Thursday, April 29, 2010

Review: Queen Dolce

You (yes, both of you) requested it, and here it is. My first dansou experience. (Yes, they were gentle...)

Queen Dolce is a dansou bar. For those of you not keeping notes, "dansou" refers to women that dress up as butlers (more or less). Most of the butler/dansou cafes are located in Ikebukuro, on the opposite side of the Yamanote train loop, but there is one in Akihabara as well, and that one is Queen Dolce. Essentially, butler cafes are the complement to maid cafes, places designed to appeal to a female clientele. Variations on the butler theme are dansou and little brother.

Queen Dolce is probably the most accessible of the dansou cafe/bars in that half the customers can be male at any given night, and their menus and rules cards are in both Japanese and English to support foreign tourists. It's located just off Chuu-ou Dori in with Fille, Cure Maid and Mai Dreamin' 1, on the 3rd floor above Nyankoro, the cat cafe (1000 yen to play with a room full of cats for an hour).

I arrived right around 6 PM on Tuesday night, and the place was already half full. Well, that's actually fairly easy to do because QD is relatively small, with 3 tables for holding 4 people each, and stools for another 5 or 6 at the bar counter. The walls are black and there's no windows. A sign board at the front wall announces upcoming specials or events, and the adjacent wall holds photos of some of the dansou from previous events. Alongside the photos were face cards from a playing card deck. There's something of a playing card theme on the website as well. Anyway, three guys were at the tables, and another two at the bar. There were also two women at the bar but at least one of them seemed to be an off-duty employee. A few minutes later, two more women came in and sat at one of the tables. There's no cover charge for being at the tables, but 500 yen to be at the bar to chat with the staff. There's also a one-time 200 yen fee if you get alcoholic drinks.

QD is primarily a bar, with a small number of entrees for 1000 yen. Actually, the food comes from the kitchen at Cure Maid next door, and you need to pay in advance so that the dansou can bring the dish back when it's ready. They have spaghetti, curry rice and omelet rice. I decided to get a plate described as a "hamburg don" - a bowl of rice with a huge hamburger patty with gravy on top, a small potato salad and small lettuce salad on the side and a small bowl holding a poached egg for stirring into the rice. I accompanied this with an ice coffee. As usual, the coffee came out first, in a tall, narrow glass on ice. I added so much sugar syrup and cream that I have no idea if the coffee was good or not. But, the resulting mix definitely was good. By the time the entree came out, the coffee was gone, so I followed it up with a hot coffee. The entire meal was good and very filling, and came to 2000 yen (500 per drink, plus the 1000 for the hamburg plate). Not bad for a theme cafe. As I say, the emphasis is on the alcoholic drinks, which are 900-1200 yen. 1000 yen for beer.

For the most part, the staff stayed at the bar, occasionally coming over to the tables to take and deliver orders and to refill the glasses of water. Every so often, one of the dansou would drop by to ask what I thought of the bar, how I liked the food, and so on. One of them spoke a little English, but it was obvious that Japanese is the preferred language. Finally, someone that I took to be the manager came over and we talked for about 15 minutes, about the dansou concept, and similar places in Ikebukuro, and she showed me a photo book of the various staff members. (On the website, they're referred to as "the cast"). I mentioned maid runner and she said that it was probably all in English (making it hard to read). I commented that I do include photos. That's when she told me that QD offers dansou photos for 500 yen. Interestingly, she said that since this was a special occasion, the entire staff would be included in the shot, which was taken by one of the other women sitting at the bar. Afterwards, one of the other dansou spent 5 minutes touching up the photo, both on the front and the back. I think it came out quite well. (Note, I didn't see any mention of "chekki" (dansou photos) in the menu or on the sign boards, but it is listed in the menu section of the website.)

They do have a point card. 1 point per 1000 yen. At 20 points, it's a free soft drink; 40 for a dansou photo; and 60 for a mixed drink.

