As an American with interests that skew toward the geeky side, one concept I have almost always been aware of is “wacky Japan.” It’s the horrendously racist yet unfortunately common notion that Japan’s culture consists primarily of videogames, anime, and the most bizarre attractions you can think of. And among those attractions, there’s few that get brought up more than the maid cafe. And despite the obvious bias of most coverage these cafes get here in America, a bunch of waitresses all dressed up and referring to the customer as “master” certainly still seems a little bizarre when you first hear about it. So as I waited in the line for @home Maid Cafe in Akihabara, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
I already knew that when I walked in all the workers in the room would immediately turn to me and exclaim (‘welcome home master’), and yet it still felt odd after a lifetime of eating establishments that aren’t necessarily as enthusiastic in greeting you. The women at the front counter informed me that there was a one hour time limit to be in the cafe, at which point I would be asked to leave. After I sat down at my small section of the table stretching across the cafe, my server/maid Tsukino handed me what at first I thought was a food menu, but was in fact a list of various meal packages you could purchase. There were options you’d expect such as either choosing just an entree or getting it with a drink and dessert as well, but what intrigued me the most was the “complete package.” This came with not just an entree with drink and dessert, but also a “commemorative photo.” I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, but I decided to splurge.
The first item that immediately caught my attention once I was given the actual menu was the “magical drink” that supposedly changed color depending on who ordered it. So when it was brought out in a shaker on its own cart, my hopes were quite high for what would happen when it was poured into my cup. But before that could occur, I was instructed that I had to join Tsukino in casting a “deliciousness spell” on the drink to ensure it would be high quality. This consisted of the two of us placing our hands in a heart position, waving them over the shaker and exclaiming “Moe moe kyun!” before it was poured into the cup. It felt extremely awkward as I was doing it, but when my drink was revealed to be bright pink and tasted fantastic, I chose to believe the power of my spell was the reason. And when I was brought my omelet rice entry and performed the same spell, I had much more fun with it and once again told myself that how good the food tasted was a result of my magic powers.
As I was eating, I looked around the cafe and at the other patrons there. Immediately I was struck by the wide variety of people present. The common assumption for westerners talking about maid cafes has always been that it would be filled with nothing but lonely young men, but inside I saw an incredibly diverse range of ages as well as a fairly even split between men and women. One young woman two seats down from me was engaged with a lively conversation with her maid and seemed to be having the time of her life. In fact, many people around me seemed to be engaged in conversations that were far more personable and in-depth than you would typically get when eating elsewhere in Tokyo. My own conversation with Tsukino was as engaging as it could possibly be, as she made a valiant effort to overcome the language barrier between my less than stellar Japanese and her slightly better English. It took a lot of confused looks, hand gestures, and Google Translate, but we ended up discussing where we lived and what we liked to do for fun in our free time. It was clear that this friendly conversation was one of the main draws, not so dissimilar to something like a Midwest diner here in America.
While I was still eating, I was called forward to the front of the cafe over microphone. It was time for my commemorative photo to be taken. Tsukino gave me a few options for poses we could do together, and I opted for the two of us to make hearts with our hands. As we stood side to side with the photographer counting down, some form of nerves must have kicked in because I ended up making my heart facing completely away from the camera. I asked at first if it would be possible to retake the photo, but it was made very clear to me that if I wanted another photo I would have to pay for it again. And so I returned back to my seat and chose to embrace the awkwardness.
My dessert was a bright blue soda-flavored ice cream sundae, and once again we performed our deliciousness spell before I was able to eat it. At this point I was fully on board with the whole thing and was chanting with an enthusiasm I didn’t know I had in me. The spell may have worked a little too well however, as it was overly sweet to the point that I struggled to eat all of it. In fact, I was only about halfway through when I was told my hour had come to an end and it was time for me to pay and leave.
After being curious about maid cafes for so many years, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the actual experience. It may have felt a bit awkward at times, and I’m not in any particular rush to visit one again, but taking an hour out of my day to have good conversations with my server and indulge in the idea that magic spells make food taste better was a perfect way to spend time while on vacation. No matter how much I messed up the photo.