Cafe au Maid

Kevin Nguyen experiences one of Tokyo’s famous “maid cafes,” which is even stranger than it sounds.

Photo by Li Hao

Photo by Li Hao

On our first full day in Tokyo, we’d done nothing but the touristy stuff: the Imperial Palace, the shopping district of Shinjuku, the busy intersection of Shibuya — all of which were noteworthy but, disappointingly, not all that weird. Our last stop was Akihabara, where we were supposed to meet a friend, but he was late (or maybe we were). So we found ourselves looking for something weird to do in the “Electric Town,” which was famous for its electronic stores, video game arcades, anime culture, and something called “maid cafes.”

I looked up maid cafes in our guidebook. The concept sounded simple enough: they were bars where the waitresses were dressed as French maids. Sure, the idea of girls in maid costumes seemed a bit perverse, but no more harmless than, say, a Hooters. Maids even wore less-revealing clothing. And though I’d never been to a Hooters in the States, I was compelled by the idea of visiting what I believed to be the “Hooters of Japan.”

My roommate Jordan was unconvinced that the “Hooters of Japan” was a good idea, being the kind of gay man who shudders at the mere mention of the word “vagina,” but he too had been disappointed by the overall banality of our day. Also I think he wanted some coffee.

There were maids on every block of Akihabara’s crowded, noisy streets, attempting to shout “maid cafe” in English over a cacophony of arcades and street traffic and people. We said hello to a girl, dressed almost like a sailor maid, and she handed us a flier adorned with cheery anime girls. I asked her where the cafe was, and she motioned for us to follow her.

She led us down a busy alleyway, through another busy alleyway, and into an old, nondescript building well off the main street. The three of us crowded into a two-person elevator with walls covered in fake grass (think mini golf green). We rode the elevator to the fourth floor, which opened up to a small, smoky bar. It wasn’t particularly nice, but it wasn’t unpleasant either. The cafe was plain, with two bars, two maids stationed behind each.

There was a ¥300 cover (about $4). On top of that, we had two options: ¥800 for a half hour of unlimited soda and coffee or ¥3000 for an hour of unlimited beer and cocktails (actually not a bad deal in Japan). I didn’t understand why there was a time limit, but we pointed to the cheaper option on the menu and asked for coffee.

Our maid finally introduced herself. Her name was Kalumi — she spelled it out — but it was clear that she wanted it to be “Cream” (“like in coffee,” she said). That was about the extent of her English. After Kalumi brought us our coffee, she stood in front of us and watched us drink. I realized that unlike Hooters, we weren’t merely at a bar with attractive waitresses. They were supposed to talk to us — we were paying them to talk to us, paying for their time. In a way, it felt like a non-sexual form of prostitution.

But Kalumi was in high spirits. Since she couldn’t really hold a conversation with us, she doodled pictures of animals on a napkin, and we had to guess what they were.

“It’s a dog,” I’d say, and she would smile and clap. We got through all the basic farm animals and a few cartoon characters. Even Jordan seemed to be enjoying himself, and he doodled a sheep on Kalumi’s napkin.

Hitsuji!” she said, jumping and clapping her hands.

We were seated next to a group of four other patrons — young Japanese guys in their early 20s who were chatting up another maid. They were also drinking coffee, but from the number of cigarette butts in their ashtrays, they had been there for at least a few hours. Their maid laughed and giggled and seemed overwhelmingly miserable, batting away advances and generally keeping her distance from the patrons.

After Kalumi brought us a couple ginger ales, she drew a map of Japan. She was from a small town several hours away from Tokyo. I sketched an outline of the U.S. and pointed to the northwest, to indicate that we were from Seattle. I looked over at the other maid, who was being hit on by four guys at once, and thought that we must be giving Kalumi a much-needed break from that. But as soon as we hit the half hour mark, Kalumi handed us our bill and walked off. I was wrong. We were just like any other customer.

That evening, we returned to the apartment, where our host Tadashi and his roommates were having a dinner party. They had invited a group of girls over, all of whom were cute and spoke impeccable English. They asked us what we had seen in Tokyo, and when I brought up Akihabara, one girl asked if we had been to a maid cafe. I was hesitant to admit it, but I said that we had accidentally stumbled into one for coffee. She explained that “Japan is a very weird place.” I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed about maid cafes or for us.

It wasn’t until dinner a couple days later that Tadashi admitted that he had been to a maid cafe before. His roommates had too, all reluctant to admit this when the other girls were over. Later in the conversation, Tadashi, who worked part time at an electronics store in Shinjuku, said he met a “nice girl” at work. Jokingly, I prodded to see if he had asked her out.

“I go up to her and I said ‘hello’ and walked away.”

We all laughed. He asked me how I would talk to a nice girl. I wasn’t sure how to answer that. I told him to be friendly and just ask her a lot of questions about herself.

Hiroshi, another roommate, piped in. “Japanese girls don’t talk much.”

The rest of the housemates nodded to show they agreed. The room got kind of quiet, and we mostly finished our meals in silence.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.