I had a lot of fun, and the dansou were actually easier to talk to than most maids are at the other cafes. Probably the funniest moment was when one of the off-duty staff was getting ready to go home, and was carrying a big plastic bag with her. It contained a huge plush animal (not sure if it was a sheep or a llama) and one of the other staff members asked to see it. This led to a big "hug the cute plush llama" event, and the decision by one of the other dansou to not return the cute llama to its owner. All the owner could do was hold the bag out, pout and repeat "kaeshite kure" (please return it) for several minutes. I never expected butlers to go gaga over a large soft, cuddly llama. Even dansou have their soft side.

Name: Queen Dolce
Location: Next door to Cure Maid, just off Chuu-ou Dori, 3rd floor.
Price: Moderate.
Cover: 500 yen to sit at the bar. 200 yen surcharge for your first alcoholic drink.
Food: A limited selection of entrees (spaghetti, curry rice, omelet rice) for 1000 yen, and some snacks for 300 yen. Soft drinks for 500-600 yen. Mixed drinks and beer for 900 to 1200 yen.
"Love": No love.
Outfits: White shirts, black vests and black trousers.
Photos: 500 yen.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Lots of mixed drinks served by female butlers.
Recommendation: If you're looking for a "butler" experience, Queen Dolce is definitely a great introduction. Friendly staff, and tourists welcome. Recommended. Just leave your large, cuddly, plush llamas at home or you'll never see them again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Maid advertising

One of the interesting things about Japan as a whole, and Akihabara in particular, is that character logos for a particular business don't need to relate to the product or service, as long as they're cute, and follow some expected theme. In this first photo, we've got a shop that sells air guns and used games. Can't beat cat maids for cuteness, anyway. Unfortunately, the URL seems to be broken - it results in page not found errors.

Even NEC's outlet store has gotten in on the maid gimmick for the character logo, but disappointingly there's no real maids in the store selling hardware.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: Cos-Cha

Cos-Cha is a little hard to find, being in the middle of a bunch of little shops towards the north end of Akihabara. Go north along Chou-ou Dori to Kuramaebashi Dori, then turn left. Go another 3 short blocks west and turn left again. One short block, and it'll be on your right, on the second floor in the same building as Little BSD.

I'd kind of forgotten about Cos-Cha, having walked by it a couple of times before but not really wanting to check it out right away. However, I'm now getting down to the end of the list of cafes I haven't been to yet, and I was planning on hitting Little BSD (which I'd been putting off because of the table charge) when I saw the sign again for Cos-Cha. The advertisement saying "no table charge" tipped me over the edge.

Cos-Cha bills itself as a "cosplay cafe and kitchen". When I arrived, there were two maids, both in black sleeveless short French maids outfits. Other nights include different costumes, including a "bunny girl" event on Friday night. The French maids dresses are very distracting.

The room forms a kind of "L" shape, twisting around the kitchen. The front area is smoking only, and seating is at school desks for about 10 people. There's a big blackboard at this end, with a lot of announcements and pictures in chalk covering it. The back half of the L consists of 20 normal wooden laminate 2-person tables and chairs. The walls have a fake red brick covering, and 2 TVs were showing some program where maids were pulling practical jokes on people (such as serving sushi rolls packed with hot sauce, and a "look where I'm pointing" game that ends up with the maid delivered a really wicked slap to the face. The sound on the TV was turned down and j-pop played on the speaker system.

In Cos-Cha, the maids are referred to as "angels", which explains the logo. When I came in, the first angel asked if I wanted smoking, and when I said "no" she directed me to the back of the room. There were were 2 men in the smoking area, a couple sitting next to the windows, a salaryman working on a laptop in the corner below the TV, and three foreigners along the back wall to the left. Two of them seemed to be French, and they ignored me before leaving a few minutes later. The third foreigner seemed to be Latino, and he ignored me when playing video games on his cell phone. Most of the people headed out after while, but were replaced by another couple and several other regulars. The place felt somewhat empty, but there generally were several people in there at a time.

