Monday, March 29, 2010

majucarons



While not necessarily maid-related, majucarons is located in with a number of maid cafes, and as you walk around you're bound to see the eye-catching artwork at some point. Actually, this is a fortune-telling shop, up on the 5th floor of a building with *very* steep steps and no elevator. You can have your fortune read a number of ways, including using a pendulum, tarot cards, and so on. Prices range from 1000 to 8000 yen ($11 to $88 USD). Even if you're not a believer, you can't go wrong with a witch this cute.



Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review: Idol Produce Cafe

One thing about Akiba is that you can not simply say "oh yeah, now I've seen it all", because there will always be something that you never expected, and which you'll wonder "why didn't I think of that?" just around the corner. Case in point - Idol Produce Cafe.



According to the AkibaToday page, this was originally Akiba Tenkyu, which opened last May, and then underwent a redesign last fall, to reopen in December as Idol Produce Cafe (IPC). The premise is simple - the staff (all young women between 18 and 22 or so) are working to become j-pop idols, singing, dancing and talking on the radio. The customers then sign on as producers and lend encouragement to the staff. There are different events every day, so check the events page on the website before going to see if it's something you want to watch. IPC is somewhat pricey, since along with the 500 yen table charge there's also a one-time 500 yen membership fee to get your "producer's badge" and lanyard. But, you can get some discounts if you have a cell phone that handles the 2D barcodes for visiting their mobile site.

IPC is just north of Mai:lish. From the JR Akihabara station, take the north exit from Denki Town, go up to Kandamyojin Dori right in front of the UDX building, and then turn left and go past Chuu-Ou Dori to the next major intersection (you'll see Coco's restaurant across the street). Turn right and go half a block north, past Mai:lish. It's on the right, on the 7th floor. Look for the sign board out front. Actually, the 7th floor is just the kitchen and a waiting area. The cafe itself is up the stairs on the 8th floor.



The cafe is kind of cramped, with three 4-person tables near the stage for non-smoking, and another couple tables for smoking at the back of the room. New "producers" get to sit at the tables. There's counter seating at the bar for 4-6 "seasoned" producers. When I was there, the stage was set up for a 3-person live maid radio show, which wasn't scheduled to start until 8:00 PM, well after I had to be at work for my 7:30 start time. Other events include singing and so on.

There weren't many people when I arrived at 6 PM, just 3 at the bar and another 2 at one table (all young guys), but there were 4 or 5 "idols" on staff, which meant that the idols had time to talk to me. My idol very carefully went through the system, explaining the 500 yen table charge for 1 hour, needing to place minimum orders per hour, and using a cell phone to sign up on the mobile website to get my producer's membership badge. Unfortunately, I have a pre-paid cell phone, and I'm blocked from accessing the net or using 2D barcodes with it (a fact that I'm increasingly unhappy with, but it's cheaper than getting a 2-year contract), so my idol set up my membership manually. She and a second idol also explained the concept of the cafe to me, and showed various magazines and newspaper articles the cafe has appeared in.

The menu and system explanation card are all in Japanese, and the idols didn't really speak English. However, they're located at the outskirts of the Akiba district far from the main crowds on Chuu-ou Dori, so they rarely get tourists or non-native speakers. Which kind of played in my favor, because both idols wanted to learn some English. I had nothing better to do, and kept busy by teaching them a handful of fixed phrases they could use right away (welcome to the cafe, can I take your order, here's your change). I was a little disappointed to not get any discounts because of it, though, although I wasn't really expecting to.

Regarding discounts, one minus against the shop is that they didn't honor the free drink coupon. When I arrived at the 7th floor, there was a table next to the elevator with some free advertising for some "girl capture" video games, and a flier for the cafe. I grabbed one of each and noticed that the flier had a coupon for a free soft drink. When I was placing my order, I asked if I could use the coupon and was told "yes". But, at the end, I was charged for the drink anyway. I knew that the bill was on the high side, but I was having trouble completely understanding the pricing system and didn't want to bother wading through the itemized breakdown at the time and I let it slide.

