Tokyo: MaiDreamin’ Heaven’s Gate

Japan is known for so much, but in the American mind it might be best known for its bizarre fads. From bagelheads to pillows shaped like breasts to eyeball licking, if it’s weird, Japan gets the blame. Almost all of it is undeserved, of course: although these things undoubtedly exist, many don’t originate in Japan and they definitely don’t permeate the culture the way they’re made out to. That said, Tokyo is pretty weird-tolerant, which is how you get things like the Yankii in Yoyogi Park and the eye-popping Harajuku fashion scene. Tokyo’s weirdness is easy to see but hard to participate in, so if you want to dip your toes, I recommend a visit to a maid café.

The Japanese love affair with novelty and kitsch has manifested in a plethora of strange theme restaurants ranging from “cannibal” sushi to Alice in Wonderland, but maid cafés are by far the most common with over 100 in Tokyo’s Akihabara district alone. The concept lies at the intersection of “exotic experience” and the geisha tradition: visiting a maid café provides the façade of “high-class” “European” culture, in which you’re invited to imagine yourself as a wealthy noble coming home to a plethora of servants, but it also connects with the geisha tradition in that you’re essentially paying beautiful people to talk to you, play games with you, and make you feel good about yourself. Although it’s easy to misread maid cafés as having a strong sexual component, the sexual element is no deeper than for a modern geisha: maid cafés and their counterpart, butler cafés, do hire reasonably attractive people, but the focus is on childish cuteness, not hook-up potential. Maid cafés are about sweetness rather than sex.

My plan had been to visit a maid café called Pinnafore, but after wandering Akihabara for nearly an hour without finding a sign of it, we settled on another popular café: MaiDreamin’. There are locations all over Akihabara, including two just outside the Akihabara Station Electric Town Exit. We went up to the sixth floor of the AK Building and were greeted by a friendly cheer of “Okaerinasaimase, goshuujin-sama!” (“Welcome home, master!”) The adorable hostess—decked out in a black and white maid uniform—helped us in reasonably proficient English, collected our cover charge, then assigned us a maid who took us to our seats.

The décor was exactly what you’d expect from a place that makes its money in the Cute Economy: lowish, minty green tables surrounded by fruity pink chairs, yellow-striped columns topped with chubby stars, red dome lamps here and flat star-shaped lamps there. A disco ball turned slowly above a low dais that stood in the middle of the floor, which we quietly joked must be a stage.

Our maid pulled out our chairs and directed us to sit. She had the kind of unironic enthusiasm you’d expect from a volunteer rather than an untipped employee. Although the work had to be exhausting, she showed no fatigue. She introduced herself as Nanamo and presented a votive candle. “While this candle is lit, you are my masters and my beautiful princess,” she explained. She blew into the candle and it flared to light. Setting the candle on the table, she went over the rules: no pictures of the maids without purchasing a photo package, no touching the maids for any reason, and no asking for personal contact information. To call a maid to your table, you must shout “nyan nyan!” (“meow meow!”). She demonstrated, making “cat paws” around her face with closed fists as she shouted the words in a high-pitched voice. (A few maids looked around to be sure it wasn’t a customer calling.) Nanamo handed out menus—Japanese, but so full of pictures they were easy to read—and bounced off to help another customer and give us time to make our selections.

Jeremy and Shannon squirmed in their seats, glancing at everything with the wide eyes of travelers in an unholy—but fun?—land. Jason and I, on the other hand, dug right in, squeeing to each other about the cute dresses, the cute menus, the cute music, and the cute cats drawings we could have applied to our cute food in cute ketchup doodles if we so chose.

"Purin" by kaige, used under CC BY-ND

Purin!” by kaige, used under CC BY-ND

With all the squeeing and discomfiture, it took us a little time to settle in and look at the menu closely, but eventually I tore my eyes from the adorable setting and servers to look through the menu. Food and drinks both are available in sets, and while sets are expensive, they come with prizes: “flavor-enhancing spells” Nanamo would perform at the table, little trinkets to take home, or special performances from the maids as a group. We could also purchase photo packages, time with the maids to play games (card games, or Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots!), or other novelties. Jason and I settled on sets with prizes, while Jeremy and Shannon selected à la carte items. Everything selected, I suggested that Shannon or Jeremy call Nanamo over.