The angels are friendly and willing to chat, but will also leave you alone if you desire. Neither of the two there that night spoke English, and the first one commented later that the two Frenchmen hadn't tried talking with her at all. After I'd finished my meal, I spent some time chatting with her, and then teaching her the standard list of English phrases ("welcome", "can I take your order", etc.). I really should know better by now that I'm not going to get anything in return for the English lessons, but it is one way to make the time go by, and I'm guaranteed to get attention this way.

The menu is fairly extensive, with pastas, omelet rice and hamburg steak entrees running from 800 to 1500 yen. Soft drinks around 500 yen, mixed drinks and beer between 500 and 1000 yen, and large desserts for 1000 yen and up. There was also a special menu featuring three "Indian curry dishes" for about 1300 yen. I ordered a chicken curry that turned out to be a regular Japanese curry rice, a little spicier than normal but lacking any meat at all, so I don't know if that was supposed to be "Indian" or if the cook messed up the order. I didn't mind that much, because the serving was filling and the sauce was pretty tasty. (They also have lunch and tea time menus.)

Some of the dishes are marked "chu chu" and are a couple of hundred yen more expensive. Mine was a "chu chu" curry. What this means is that when my dish was brought out to me, the second angel knelt by the table, picked up the spoon, took the first spoonful of curry and blew on it for a few seconds to cool it down before spoon feeding it to me. After that I was allowed to feed myself. It's a fairly erotic experience, but you really have to be trusting that she's not coming off a cold or the flu. I also ordered an ice coffee, which was a dark roast in a large glass. It was strong enough to retain its flavor while the ice melted in it. The curry was 1280, the coffee 550 yen. If I'd stopped at that, it would have been a reasonable price for a maid cafe, especially as there's no table charge.

The real money is being made on maid photos. It's 1000 yen for just the photo of the angel. 1500 yen if you want a shot of two angels, or a picture of yourself with an angel. That's 1000 yen more than at most other cafes, and is the cost of an entree or dessert right there (or twice a normal table charge). On top of which, there weren't any drawings or embellishments, either. When the meal was over, my angel brought me over to the blackboard and asked what pose I wanted. I asked what her suggestion was, and she answered with either the heart or cat pose. So I joked "how about a "cat heart", so that's what I got. (You can also get a short maid video, or a 15 second "voice greeting" for 1000 yen each.)

(Points card)

Total for the evening came to 3330 yen. Normally, you pay at the table, but here you go up to the register near the door. I asked for a points card, and was told that yes, they do have one. Apparently my angel wasn't going to give it to me if I hadn't asked for it. 1000 yen per point. At 20 points you get an unspecified present.

3330 yen is definitely on the high side, but the food is good and the servings are big enough. If you're counting pennies, hold off on the maid photos and get that somewhere else. I think that this would have been a pretty standard experience if I didn't speak Japanese, but as it was my angel was very smart and easy to talk to (the second angel tended to giggle mindlessly just a bit too much) so I did enjoy myself. And I knew what I was getting into when I ordered the photo, so the final price tag wasn't all that unexpected. Overall, Cos-Cha was definitely worth visiting. And now I'm wondering what my angel looks like in a bunny girl dress...

Name: Cos-Cha
Location: Back side of Akihabara. From Akihabara station, go west to Chuu-ou Dori, then north about 1 km to Kuramaebashi Dori. Turn left (you'll be heading to Schatzkiste), go three short blocks and turn west again. It'll be on your right, on the second floor below Little BSD.
Price: Moderate to high.
Cover: No cover.
Food: Wide variety of entrees, including different curries, pasta, hamburg steak and omelet rice in the 800 to 1500 yen range. Soft drinks around 500 yen, mixed drinks and beer between 500 and 1000 yen. Massive desserts from 1000 yen and up.
"Love": Drawing on the food in catsup for a couple hundred yen extra. Standard "welcome master" greetings when you arrive and leave. Certain entree and dessert items are a little pricier, but include the maid feeding you the first bite.
Outfits: This is a cosplay cafe, so outfits can change daily.
Photos: 1000 yen for just the maid. 1500 yen for either 2 maids, or yourself with a maid.
Wireless Internet: Yes.
Specialties: Cos-Cha is a cosplay cafe, so one of the main attractions is to see the maids in different costumes. There's also something of a school theme, with about 1/4 of the tables being made up of elementary school desks and a big blackboard along one wall.
Recommendation: Cos-Cha is actually one of the more fun places to go to, if you want a semi-erotic experience and can speak Japanese. But, watch out for the maid photo prices - that'll break your budget fairly quickly.