IPC has all of the standard cafe entrees, including curry rice and omelet rice, plus other dishes in the 700-1200 yen range; soft drinks between 500-1000 yen; ice creams and cakes for 500-1200 yen; and mixed drinks around 700 yen. You can also get alcohol by the bottle between 3000 and 6000 yen (you can leave "your" bottle at the bar and come back to drink from it later). I decided to get the cheapest thing on the menu - curry rice, and an ice coffee. The coffee came out quickly, in a tall glass, and the idol neatly placed a spoon, and one syrup and creamer next to it. The coffee wasn't bad, but became watery because of all the ice fairly quickly. Some time later, the curry came out in a medium-sized bowl. There was no added flavor chant or drawing on the food. Normally, curry can have large chunks of potatoes, carrots and beef or chicken. This time, it was mostly just rice on one side of the bowl, and the curry sauce on the other side, with a couple small pieces of beef mixed in. 700 yen each for the coffee and curry, plus with the table charge came to 1900 yen normally ($21 USD), but with the new members fee was 2400 yen ($26-$27). Since the drink was supposed to be free, and there was nothing happening on the stage, that's 2400 yen for just a medium-sized curry. Ouch. ;-(



There's nothing on the menu regarding maid photos, and they don't have the maid games here. I'm not exactly sure how the points are recorded, since I just have a paper members card and the bronze and gold cards seem to be plastic. It's 1000 yen per point, and it's 25 points to bump up to the first next level. When you hit gold, you can get a maid photo with the idol of your choice. The levels are bronze, gold and platinum, but there's not much explanation on the website for what each one gives you. If you really like coming here, it's worth getting the member's card and going for the perks, but at roughly $11 per point, $275 USD is a bit much just to pick up a photo.

The staff at IPC was very friendly when I was there, but you really do need to be able to speak some Japanese. And if you like watching young women in school uniforms singing on stage (depending on the event night) then this is the place for you. Just be aware that this dinner theater is not going to be cheap.


Summary:
Name: Idol Produce Cafe
Location: On 452, just north of Coco's restaurant. From the JR Akihabara station, go west to Chuu-ou Dori, turn right to Kandamyojin Dori, turn left and go down to the next major intersection (about 2 long blocks), turn right again and IPC will be on the right about half a block down, just past Mai:lish. On the 7th floor.
Price: Moderately high.
Cover: 500 yen lets you stay 1 hour, and there's a one-time 500 yen fee for the membership card.
Food: Standard cafe entrees like curry rice and omelet rice in the 700-1200 yen range, desserts (cakes and ice cream for 500-1000 yen) and drinks (500-1000 for soft drinks; 700 for mixed drinks; 1000-6000 for bottled alcohol).
"Love": No added flavor chants. Basically, "welcome home, producer" and "please return soon, producer" chants when you arrive and leave.
Outfits: Light pink blouse with plaid bow tie and skirt college girl's uniform.
Photos: Nothing on the menu. Maid photos are available if you get enough points on the points card.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: You get to play "idol producer", where you support and encourage one of the staff to become a j-pop idol.
Recommendation: This one's a little tricky. The food's pricier than normal, plus there's the table charge and the 500 yen charge to become a "producer". The main draw is to watch the events, but there's not something going on all the time every night. Check the events calendar first. However, if you want true "Akiba dinner theater", with singing or a live radio show, this is one place to find it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Maid-Related Products, 4



Hello Kitty is used for advertising the oddest things. I mentioned the Maid-Kitty caramels before. Here, Kitty in the same outfit is used for canned ramen. There's a Jason's discount store near me that often carries products that didn't sell during their promotional period, generally for 30-50% of the original price. I got this can for 50 yen (55 cents US). And it's about as bad as you'd expect old canned ramen to be. The soup smells a bit musky, and the noodles are gummy and too starchy. But, at least Kitty is cute in her uniform...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: iDOL BOXX (DiCE)



iDoL BoXX (DiCe) is a tricky place to find. The only reason I even knew about it was because of the fliers I'd get occasionally from the maids standing on Chuu-ou Dori. I'd walked by the place a number of times without noticing anything interesting in the area (it's right behind the library near the Buddhist school). I'd only started thinking about going there because the BIZS map I'm using for marking off places I've visited had the name listed but without any mention of what the place was. Even with the map, I walked by the entrance several times before I finally realized what I was looking at. Ignoring the fact that they even have a sign board out front. The reason it's so hard to find is that it's down a narrow stairway into the basement alongside the building's loading ramp.



