her that I thought she was "energetic" (genki), her reply was "If you're genki, you can do anything". I think that summed up Pinafore in a nutshell. Highly recommended, but try to go when they have an event.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Moe and Tsundere

There are two major character types that have worked their way from video games, anime and manga into the maid lexicon - moe and tsundere.



"Moe" is generally treated as being "cute and sexy at the same time". There's an element of innocence involved. Although the character can be aware of the effect they have on people, they can't be too obvious about it.



Hence we have "moe" "akiba de eclair cakes". These small creme-filled puff pastries can be easily found around Akihabara. I got them at Asobit, on Chuu-ou Dori. There's not a lot to them, and at 600 yen (or so) for the box, they're a bit expensive for what you get. They don't taste bad - a little dry and waxy, with a tasty vanilla or chocolate creme center - but they're not real eclairs. The main attraction is the box artwork.



Then, we have "tsundere", supposedly a contraction of "tsuntsun" (aloof) and "deredere" (lovestruck). The tsundere character is snappish and aggressive, then shy and submissive by turns. In essence, someone that wants to make you fight to get closer to her, then willing to give in when you succeed.



This gives rise to the "Tsundere Russian Cookies", with the sulky Erika-chan on the cover saying "eat them if you want". These little cookies initially come across as dry vanilla-coconut wafers. A few seconds later, they "bite you". Especially if you're drinking milk or soda along with them. That's because they're spiked with cayenne pepper. I also got these at Asobit for about 600 yen. Tsundere cookies are great fun (and not just for the little skulls on the packaging) because you can give them to unsuspecting friends. They're even better if your friends are of the opposite sex...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Review: Pash Cafe Nagomi



Pash Cafe Nagomi is easy to find, since it's on the second floor of the same building housing Mai Dreamin' 2. However, it's a little less welcoming. Nagomi is another of those cafes with two locations: Cafe Bar Nagomi, which is a few block down Chuu-ou Dori, and Pash Cafe Nagomi. I only visited Pash Cafe this time. One sign on the outside of the door says "Dear customer, please do not stand in the doorway and take pictures of the inside of the cafe". Fortunately, the door was closed at the time I took this photo...

While "Pash" is slang for "passionate kiss", as in "a french kiss", I'm thinking that in this case it's a misspelling of "Posh" (elegant, upscale). Pash Cafe has a very strong "green" theme running through it. The walls are green, the floors are green carpet, the ceiling is green, the maid dresses are green... There's a bar at one end, and small tables and chairs that can seat about 18 people. A small counter at the other end holds the card and board games you can play against the maids (500 yen for 3 minutes; winning a certain number of times gets you different prizes). The place is clean, but all this green makes it seem a little dark.

This was one of the first cafes I've visited where I really felt out of place. There were 3 customers, and no staff when I entered, and all three men stared at me through the doorway. One of the guys called out the name of one of the maids several times before she came into the room, and she was halfway through "welcome home master" when she saw me and stopped mid-sentence. But, she recovered and led me to the bar and gave me a menu. Shortly after this, two of the customers left, and it was just me and the guy that knew the two maids on staff. After a few minutes, the maid returned with an English version of the menu, but I'd already made my choice, and there wasn't much difference between the two menus (outside of the lack of photos of the food in the English one).

There's no cover charge, and the food is cheaper at Pash Cafe than the other places I've visited so far, but it's a pretty standard menu - omelet rice, curry, some desserts, most soft drinks, and a "house special" alcoholic cocktail. I ordered the omelet rice dinner set, which included an ice coffee, for 1400 yen. Normally I'd get the maid photo as well, but I was told that they don't have the staff for maid photos until after 9 PM. So, this could be considered either an inexpensive maid cafe trip, or an overly expensive plate of rice with a scrambled egg on top, depending on how you look at it.

My ice coffee came out with little fanfare (no added "love" this time) followed 10 minutes later by my omelet. At least the maid was willing to draw a picture on top in catsup. I asked for her recommendation, and she replied that she drew cats best. So, that's what I asked for, and she gave me a very happy-looking cat on top of the egg. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take a picture of it. (Nagomi's blog has photos of the food.)

During the rest of my meal, the two maids were taunting their friend, and I had the feeling that he was either a frequent customer, or he knew them from outside the cafe. I had trouble making out the Japanese used, but it was either Kansai-ben (Osaka dialect), or Tokyo street slang. The cafe advertised a "tsundere event" earlier in the year, as well as a "rain coat day", earlier in the month, so there may also be a little of an abusive vibe in the air as a matter of course. Anyway, I was left alone to read my manga in the corner (Galaxy Express 999), and one of the maids was challenged to a game of Uno against the customer. He was losing 3-1 when I left.



