Tokyo has long been at the heart of an omnibus of urban tales passed on in disbelief by the uninitiated. These concern wildly costumed teens loitering on street corners, vending machines dispensing live animals and used panties, and any number of other oddities/atrocities. Many of these are based in truth; indeed, the ‘Harajuku girls’ continue to strut Takeshita-dori on the weekend and I’m told that the panty machines are out there though I’m yet to spy one. One new trend that will no doubt enter the storytellers’ annals of the strange and burlesque is the proliferation of so-called ‘maid cafés’.
The maid café is apparently a sort of titillating entertainment for men in which young women dressed in schoolgirl skirts and smocks attend to the diners, offer no doubt bone-shatteringly cutesy conversation and generally primp and preen. Though we did not seek out a firsthand glimpse of the cafés themselves, we were confronted by many a smooth-skinned thigh on our short walk through the manga and electronics district of Akihabara. Maids stood on every street corner, pearly grins permanently planted between their rouged cheeks, handing out fliers (see example below).
The whole scene traced an indistinct line between curiosity and soft-core porn. We travelled a little further down that line when we stepped into a manga (Japanese comics) store. The front of the store featured figurines and comics crowding the visitor from every direction. As we waded toward the back of the store, revealing posters and playing cards gave way to long racks of DVDs with neither a manga character nor a pair of underwear in sight.
The atmosphere of Akihabara at night struck a stark contrast with the refinements of Ueno’s large park (with the first plum and cherry blossoms of the season adding flourishes of pink and cream) and Japan’s National Museum, which forms its centrepiece. As the germ of traditional Japanese culture is able to survive and find unique expression in the surging metropolis of Tokyo, so too do the greatest examples of that culture’s artistic output, which live on behind glass in museums, influence contemporary art and architecture and perhaps even affect the development of manga culture and the maid café (though a superficial comparison would certainly leave one floundering for common ground).
Side-note: An altogether different café phenomenon is the rise of the cat café. These establishments are apparently quite widespread in Tokyo now and basically offer visitors the chance to look at, pet, feed, play with, and generally make appreciative noises at, cats. We visited two and the larger café housed about 50 cats of various breeds and ages. Cat fanatics could read profiles of each of the cats and no doubt there are close bonds formed between café regulars and certain cats. In a city where many people presumably do not enjoy the company of household pets, these cafés are proving to be yet another oddball hit in trend-conscious Tokyo.
Next instalment: Me and Depato