Actually, iDoL BoXX isn't a maid cafe per se. It's a j-pop idol performance space where the staff sings or dances on the stage at the back of the room. The space itself is maybe 20 by 80 feet, with wooden tables and bench seating along the right wall, and counter seating at the bar along the left. You enter the room at the near end from the stairs. Total seating is maybe 40 people, but during the big events the tables are taken out to make more room for the audience. The walls are an off-white plaster, and there are posters taped up advertising food specials and upcoming events. The next big event will be the 1-year anniversary on March 26, although the twins (two of the staff members) are celebrating their birthday just before that.

iB opens for the evening at 6 PM, and I arrived 15 minutes after that, when the staff was still setting up, and they acted like they were a little unready to let people in yet. But, I was shown to a table, and was the only one there then. A little later, one other guy came in but he left after less than half an hour, only getting something small as a snack. I was told that normally the singing starts at 8 PM and that repeats on the hour, but that if enough people came in by 7 they'd be willing to do one of the shows. (Didn't happen by the time I left.)

I wanted to get something to eat, but all they had was izakaya-style finger foods in the 350-600 yen range. My maid suggested that I get the chicken rice bowl special, and I decided to accompany that with a coke and a maid photo. The maid photos are of just the maid, for 500 yen. You have to fill up the points card to get a shot of you and the maid together. And that's 20 points, at 1 point per 500 yen. 3 full cards gets you a photo with the entire staff; 5 cards is a "present" from the maid of your choice; and 10 cards is a special from the entire staff.
While I was waiting for the food to come out, the two bartenders continued their set up, and 2 of the 3 waitresses moved boxes around and finalized their preparations. None of them had special outfits on, except for the t-shirts advertising the bar. The 3rd waitress, "my" maid, stayed at the table and chatted with me. At one point, she started drawing a self-portrait, which came out looking really nice.



The chicken dish turned out to be a large bowl of rice coated with lettuce and then covered in large chunks of chicken. Not a lot of extra flavors, but with a little black pepper turned out pretty good, and it was filling. It was accompanied by a small bowl of rice crackers and a cup of miso soup. Along with the large coke, 500 yen table charge and the 500 yen maid photo, the total was 2700 yen ($30 USD). Kind of at the high end of the scale, but at least they didn't skimp on the food.



Be careful if you ask for a maid photo. Normally, these are referred to as "chekki", which is the sound the polaroid camera makes when the shutter closes. I asked for a "chekki"; the maid thought I meant "jerky", and shouted the order to the bar. I'm not sure what the reaction would have been if I'd scanned in the "maid jerky" for this blog. Any way, the maid asked if I wanted her to pose at the tables or on the floor near the door. I didn't realize that it'd be just the picture of her so I didn't specify either way. Later, she sat on the floor and the manager took the shot. The maid then spent several minutes touching it up, giving it to me just before I left.



At some point, I'm going to go to a "live bar" at a time when I can actually see the live performance. But, I think I had a much better time talking to the staff for an hour before the rest of the audience came in. They were friendly, attentive, and willing to put up with my broken Japanese. They do speak some English, but there's no English menu, and they'll stick with Japanese if given the chance. Overall, I had fun, but it would have been better if the price was 25% lower.


Summary:
Name: iDOL BOXX (DiCE)
Location: Just east of 452, on the south side of the library, in the basement of the white building with the big open loading dock.
Price: Moderately high.
Cover: 500 yen lets you stay 1 hour. After that, it's a minimum of one order per hour.
Food: During the evening, the main food items are finger food sampler dishes ala an izakaya (300-600 yen per dish), and the emphasis is on the mixed drinks (700-1000 yen) and beer (700 yen). They were promoting the chicken rice bowl for 1200 yen. Soft drinks for 500 yen.
"Love": No special chants or drawing on the food.
Outfits: No special outfits when I was there. Although the staff were all wearing iDoL BoXX t-shirts.
Photos: 500 yen for just a photo of the maid. Filling up a points card gets you a photo with you and the maid together.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: Live song and dance performances on the stage during the evenings, on the hour.
Recommendation: This one's a toss up. I arrived at 6 PM, just after they opened and the place was deserted. Which led one of the maids to spend the entire hour talking with me. Going later would allow you to watch the song performances, but with more people in the audience you're going to be pretty much ignored by the staff.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Maid-Related Products, 3



Let's start out with the stranger of the two maid-related food items this time. This is kind of a themed product from a company that has used similar characters on other packages. The snack here is a "Moe Choco Cake Bar".



Actually, it's kind of a tiramisu-like thick pancake cookie bar with with chocolate added. It sold for about 600 yen, meaning that each of the 6 bars were worth $1.10 USD. It was a little too dry and the chocolate flavor didn't stand out all that much. You get this one for the maid characters on the packaging.




I've mentioned Maid Club before. They're a souvenir shop just off Chuu-ou Dori, near the JR Akihabara station. They have their own brand of chocolate-filled cookies.