“How do you call for a server politely in Japan?” Shannon asked.

“Normally you’d just call out ‘sumimasen.'” I said. “But the maid told us that here we have to say ‘nyan nyan!’ Go ahead!”

He stared at me like pink-striped missiles were coming out my ears.

Jason and I took the lead.

Nyan nyan!”

Nanamo bounded over and we ordered our food.

While we waited for our orders, we contented ourselves with people watching. Being midday Friday, the place was on the empty side, with about ten other tables occupied by people our age or younger, just as starkly normal as us. No lecherous men peering at the girls over their drinks; no drooling otaku. Most made conversation with their dining companion, and those who were alone read a manga or played on a DS. Although the clientele was more men than women, I was far from the only girl. There was even one particularly cute couple who were clearly enjoying the novelty as much as I was. (Fellow tourists, perhaps? The world may never know.) We watched as table after table received their “flavor-enhancing spells,” their decorated food, and even one instance of a full-on parade for someone who ordered the most expensive set. Every maid in the place came running out to the floor to join in the chant, and they encouraged the other customers to participate. It was a like a restaurant birthday celebration on steroids, but purposefully chosen by the victim. The customer handled this attention nonchalantly, as though it was common for his every meal to come with a side of dancing and cheers.

Our food arrived: a plate of sausages for Shannon and a margarita pizza with a cat drawn on for Jason. As Nanamo set down the curries Jeremy and I had ordered, I almost burst a blood vessel: it was a little rice bear floating in a bath of curry, “moe written in sauce across the katsu cutlet in the center.

Bringing a little Hakone Kowakien Yunessun to Tokyo

Bringing a little Hakone Kowakien Yunessun to Tokyo | “Untitled” by Jason Gerecke, used under CC BY-NC-SA

Nanamo taught me a “flavor-enhancing spell” that came with my curry and encouraged me to enchant the food along with her using the Moe Beam: creating a heart shape with your hands, move your hands from your right shoulder to your left shoulder, then up to your forehead, chanting “moe” for each movement, then thrust your hands toward to food while shouting “MOE BEAM!”

Food duly enchanted, Nanamo encouraged us to dig in. I’d been prepared by reviews online not to expect much from the food—maid cafés are about novelty, not culinary prowess—but I was pleasantly surprised. My curry was a little more spiced than a run-of-the-mill Japanese curry, and the rice:curry ratio was just right. The little pieces of cheese that made the bear’s nose and ears were a weird addition to the dish, but worth it for the cute face. We scarfed down our food at a speed that was probably faster than strictly polite.

As we finished our last bites, the lights dimmed and several of the maids ran in and jumped on the small dais in the middle of the floor. Other maids ran to the tables selling glow sticks for a few hundred yen. Shannon and Jeremy weren’t the only ones taken by surprise this time; we all felt confused as we swapped yen for glow sticks. Stage lights rose and the maid dance party began. Following the lead of the other patrons, we cracked our glow sticks, raised them into the air, and fist-pumped to the music, a cutesy pop number. The maids on stage performed synchronized dance moves, singing along to the music, and those that had been selling glow sticks jumped and danced as well. A disco ball above the stage threw shards of light around the room as the colored stage lights twitched about to highlight happy faces and bits of lace.

As the song ramped down, Nanamo materialized by our table and enthusiastically motioned us to the front. We waved her away, hoping to avoid a Whacky Misunderstanding, but she was persistent. Having noticed earlier that I speak Japanese, she leaned down next to me and shouted over the music that we needed to come up for the photos that came with Jason’s and my meals. We allowed ourselves to be pulled up almost to the stage itself, and another maid with a Polaroid appeared, motioning us all to gather into a group and pose with Nanamo. She lead us to frame our faces with our hands, and—FLASH!—picture taken. Another maid appeared, one who had earlier expressed interest in Jason’s love for Pokemon, and traded places with Nanamo. This maid directed us to make dimples in our cheeks with our fingers. FLASH! Another picture. The unnamed maid ripped two photos from the camera and handed them to Nanamo, who whisked them away to the back room. The lights came up and we blinked, shocked to find ourselves nearly alone on the floor, the maids scurrying to their other duties and the other patrons having never left their seats in the first place.