Monday, April 19, 2010

In the station

You know you're in Akihabara when the first thing you see entering the train station is a floor to ceiling ad for @Home.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: Hiyokoya

When entertainment writers talk about Akihabara, they're referring to a roughly 6-block square spanning from Kanda river to the south, Showa Dori and the expressway on the east, Kuramaebashi Dori to the north, and 452 to the west. Places along 452 or Kuramaebashi are considered to be at the "remote outskirts" of the neighborhood, ignoring the fact that you can get from one corner to the other in about 5-10 minutes on foot. While Akihabara is bigger than the downtown areas of many western cities, you have to remember that it comprises a fraction of the 4 mile by 7 mile oval that is the interior of the Yamanote train loop. This oval is so packed with buildings and stores that you'd never be able to visit them all in one life time. Further, while Akihabara is billed as a haven for electronics, video game and anime fanatics, it's easy to forget that it also has schools, offices, grocery stores, a fire department and at least 2 large police stations. It' s a very dense section of a very dense megalopolis.

Why does this matter? Because outside this region by a couple of blocks is Hiyokoya, a maid cafe that, the Wednesday night that I wandered by to determine what kind of place it is, was packed with high school girls. Unfortunately, when I did have a chance to drop by shortly after it opened for dinner at 5 PM Saturday afternoon, the place was deserted.

Yes, Hiyokoya fails to meet the expectations of most entertainment writers. It's an Akihabara maid cafe that isn't within the Akihabara borders, and it's popular with many kinds of people. On the other hand, it's packed with toys and figures from various anime and action shows (like Dragon Ball, Gundam, Ultraman, etc.) and plush UFO Catcher dolls. There are sign cards along the walls with autographs from wrestlers, artists and singers, and over 20 notebooks with drawings from various customers over the years. Anime theme music plays on the sound system, but I didn't recognize any of it, and the maid couldn't name the songs either. It is an otaku haven, and if I understand the online events calendar right, they even attend Komiket sometimes (although, the event calendar doesn't seem to have been updated since 2002).

Hiyokoya operates as a full-service cafe, with a lunch service from noon to 3 PM and dinner from 5 PM to 10 PM. Entrees range from curries and pastas, to ramen and udon (600-1000 yen), with soft drinks (400 yen), beer (450 yen), mixed drinks (350-680 yen) and some desserts (380-680 yen). I got the chicken kimchi udon and a glass of Ebisu beer (980 + 450 yen). If I understand the system right, there's a 500 yen table charge for single customers,
which brought the total for me up to 1930 yen ($22 USD).

There's no added flavor chants, or writing on the food. When I entered, I got the standard "irasshaimasu" greeting and a startled look that anyone - especially a foreigner - would be coming in so early. Although, when I left, the maid walked me to the door and bowed me out. The beer was served in a tall glass, and I received a small bowl of edamame as a "service" appetizer. I spent my time looking at the sketches in the notebooks, some of which were close to pro quality. After about 20 minutes, my kimchi udon arrived, boiling hot and swimming in red pepper soup. Lots of chopped onions, mushrooms, and noodles, with a few pieces of meat. Spicy but not completely overwhelming. Tasted really good, but the maid was just a little too eager to take the bowl back before I had a chance to drink it dry.