There are two capsule ball dispensers in the shop. For 300 yen, you can try to get a maid photo, a coupon for a free picture with a maid of your choice (after 9 PM of course), and some other shop gifts. I got a photo of a maid, with a piece of fabric attached. The two maids reacted like I'd gotten something really rare, but the nuances of this were lost on me.



I generally visit the cafes on Tuesday evenings before starting work, so it's hard to say what a given place would be like when things are busier on Friday or Saturday nights. My impression is that Pash is more of a bar that caters to the weekend crowds. During the rest of the week, it's pretty quiet. And, while there is an English menu, the maids don't speak English themselves. You really need to be fluent in Japanese to feel comfortable here. One good thing is that they do offer points cards if you want one (1 point per 500 yen spent; 24 points gets you a free game with the maids).

The website has the menu listed, but it's just the item names and prices. For pictures of the foods, you need to visit "Nagomi's Diary".

Summary:
Name: Pash Cafe Nagomi
Location: West of Chuu-ou Dori 2 blocks, behind the Sega building.
Price: Moderate.
Cover: No cover.
Food: Standard foods (omelet rice, pasta), soft drinks, desserts and a "house special cocktail". They emphasize their lunch set menu.
Service: Friendly, but they don't seem to know how to handle foreigners on the week days.
"Love": Maids draw pictures on your food in catsup.
Outfits: Green dresses with white blouses.
Photos: 500 yen, with one maid, but only after 9 PM on the weekdays when I was there.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: N/A
Recommendation: Pash Cafe Nagomi may be a lot more exciting and friendly on Friday or Saturday nights, but Tuesday evening was pretty disappointing. The food is good and the portions are large for $14 (USD), but one of the reasons for my going to maid cafes is to get the maid photo, and I couldn't stick around until 9 PM for that. I may give Pash Cafe a second try some Saturday night, but I can't recommend going during the week.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Maid Club (RIP)

Note: Maid Club closed in January, 2010. It has since been replaced by the Toy Heli Museum, an RC hobby shop specializing in remote-controlled cars, boats and small helicopters.



Maid Club has a large billboard out front along Chuu-ou Dori, billing itself as a "moeru omiyage-san", or "cute and sexy souvenir shop". At the base of the building (next to the entrance to the "adult toys" store) is a small table with maid-themed snacks and gifts. Above this table is a small map pointing you to the entrance along the next alley over to the right. It's a little tricky finding the door, but once you do, it's pretty obvious that you're at the right place. The shop itself is on the third floor.



At the top of the stairs is a cutout board where you can pose to "cosplay" a butler or a maid. The entrance is to the right.



The shop is relatively small, but it's one of the few all-maid-related gift shops in Akihabara. The sales staff are dressed up as maids, and maid costumes line one wall. Display tables are set up with a variety of cookies and snacks, while another wall has a wide variety of regular candies and crackers. Some of the shelves have non-maid-themed souvenir shirts, cell phone straps, stationery supplies, etc. (A lot of these items are "Hello Kitty" tie-ins.)


(Point card, and top portion of the receipt.)

I decided to pick up a small package of pressed hazelnut powder candies, a package of "Hello Kitty Moeru Caramels" (Kitty looks adorable in her black and white maid outfit and stenographer glasses) and a bottle of "mei bii" (maid beer, the only beer recommended by maids. I think it's actually just grape soda.) The shop advertises that some of the items are original to Maid Club, and I think that includes the Hello Kitty caramels. I picked up a point card at the same time. It's 1 point per 100 yen spent, and each point has a redeemable value of 1 yen.

I also got the "Lucky Star" cornucopia chocolate cakes. While they're not in cornucopia shapes, they are very chocolaty.


(Stairs leading down the second floor, and the figures shop there.)

The website has an access map, if you need directions. They also run the prices for photo op services. You can get a big glossy photo (called a bromide) with one maid for 1000 yen and 2 maids for 1200 yen. A small Polaroid shot with one maid is 500 yen. If you want to dress up as a maid yourself, it's 1500 yen for you in one photo, or 2000 yen with you and 1 maid. You can also choose to walk around Akihabara with a maid as a guide for 2000 yen for 90 minutes. No funny stuff allowed.



It's a nice little shop and the staff is very friendly. They greet you with the standard "welcome home, master", and send you out the door with "come back again, master". I highly recommend getting the "Hello Kitty" caramels - they're "moe-alicious!"