We sat down in a daze, and Nanamo appeared with our photos (now decorated in fluorescent pen with hearts and cat faces)and asked if we wanted any dessert or more drinks. Our light was surely soon to go out, so we opted to pick up check. The maids flocked behind us on our way out, Nanamo leading the charge, waving goodbye. “Itterasshaimase, goshuujin-sama!” they called. “Come home soon, masters.”

MaiDreamin' with Rena

MaiDreamin’ with Rena

Address: Floor 6, AK Bld., 1-15-9 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 101-0021

Get there: There are fifteen MaiDreamin’ locations in Japan, with seven in or near Akihabara alone. You can find any of these locations by going to their website (Japanese only). The Heaven’s Gate location, which I discussed here, is probably the easiest to find: arrive in Akihabara Station (Keihin-Tohoku, Yamanote, Chuo-Sobu, Hibiya, and Tsukuba Express lines) and take the Akihabara Electric Town exit. The café is on the 6th floor of the red Sega building directly across from the exit. Walk through the ground-flood arcade and turn left at the back to reach the elevator.

Price: The cover charge was 1000 yen (~$10) for one hour. Food and drink prices were moderate-high, coming to around 1500-2000 yen (~$15-20 USD) per person for lunch.

Tips:

  • Have a backup prepared. Akihabara is a labyrinth just like the rest of Tokyo, and it’s impossible to find what you need at least some of the time. We had originally planned to visit Pinafore, but were unable to find it even after asking a police officer for directions. We wound up visiting MaiDreamin’ because there was a maid out front handing out flyers for the place and she was able to walk us almost to the door of the café. To find a café and a backup, I’d suggest checking out Maid Runner. This site is a trove of maid café-related knowledge and reviews. Although it stopped updating in 2010, the information is still basically good and will give you a sense of what’s available.
  • Bring plenty of cash. Almost all maid cafés have a cover charge of at least 300 yen (~$3 USD), and those that don’t have a cover charge have a minimum purchase. Although it’s perfectly possible to pay your cover and get just a drink, you’ll get higher levels of service for purchasing more expensive items. On the cheaper end your food or drink will often come with “flavor-enhancing spells” or pictures drawn on the food with condiments, and the more expensive food and drink sets include small gifts like key chains or pictures with the maids. You can also purchase time with the maids to play board games or other fun activities. Everything is mentioned in the menu, so look closely!
  • Bring your camera to take pictures of the super cute food…
  • …But not to take pictures of the maids. Besides the fact that it’s pretty creepy to covertly photograph someone in any culture, in Japan it’s considered a deep violation of privacy. Most cafés offer professional pictures for purchase or as a gift with certain purchases, as well as the option to have your photo taken with the maid of your choice. Other than these pictures, it is strictly forbidden to take pictures of the maids. You’ll absolutely be kicked out if caught, and probably charged for the photograph to boot. Don’t risk getting 86ed for a crappy picture; pay for a good one. (They’re usually only 500-1000 yen anyway—$5-10 USD.)
  • Be aware that smoking is allowed in restaurants in Japan, and many don’t have a smoking section. Maid cafés are no exception. Although most restaurants have good ventilation and the smoke likely won’t bother those of good health, you may want to avoid the experience or plan a quick way out if you are particularly sensitive to smoke.

Note: For some reason Google refuses to acknowledge the existence of Heaven’s Gate, so the map below is for a different MaiDreamin’ location. That said, Heaven’s Gate is on that same street, just closer to the station and further back from the main road. There’s a huge sign; you can’t miss it.

Based on my diary entries from November 8, 2013.

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