I didn't see any mentions of maid photos, but with just the (male) cook and the one maid, there wouldn't have been anyone to take the photo anyway, if the place had been more busy. There is a points card - 1 point per 500 yen. 50 points gets an original shop branded present, and a free 1000 yen dinner item. Since the table charge accounted for 1 point, and they round up, it'd be about 12-13 meals to max the card, which isn't that outlandish.

The maid wasn't overly talkative, so I kept to myself for the most part. But, I expect that other staff work various other nights, and the place may become more interesting later in the evening. Like I mentioned above, there were a number of school girls in talking and reading manga a few nights earlier.

At heart, this is a noodle shop that just happens to have manga and maids in it. The kimchi udon was good, and if they'd just get rid of the table charge I'd make it a regular stop for a beer after work.

Name: Hiyokoya
Location: Northwest side of the elevated expressway. From the JR Akihabara station, take the exit heading towards Yodabashi Camera, and continue east one block to the expressway. Turn left and head north about 4 blocks. You'll want to cross the street to get to the right hand side when you have the chance. At the next corner past the Daily convenience store, turn right and go about 2 short blocks and it'll be on your left.
Price: Moderate
Cover: 500 yen for single customers.
Food: Hiyokoya is a full-service cafe with a bar, that just happens to have maids on staff. Dishes include curries, pastas, ramen and udon dishes between 600 and 1000 yen. Soft drinks around 400 yen. Beer for 450 yen. Cocktails for 350 to 680 yen, plus full bottles for 4500 to 6800 yen. A few desserts between 380 and 680 yen. Lunch service from noon to 3 PM. Dinner from 5 PM to 10 PM.
"Love": No love.
Outfits: Black dress with a white apron.
Photos: None.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Food. I liked the kimchi udon. And lots of anime and manga related items all over the shop.
Recommendation: If you're looking for a place that has lots of food to choose from and toys and autograph boards all over the wall, Hiyokoya is the place for you. It just screams "subculture". If they'd get rid of the table charge, they'd be perfect.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Kaichou wa maid-sama!

There's a manga that I've been ignoring, mainly because the artwork doesn't appeal to me all that much, called "Kaichou wa maid-sama!" (translated as "The School council president is a maid!", and carried in the U.S. by Tokyopop simply as "Maid-sama!") It's a shoujo comic from LaLa (aimed at girls) which is why I don't really care for it.

However, when I was at Cos-cha, I noticed some advertising sitting on the table next to the cash register and picked it up. It consisted of the flier promoting the anime series, and two paper coasters. There was also a separate map of maid cafes in Akihabara, with the map on one side, and the list of characters from the manga on the other. The map also advertised a special one-day "Cafe Latte Sweets Day" on March 20 in the Donkey building, but I'd missed that. I'm a little surprised that I haven't seen this map anywhere else other than at Cos-Cha. The URL on the map only brings up a limited webpage promoting the map itself plus the event.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: Moe Con Cafe

Where to start. This one's hard. I could begin by mentioning that it was snowing, a watery slush forming on the sidewalk as I walked from the JR station towards the building with Pash Cafe Nagome on the second floor, when the maid stepped out of the elevator of the building as I was walking up, and how she wasn't dressed for standing out in the cold for an hour handing out fliers, thus being more than happy to return back into the building with me in tow. Or, I could say that I was checking off the remaining maid stores on my BIZS map and I was about to drop in on Bar Zeon to see if it was maid related when I discovered that it'd had gone out of business and just been replaced by Moe Con@Cafe two weeks prior and I hadn't noticed it when I'd visited Candy Fruits Strawberry at the same time. Or, I could mention the 500 yen table charge per 30 minutes and how much I hate paying table charges...

I really want to like Moe Con, I really do. It's brand new and shiny. But like Cafe Mermaid next door, there are so many strikes against it that I have to be honest. Cruel, but honest.

The maids were very friendly, and when I arrived there were 4 maids and us 3 customers (me and 2 young guys at one corner table). So, I got to spend a lot of time talking to the one assigned to my table. The first thing I asked about was Moe's "sales point", i.e. - what sets it apart from the other cafes. The first answer is that because it's new, it's still really clean, Plus, it's modeled after @Home. So, it's clean, it's got pretty maids, and you can play board games against them for 3-5 minutes for 500 yen.