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: Mai Dreamin 2



Mai Dreamin' and @Home have a lot in common. Both are typical maid cafes where the maids greet you with "welcome home master" when you arrive, stir your coffee for you, perform the standard chant to improve your drink, and charge a cover price for 1 hour admittance (500 yen for Mai Dreamin', 700 for @Home). Both have more than one location (Mai Dreamin' has 2 (now up to 3), @Home has 5). Both serve alcoholic drinks, and both let you play board or video games against the maids for prizes.



The really big difference is that the mood at Mai Dreamin' is more relaxed and both the customers and the maids seem to enjoy themselves more. This review is only for Mai Dreamin' 2 (MD2), located 2 blocks west of Chuu-ou Dori, 1 block north and west of Popopure. I'll get to Mai Dreamin' 1 in a later blog entry. MD2 is on the third floor, sharing the building with Nagomi. It's a smaller space able to hold 30 people, but with a split bar that seats 16, and several sets of small white metal patio chairs, and round glass patio tables. A carpeted space in one corner is used for the maid photos, and occasionally for making announcements. When I was there on a Tuesday, at 6 PM, there were about 20 customers, including 2 foreigners and 6 or 8 women. Unlike @Home 4F, where the two female customers looked very uncomfortable, the women at MD2 were laughing and having a good time.



I received the standard "okaerinasaimase gojinsama" at the door and was guided to a stool at the bar, next to a Japanese guy that wanted to talk. We spent the next 40 minutes discussing a variety of things, primarily how great Japanese maid cafes are. I was given a menu in English, but it was missing a number of the entrees and activities listed in the Japanese version, including the 1400 yen dessert set. When I started out picking each item separately, my new friend pointed out that I could get the set, consisting of a small molten chocolate cake, a photo with a maid, and a soft drink of my choice (I chose a large ice coffee).



My coffee came out, and the maid gave me the chant to add more flavor to the drink. Here, it was "Additional flavor in, hoi hoi gyu". She was very cute when she emphasized "gyu". Then, I was invited over to the stage for the photo. At Popopure and @Home, I was given my choice from 3 different poses; this time, I was told specifically to do the cat paws pose. Later, I saw maids using 3 other poses, including one from Street Fighter. My chocolate cake then came out, with a cute little cat drawn in chocolate syrup, and the maid had me do a different chant (which still included "additional flavor in") and hand gesture over it. The dessert was kind of like a chocolate cupcake with a molten syrup center. It was really good. Better yet, I was allowed to take a photo of it.



Later, my maid photo was brought over, with lots of embellishments on it. I paid my bill, said goodbye to my friend, and was led to the door and followed out with "please come back, gojinsama". The total this time was 1900 yen, 200 less than @Home, and the dessert was a lot better. But, @Home has the video of the maids singing and dancing, while MD2 didn't. MD2 does have the "compete against the maid" for 500 yen on a video game for prizes, but I didn't see anyone doing that this time. There do seem to be the occasional song and dance events, according to the website, but these may be at random times. The website has a link to "Midori's Diary", a maid blog. The online shop offers a Mai Dreamin' CD, and a DVD. Looks like there may be a "Mai Dreamin'" purse available at the end of June.



There's no mention on the website of a points card that I can see, and I wasn't offered one on my way out. However, MD does have a special discount on the food for anyone celebrating their birthday (be prepared to bring proof of your birth date).


Summary:
Name: Mai Dreamin' 2
Location: 2 blocks west of Chuu-ou Dori, just north of Popopure.
Cover: 500 yen lets you in the door to stay 1 hour.
Price: Moderate-high.
Food: Large-serving specials for the omelet and curry, as well as regular-sized entrees of the same type. Hamburger patties and pasta. Entrees in the 1100 to 1300 yen range. Soft drinks are 550, cocktails and wines are 1100 yen. Desserts include parfaits, cakes and smoothies, in the 500 to 900 yen range. The molten chocolate cake was very good.
Service: Very friendly and outgoing.
"Love": "hoi hoi gyu" over the drinks; a similar chant is made over the foods and desserts. Drawings on the food in catsup seem to be pre-chosen for you.
Outfits: Black dress with white apron and blouse.
Photos: 500 yen, with one maid, or 1400 yen as part of the dessert set.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: 500 yen lets you play a game with the maid for prizes (maid photos, etc.) Maids occasionally sing or dance on a small stage, but I didn't get to see an example of this.
Recommendation: Mai Dreamin' 2 is a very relaxed cafe and the maids have no problems talking with the customers. There were several female customers at the time, and they also seemed to be enjoying themselves (unlike at @Home 4F). There's no real theme or gimmick here, other than the maids treating you like the master of the house, but the atmosphere is lighter and the chocolate cake dessert is really good. Recommended.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Maid-Related Products



According to wikipedia, the first maid cafe was Cure Maid, which opened in Akihabara in March, 2001. However, the concept of "the maid" existed prior to that in manga and video games. Therefore, while many cafes have their own gift shops and branded products (@Home has t-shirts advertising their performing idols, and Cure sells little maid figurines), maid-related products can also be found elsewhere.



