I went, solo, to one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. Ever. Not just in Japan. Ever. A maid cafe. Anna was at a Starbucks – for some reason she didn’t want to visit Tokyo’s largest discount electronics store with me – so I headed by subway to Akihabara aka Electric Town. And while I enjoyed Electric Town – trying out 3D TVs, the new Call of Duty and other gizmos I’ve never seen before – the highlight of the trip out there was when I got pulled in to a Maid Cafe.
As I was leaving Electric Town, I was accosted by an overly-friendly Japanese woman wearing what I took to be a “Sexy French Maid” Halloween costume. She had a strange way of talking – very bubbly, almost giggling, but yelling at the same time. So she giggle/yells at me for 30 seconds in Japanese, while I stare at her, uncomprehendingly. But then she handed me a flier. It had a picture of food on it – plus pictures of full-grown women in maid outfits, some ice cream and lots of pink hearts and stars.
I was hungry and interested to see a maid cafe – we’d read about them in our guidebook as a Japanese novelty- so I followed the shouting/giggling maid to her diner. After reading about them online, Anna and I both got the impression that the maid cafes were something slightly sexual – maybe fetishy. But that wasn’t my experience at all. When I arrived, there were 3 tables of full women, several couples, one family with 2 small children and a grandmother plus a few single men reading comic books or playing on iPhones.
The giggly maid sat me down at a table near the cash register, presumably so she could keep an eye on me. She didn’t speak any English, so periodically she would shout/giggle a question at me, to which I would just shrug my shoulders. But she was so friendly about it that it was charming and I felt terrible for not understanding her.
She brought me a menu and I pointed at a meal I’d be willing to eat. Most of the food offerings consisted of cappuccinos topped with cute designs drawn in chocolate or ice cream sundaes with animal faces stuck to them. I ordered a very overpriced pork cutlet with rice. While I waited, I mostly stared at the decor. Light pink walls, hot pink parquet floors, framed maid costumes and pink hearts everywhere. The Japanese are obsessed with “cute” and it shows at the maid cafe. After watching my eyes wander around the restaurant for a few minutes, my maid (the same giggling loud-talker) decided I was bored and needed a magazine. So she went and got a Japanese magazine for me, written entirely in Japanese. I browsed for a bit, then returned to watching the goings-on at the cafe.
Every time a new group of customers came in, all of the maids would stop what they were doing, turn to face the door and shout, in a high-pitched squeal, “Ira sshai mase!” which means hello, but they were VERY enthusiastic about it. When someone would stand up to leave, one maid would alert the rest with a shout, to which they would all stop what they were doing, turn and face the person leaving a salute, shouting “Arigato gozaimashita!” (Thank you very much). Then everyone would bow. And keep bowing, repeatedly, until the customer was out the door. Since I can’t read Japanese, I watched this odd scene play out 20 times while I sat there.
And it was quickly obvious that my waitress was clearly the most enthusiastic of the 5 maids on duty this day. She did the most bowing, had the snappiest salute and was frequently the one alerting the other maids to arriving or departing customers. Most of the time, she was busy zipping around the restaurant, refilling water glasses and taking orders. Occasionally, she would yell something to the other maids, then show them a stack of the same fliers that she’d handed to me. Then she’d dart out the door, never failing to return within moments, guiding a new group of accosted diners.
This maid had boundless energy – since I was seated directly next to her perch at the cash register, I got to see her during the brief moments she had nothing to do. She’d stand in the corner, facing the entire restaurant, bopping her hands and bending her knees in time to the too-loud music playing over the speakers. Her solo dance would last for less than 15 seconds before she found a glass that was not quite 100% full or a patron that hadn’t been bowed to in over a minute – upon realizing this, she would dart away like a hummingbird, accomplishing her task before returning to stand in front of me and bop again. At some point, she saw me looking at her, amused. She took the smile on my face as encouragement (as she should have, it was great) and exaggerated her bopping – for 10 seconds, before she needed to run out again and distribute more fliers.
Four or 5 times, she came over during my waiting/eating to try and start a conversation. But she still didn’t speak English and I still didn’t speak Japanese, so we didn’t get very far. She did get very excited (more than she already was) when she saw me wearing my Hiroshima Carp t-shirt, and spoke rapidly in Japanese about the Carp. I understood Hiroshima in her speech and nodded rapidly to show that I understood at least a little of what she said – she was trying to hard to engage me that I hated to let her fail. From that point forward, she started calling me Carp-isan. Adding isan to someone’s name is like saying Mr. – so I was Mr. Carp.
After I finished my cutlet, she tried upselling me on some desserts. She’d been so sweet I hated to tell her no (but after eating the cutlet, I wasn’t about to pay for more terrible food) so I played up the “I don’t speak Japanese, so I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me right now”. So I departed the maid cafe, with no pictures (there are signs everywhere reminding you that it costs 500 yen to take a photo) but with a very Japanese-y memory.