Unfortunately, there's a 500 yen table charge for 30 minutes, and since it takes at least that long to get the food, you're looking at 1000 yen just for permission to sit down. On top of that, the food's pricey for what you get, and it's 800 yen for a photo with a maid (500 yen for a shot of just the maid). I ordered a parfait, hot coffee and the maid photo, which came to 2750 yen ($30 USD). If I'd gotten dinner and some drinks it would have been a lot more, making Moe Con one of the most expensive cafes I've been in so far, including Idol Produce. (Actually, Moe Con has bottled Dom on the menu; the white Dom is about $300 USD for one bottle, the rose DOM is almost $900 USD. If you want expensive.)

The menu is fairly limited, with omelet rice, curry rice and pastas for around 1200 yen. A number of soft drinks for 450 yen. Beer and mixed drinks around 650 yen. And a selection of 4 desserts (ice cream, a parfait and some sponge cakes) between 350 and 650 yen. I ordered a hot coffee and an almond pudding parfait, which arrived fairly quickly. The coffee was in a small cup, and the maids happily gave me extra sugar for it. We then went through an added flavor chant (moe moe oshikunare beam), which did work because the coffee was strong and not bitter. The parfait on the other hand came out in a small fluted glass - corn flakes on the bottom, whipped cream in the middle, a small almond pudding on top and some more whipped cream and a cherry, plus some chocolate syrup. I tried explaining how a parfait in the U.S. has a lot more ice cream and fruit in it for the same price, and no corn flakes, but the maids didn't believe me.

(Notepaper being used in place of a points card.)

There's all kinds of things missing that I would have expected to be put in place long before the doors first opened: there's no website yet; they're waiting on getting the points cards; and while they seem to have some kind of a random drawing where you have a chance of winning a free maid photo, or some goods sitting on the shelves behind the bar, there's nothing saying how to participate in the drawing - if you have to win a maid game or just pay for a chance at the drawing. Regarding the stuff on the shelves, there's no printed list of what's on offer, or if any of it is stuff that you can buy outright.

On the other hand, the maids are all smart, attractive and willing to stop and chat. And, there's no shortage of customers. After the first two guys left, a group of 6 young men came in and sat at the counter at the bar. I do have to add that the 5th floor is the non-smoking space. The smokers were on the 4th floor, and I didn't pop my head in to see how crowded it was there. Both floors are a bit small, with tables and counter space for about 20. Given the @Home motif, the walls are white and the space is brightly lit. J-pop plays on the speaker system. And, there's an area between the tables along one wall where the maid photos are taken. My maid spent about 5 minutes touching up our photo, and she looked pretty proud of her work when she brought it back to me.

Like I said up at the beginning, I really want to like Moe Con Cafe. The maids are nice and I enjoyed talking to them. But, they're not ready yet. Being a more expensive spin-off of @Home, and not having any of the other props set up for it, is not enough to make me want to become a repeat customer. Eliminate the table charge, put up the website, bring in the points card, and introduce a line of branded CDs and DVDs (I'd love a Moe Con t-shirt) with the price list printed up next to the cash register, and it'd be a good start. But, even if all of these suggestions were implemented, it'd probably take a few months for the cafe to actually develop a personality of its own, meaning that it may be better to wait for a while before stopping by for a visit.