Naturally, there are cosplay shops that sell maid outfits. These places are easy to find - just wander around Akihabara near the south side of the JR station.



In addition, there are food products that can be found at places that carry anime goods. Shown here are maple and milk flavored cookies, sold at Animate, on Chuu-ou Dori, near the UDX building.


(Animate building, as seen from the UDX building, north exit of the JR Akihabara station)



On the south side of the station is another small shop that carries Akiba (Akihabara) related goods, from canned coffees to various foods. Shown here are the "Pina Curry" (from the Pinafore Maid Cafe) and "Moe Curry" (young, cute and sexy curry).




Asobit is a fairly large store that has a couple buildings in Akihabara, carrying games, character goods, and so on. The location a block north of Animate on Chuu-ou Dori carries "Akiba Miyage" - souvenirs from Akihabara, and the staff usually dresses up in cosplay. Hence, the female clerk as a maid (the male clerk as Sailor Moon is just disturbing).



Notice on the right side of the photo are the maid cookies, so you can get them from Asobit as well as Animate. There are snacks here that aren't just maid-oriented, so I'm not as inclined to discuss them in Maid Runner. But, the ones with maid images on them include "mango stick cake" (red box, third stack from the left) and the Tsundere Russian cookies ("tsundere" kind of means to "flip between cute and love struck to cold and vicious; 2nd stack from left).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review: at_Home, 4F



@Home is the prototypical maid cafe, and is certainly one of the most prolific, with cafes on several floors of 2 different buildings. Each cafe has a different theme, and I'll tackle each one on separate visits.



I decided to check out 4F in the Mitsuwa building on Chuu-ou Dori first, in part because it's just around the corner from Popopure, and I'm essentially "working from the ground up" in this blog, anyway. So, while a lot of the rules and behavior may be standard across all of the @Home cafes, I'm going to treat everything as being specific to 4F for the moment. (4F here means "fourth floor".)


(Atto-Gumi Fan Club flier, front)

It's pretty easy to find @Home, because it's one of the most heavily advertised cafes in Akihabara, and when you approach the entrance there are posters everywhere. There's a small emergency staircase next to the elevator, but the expected way up to 4F is via the elevator. Once off, you're in a small alcove decorated with cute animals and toys, and with a small box of fliers promoting the Atto-Gumi (@-members) fan club. Directly ahead is the greeting stand, occupied by a young man who asks if this is your first time. If you say "yes', he'll give you a laminated card with the rules for the cafe, either in Japanese or English. The rules are mostly the same as my "Do's and Don't's", but with the addition of "Don't ask the maid for personal information", and a specific commandment of No Photos.


(Fan Club flier, inside)

When a table opens up I'm guided to my seat by a cute maid in a frilly brown uniform with white lace, trim and bloomers. Here, I get the full "maid treatment", with "welcome home, master", the maid helping me into my chair, kneeling next to me to explain the menu, and so on. A second maid looks on, staring at the manga I brought with me and acting willing to talk to me in English if I need it.



The menu illustrates the heart of the maid cafe business model: a 700 yen cover charge just to be in the cafe for 1 hour. 500 yen for a photo with a maid, 1100 yen for the entrees (curry rice, rice omelet, etc.), 1400 for the dessert set. If you get just the photo, then you can play a video or toy game with the maid for 3 minutes and if you win you get a second photo for free. Each photo is with a single maid of your choice. Since you're only there for 1 hour per 700 yen, all drink and food orders have to be placed 15-20 minutes before the end of your hour (and they write when your time is up on the receipt for tracking purposes).


(Bronze Points Card, Lv. 1, front)

I'm not overly hungry, and I want to keep the costs down. While the entree is only 1100 yen, compared to 1200 yen for Popopure, the cover charge more than makes up for the difference. So I go for the dessert set, which includes a drink (coffee), dessert and a maid photo. I have a choice of either the kuma-kun or usagi-kun cakes, and I go with kuma. A few minutes later, a different maid comes back to the table with my coffee, kneels down, adds the cream and sugar and stirs for me, then tells me that there's a ritual for adding an additional little flavor to the coffee. It consists of moving our hands like cats, chanting "nyan nyan hoi", and ending with a circular action over the cup. We do the "nyan nyan hoi" and she goes off to the next customer. The coffee is sweet, but pretty standard.