Again, the cookies are too dry, but at least now the flavor of the filling stands out more. These are good with milk or ice coffee. A couple cookies per pack, 8 packs per box, for about $5. A better deal than the chocolate bars above.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: Candy Fruits Strawberry

Ok, I'm writing this review from memory one week after visiting the cafe, so it's necessarily going to be a little sketchy and shorter than normal. I'm not sure when/if I'll be able to get the original review off the drive of my old PC.



Candy Fruits is one of the more eclectic chains in Akihabara, consisting of a glasses shop (Candy Fruits Optical), a reflex shop (Candy Fruits Reflex Club) and the cafe - Candy Fruits Strawberry. I've mentioned the first two previously (CFO is near Little TVG, and CFRC is on the third floor of the Schatzkiste cafe). It'd taken me a while to track down Strawberry, but it turns out I'd seen it before - it's in the basement of the building housing Pash Cafe Nagomi, near Mermaid. Just go straight west from the JR Akihabara station, past Chuu-ou Dori 2.5 blocks, and veer slightly north towards Kandamyojin Dori. Look for the Pash Cafe sign and go down the stairs rather than up.



Strawberry is, at its heart,a dress-up shop. The room is long and narrow, with school desks at the front end for seating 10 people, and a few more tables along one wall to hold another 6-8 people. At the back are rows of clothes racks holding a wide variety of uniforms and costumes. Female customers can play dress-up for 1000 yen, and have their picture taken as they like. Or, for 1000 yen, you can spend three minutes taking photos of a maid in the outfit of your choice with your own camera. The front end of the room also has a small couch for posing for photos, or you can take the shots at your table.

To hide the fact that you're underground, the cafe has fake window boxes in the walls showing various outdoors pictures, and a monitor wall plays footage of trains entering and leaving a small station. With the bright lighting and faux external views, it's easy to forget that it's night outside.



The menu has the standard cafe fare - omelet rice and curry, as well as some rice bowl dishes. Set entrees are 1100-1200 yen. Drinks are 500-600, and mixed drinks become available after 6 PM. Ice cream is 500 yen, and sponge cake desserts are 600-1100 yen. I decided to get a deluxe cheese cake drink set for 900 yen, plus a maid photo for 600 yen, coming to 1500 yen total. There's no table charge, which is good, but it does mean that individual menu items will cost a bit more. The hot cafe au lait was a very strong roast, and complemented the large slice of chocolate sponge cake. The cake itself was mostly air, but the 2 layers of frosting were fairly thick and almost cream cheese-like. A small bow tie was drawn in strawberry syrup on the plate, and that added a little fruit flavor to the dessert. Overall, not bad for a maid cafe. No added favor chants or requests for drawing on the food, though.



For the photo, I had the choice of standing near the clothes racks, or sitting on the couch. The maid immediately grabbed a plush bear from the large box of props near by, and we went without any of the standard cutesy poses. Shortly after, one of the other customers, a Japanese guy who spoke some English well, and his foreign friend (maybe German) who spoke good Japanese, paid the 1000 yen for the 3 minute photo shoot. The German sat on the couch with the maid and the cameraman (camera was worth at least $1500) went crazy, taking shots every 10-20 seconds. Then they traded places, with the German and the maid taking turns on the camera.



The cafe was never really crowded, but there was a steady stream of customers, with about 8 people max at one point. Customers included two women that were really well-dressed, some businessmen, and a couple college guys. The maids were friendly, talking to the regulars, but mostly leaving me on my own.



There is a points card. 1 point per 1000 yen. For every 5 points, you can pull a piece of paper out of the drawing box to see if you can win something. I'm assuming that prizes include a free drink, dessert or maid photo. Strawberry is relaxed and has a fun, lighthearted atmosphere. I enjoyed myself.


Summary:
Name: Candy Fruits Strawberry
Location: Basement of the building with Pash Cafe Nagome
Price: Moderate
Cover: No cover.
Food: Curry, omelet rice, rice bowls, etc. Soft drinks and mixed drinks after 6 PM.
"Love": Some writing on the foods in catsup or syrup.
Outfits: No standardized uniforms.
Photos: 600 yen for a maid photo, or 1000 yen to use your own camera to take photos for 3 minutes.
Wireless Internet: (?) (No laptops in evidence when I was there.)
Specialties: This is a cosplay cafe, where you can request the maids to wear the kind of outfit you'd like.If you're female, you can try putting on something from the racks of outfits lining the back wall.
Recommendation: For a "real" Akihabara experience, with fake trains and cosplay, Candy Fruits Strawberry is worth the visit.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hina Matsuri