Name: Moe Con Cafe
Location: 4th and 5th floors, above Pash Cafe Nagome and Candy Fruits Strawberry.
Price: High
Cover: 500 lets you stay 30 minutes.
Food: Limited selection of entrees (omelet rice, pasta and curry) around 1200 yen, soft drinks for 450 yen, mixed drinks and beer around 600 yen, and a small selection of desserts (ice cream, parfait and sponge cake) between 350 and 600 yen.
"Love": Added flavor chants, drawings on the foods in catsup or chocolate syrup for an additional 100 yen.
Outfits: White blouse with pink apron and skirt ala @Home.
Photos: 500 yen for just a photo of the maid; 800 yen if you're also in the photo.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Typical maid cafe, with maid games, photos and drinks.
Recommendation: Right now, Moe Con is too new and is still trying to "find itself". It may be better to wait a little while and try visiting later when it's taken on a personality of its own.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Usagi no Mori, part 2

When I wrapped up my trip to Usagi no Mori, I was kind of left wondering exactly what the deal was with the points card. Here I was with an application card and the receipt, but I'd have to come back to submit the form and I still didn't know what the cost was per point. So I decided, "what the heck, cute rabbits" and I returned the next day.


Day 2 was a bit of a let down, actually, Not as many customers (more female customers, though), so there wasn't a stage show this time. The usagi were just as friendly, but not as talkative, and the first dessert I tried to select (the Japanese style cakes) was sold out. I got the custard dessert instead. It looks very nice, and does have a fair bit of fruit, but the portion is very small, compared to one of the dinner entrees for the same price (1000 yen). Fortunately, I was able to get a dessert-drink set for 1300 yen total, which saved me the 500 yen which it would have cost for the custard and hot coffee separately.

When I was done, I took the application card and receipt to the cash register, where I was given the new points card, with 205 points on it. Doing the math, that's 50 yen per point. To get to the first bonus (bandanna card level) is 1000 points, or $220 USD. Kind of comparable with the systems at other cafes. On the other hand, as I was standing at the register, the usagi there started talking to me and asking about my impressions of the forest. Turns out that she'd lived in Vancouver for a few years before returning back to Japan some time ago, and her English was still pretty good. I told her about Maid Runner, and we talked about manga, and the shojo artist that created the characters for Usagi no Mori, for about 10 minutes. That was the main upbeat point for the evening.

Recommendations after the second visit: Go on a busy night, have fun, and skip the desserts. Spend the money instead on a plush usagi doll (1000 yen at the lobby counter). And enjoy the cute rabbits.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review: Usagi no Mori

"No smoking or photography while in the forest, because the rabbits are shy and afraid of fire, and will quickly run away."

Welcome to Hand Maid Cafe - Usagi no Mori (rabbit forest), a newly remodeled cafe located directly on the left side of Chuu-ou Dori a few blocks past Kandamyojin Dori, on the 6th floor of the Akiba Place building. When you step out of the elevator, you're immediately in a small gift shop filled with plush rabbit dolls, CDs and Kitkat bars with photos of the maids on the boxes. The maids are all referred to as "usagi-chan" (small rabbit), and wear big floppy ears and fluffy black tails along with their black dresses and white apron and trim.

Around the corner is the entrance to the restaurant itself, a large, softly lit space capable of seating 100 people, with wood paneling, and a large fake tree growing out of the wall behind the bar. Branches of the tree weave through the metal rafters of the ceiling. A large stage near the front is used for maid photos, and for periodic song numbers performed by the staff. The opposite wall has a large plate glass window opening onto the kitchen, where you can watch the maids preparing the food.

The staff are all friendly, and if they're not too busy, are willing to stop and chat. At 7:00 on a Tuesday evening the place was relatively quiet with only 20 customers (at many maid cafes, 20 people would be considered a packed house). One table had 3 female office workers (OLs, or "office ladies"), and there were 2 other foreigners sitting at the bar; most everyone else were salarymen. But, there were close to 10 maids on duty, keeping the staff-to-customer ratio pretty high. At about 6:40, two of the maids got up on the stage and started dancing to a light j-pop number that essentially was a thank-you for coming to the cafe and ordering the delicious food. A second song promoted several of the dishes from the point of view of a pretty rabbit talking about her busy day. The dances were pose-heavy j-pop influenced things with lots of hand and arm movement but very little actual dancing.