(Points card, back)

The cafe itself is clean, brightly lit, and laid out with small diner-style tables and benches facing a small stage. 4F's gimmick is that, beyond just being the perfect maids, the women also sing and act on the stage. On the wall behind the bar (yes, 4F does serve cocktails from 700 to 1000 yen each), a flat panel screen plays videos of the maids in full costume performing J-pop songs. The cafe can hold 30 people, and is almost full at 6 PM on a Tuesday. 2 of the customers are women, but they look a little uncomfortable. Most of the men are in their twenties, some look like college fanboys, others appear to be low-level office workers. The front staff consists of the one male greeter, and about 6 maids.



While I'm waiting, two of the maids get on stage and call the name of one of the customers. He goes up, is told to put on a pair of animal ears, and he gets his photo taken. A minute later, my name is called and I'm told that I have my pick of 10 ears and 3 poses (heart formed with our hands, cat pose, and "cute" pose with hands near our faces). I choose the giraffe ears and cute pose. I sit back down, and my maid goes off to embellish my photo.


(Inside elevator)

Then my dessert comes out. I'm told I can't photograph it, and that it's just going to have to live on in my heart. It's a fudge cupcake surrounded by dollops of whip cream. The two dollops touching the far side of the cup cake have little oreo cookies on them to make ears. The plate is decorated with hearts drawn using strawberry syrup , and white frosting is used to draw a mouth and nose on the cup cake. The entire effect is that of the face of a teddy bear (kuma=bear; usagi=rabbit). It's really well done, and the fudge cup cake has a strong, slightly bitter chocolate flavor. It's a little dry, but goes well with the coffee. I really wish I had a photo of it, though (the usagi cake is shown on the menu page).

A few minutes later, someone else's name is called, and he's brought up to the stage by two of the maids. The girls go through a short introduction, pulling out all the standard cute poses and speech patterns. The customer is getting the birthday special, and he'll be asked three questions. For each one answered correctly, he gets a prize. They are "what's you're name", "where are you from" and "what do you do now"? As his reward, he's surrounded by all 6 maids, given a special kuma-kun like dessert, has his photo taken, and the girls sing @Home's birthday song (the lyrics of which describe the deliciousness of the dessert he's been given).


(With maid Uno-chan)

I pay my bill at the table, and for the cup cake, coffee and photo, the total is 2100 yen ($21). I also get a bronze point card. For each visit, I get a stamp. 5 stamps and I level up to Silver rank. It's then 50 visits to get to Gold level. Black is the highest level and requires 2000 visits. With Silver level (Familiar Master), the maids call you by name; at Gold, you get your first present. The details regarding the Black card are kept secret. The cover charge gets reduced at the higher card levels. Since there are 5 different @Home cafes, and all of them use the same card, I should be able to go to Silver pretty easily within the 6 month deadline. When I leave I'm guided to the door and everyone shouts, "please come back, master!"



@Home 4F fits exactly the definition of a maid cafe. You're treated like the master of the house, the maids prepare the food for you at the table, and they're all cute. I can't comment on the quality of the entrees, but the dessert was good, if on the small side. But, it's pricey. You don't go here for the food - you go for the experience. This is the height of performance art. I didn't get to see any of the stage shows, but the videos indicated that at least a few of the women can sing and dance in front of a camera. Also, @Home is well aware of their customer base - in front of the elevator there's a sign for the tourists showing which cafe has English speakers on staff that day. (They also have a free fan club you can sign up for from the website, and special maid photos you can download to your cell phone.)

Summary:
Name: @Home 4F
Location: Just around the corner from Chuu-ou Dori, near the JR Akihabara station, on the 4th floor.
Price: Moderately-High. 700 yen cover just to get inside for 1 hour.
Food: Standard food and soft drink selection, and quality. Some alcoholic mixed drinks.
Service: Very friendly and outgoing
"Love": Drawing of your choice on the food. The "nyan nyan hoi" chant over your drink.
Outfits: Brown maid dress with white frills
Photos: 500 yen, with one maid, or 1400 yen as part of the dessert set.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Some English-speaking staff; staff can sing and perform on stage, as well as behaving like the prototypical "moe" maids. Maids will play video games with the customers for prizes. Website in English.
Recommendation: Recommended. I had fun. Expect to stay at least 45 minutes, though, since the service can be slow at peak times.