Competition between the maid cafes is fierce, but you really don't see that on the surface. When you walk down Chuu-ou Dori from the JR Akihabara station, there'll be 10 or 15 maids on either side of the street, often standing close by each other, trying to hand out fliers to their cafes. Generally, the pedestrians ignore them as they shuffle by, heads bowed down, staring at their shoes. Few of the maids succeed at getting anyone to take the fliers, and if they do, there's little interest in actually going to the cafes. If one person does choose to hit a cafe, that's one place with one more customer, while the other places go empty. So, the competition's not on the street. It's in the cafes themselves. And the fierceness surfaces in the ways each place decides to hold events.

The big holidays are pretty obvious. Most cafes will have a Christmas special, with the maids wearing red stocking caps and maybe red dress uniforms, and Halloween with its accompanying cosplay. The lesser known, more traditional Japanese holidays also have their own place on the maid calendars. Specifically, I'm talking about Hina Matsuri, March 3, with its display of little dolls on a tiered platform (the "hina"; "matsuri" means "festival"). When I visited Idol Produce Cafe on Mar. 2 (to be reviewed later), I noticed on the placemat calendar that there was going to be a Hina Matsuri event the next day. Wanting to know what that would entail, I dropped by again on my way to work.

In the case of IPC, the event was a little too low-key. One idol wore a traditional kimono while the others were in the standard school outfits. The menu listed the Hina set - a bag of sugar candy and a one-cup bottle of sweet sake for 1000 yen ($11 USD). While I was there for the next hour, nothing much happened. On the other hand, this time, there were two really well-dressed female customers at one table, one of whom was a regular. The other 6 people were young men, either job seekers, or college kids.

I was told that the idols would be singing on stage at 8 PM, but again, that was after my starting work time of 7:30. I did decide to get a dessert - sweet pancakes with drawings in chocolate syrup and a small scoop of ice cream. When the one idol arrived with the plate, all the others started squealing "kawaii" ("how cute") over the drawings. The pancakes were pretty standard, so nothing special there. 850 yen + the 500 yen cover.



Bottom line: most cafes will compete by offering different events throughout the year, and especially during the holidays. But, not all of the events will be that interesting. Moral: pick a cafe that you like, frequent it as you like, and wait until they have an event that you really want to see. Otherwise, going to a cafe at random could end up being disappointing (regardless of how fierce the competition is for your money). Or, don't go on a night when you have to work when the event takes place.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Turning Japanese Maids

(Friday's regular cafe review is on hold until I get my new PC.)

The Metropolis mentioned this video in their March 5th edition of their Multimedia section. Youtube has at least three versions uploaded as of Mar. 4, and the one mentioned hit the web on Feb. 27. That one had 10,283 views by the 4th, the one uploaded to the Japanese youtube site had 14,000 views, and the third version was only 200 views.

Edit: Youtube is cracking down on these videos and deleting them from their site. You can try doing a search on "turning Japanese Dunst" and see if someone uploaded it again, or see if you can find the home page for it. Some screen caps at gammasquad.



It's a painful (for me) to watch music video of Kirsten Dunst's "Turning Japanese" cover (she does realize what the phrase "turning Japanese" supposedly means, right? And even if she doesn't, is she really singing to a female lover?) I liked the original Vapors version of the song; Kirsten's... not so much. But she is kind of cute, and I'm finding it interesting trying to determine if her tongue is pierced.

However, this video is notable for one thing in specific - if you've never been to Akihabara before, it does capture the essence (in part, at least) of the place. And, it's got maids. And that's ok.

Points for the number of cafes you recognize represented in the video (the main indoor location was at Mononopu).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Moe-haku

I'm still waiting for my new PC to arrive, so I can't touch up my photos for the next cafe review yet. In the meantime, here's a little something to tide you over for the moment.

Both the Hiragana Times (a magazine for helping learners of English and Japanese) and the Metropolis have run short comments on Moe-haku, what's being billed as the first moe-only convention. The website's only in Japanese, but it does have some nice photos of "moe" characters. The expo's being held at Makuhari Messe center in Chiba (east of Tokyo closer to Narita airport) for one day, March 21st. Entry fee is 2000 yen ($22 USD). There's lots of emphasis on itasha and itansha (cars and bikes dressed up with big stickers of anime and video game characters), but there will also be voice actors, cosplay events and photo sessions. There may even be a maid or two in there somewhere.