The rules card is in English and Japanese. The menus are Japanese only but have lots of pictures of the dishes. The maids can speak some English, but would rather answer questions in Japanese if possible. As a family-style restaurant, the entrees include the standard pastas and curries, as well as rice bowls and okonomiyaki. There's no table charge, so the food prices are all higher as a result. On the other hand, the serving sizes are also a little bigger. Entrees for 1000 to 1400 yen, soft drinks for 800 yen, mixed drinks for 900 to 100 yen, and custards and ice cream parfaits for 1000 to 1200 yen.

I ordered an ice coffee, and spaghetti with meat sauce. The coffee came out first, and the maid poured in syrup and cream from metal pourers (as opposed to just giving me a stick of sugar or a cup of creamer), but instead of the 'nyan' sound some cafes would make you use when you got enough cream, here it was just "stop" when the coffee was the way you wanted it. Fortunately, they do let you take photos of the food. The spaghetti came out in a heart-shaped bowl, with the sauce in a roughly rabbit-like shape, and the maid sprinkled on cheese to form the eyes. There was also a small salad with ginger-soy dressing and a small cup of onion soup. All of the food was good, but the coffee was watery. You'll probably want to stick with sodas, or the cocktails, which are less likely to get wrong.

I also ordered a maid photo. Along with the 1100 yen meal, and 800 yen drink, the total came to 2400 yen, which was fairly reasonable. The maid took me up on the stage right away (rather than waiting towards the end of the meal like at most places) and suggested the heart pose. Later, she shyly approached my table with the touched up photo, asking if it was acceptable. When I said "yes", she looked obviously relieved. No one else got photos while I was there.

There is a points card, but you have to fill out a membership card to get it, and you have to bring the completed form with you on your next visit. So, what's shown here is the front of the form card. Not exactly sure of the yen per point ratio. At 1000 points you go to "Bandana card" level, and get a free Usagi no Mori telephone card. At 2000 points it's the "Secret Menu card" level and you can order food and drinks from the secret menu. At 3000 points is the "message card" which gives you a personalized phone greeting and some other things. At 5000 points is a CD of the maids, and at 10,000 points is a hand-made bento box from the maid of your choice.

On the way out, I decided to pick up one of the Kitkats for 400 yen ($4.40 USD). It's just a regular Kitkat with 2 packaged bars, but I wanted it for the photo. There are about 10 different packages, each with photos of different maids. The "L<=>R" logo is supposed to represent the left and right hands of the maids making the food for you. The mascot is one of the most ill-tempered rabbits I've seen in a while.

Overall, I had a lot of fun. Usagi no Mori is a family-style restaurant, so it appeals to a different crowd than similar maid cafes, but isn't as "adult-themed" as Kokumaru Milk. Since there's no table charge, it's not all that expensive if you just get a drink and an entree. Any more than that and the total will skyrocket, though. On the other hand, there are menu items tailored for groups, such as the cocktail special with several drinks and a maid photo for 3300 yen. So, if you do go with friends, you can bring the prices down a little by ordering in bulk.

Name: Usagi no Mori
Location: On the left side of Chuu-ou Dori, 6th floor of the Akiba Place building, a few short blocks north of Kandamyojin Dori.
Price: Moderate high.
Cover: No table charge
Food: A wide variety of dinner plates, including the standard pastas and curries, but also okonomiyaki and rice bowls for 1000-1400 yen; soft drinks for 800 yen and mixed drinks for 900-1000 yen; and desserts including custards and parfaits for 1000 to 1200 yen.
"Love": No special added flavor chants. Standard "welcome master" greetings when you arrive.
Outfits: Black dress with white apron and trim, and floppy black rabbit ears and tail.
Photos: 500 yen.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: A distinct rabbit in a forest theme. Lots of branded goods for sale in the lobby, and live song and dance routines every so often.
Recommendation: Usagi no Mori is a fun family restaurant that doesn't take itself seriously. The maids refer to each other as "rabbits", and you can watch them preparing the meals through the window to the kitchen. Because there's no table charge, the prices of the individual food items are higher. But, it's worth visiting just to watch the usagi dances on the stage. Recommended.