Plus Alpha: Dreams come true

Rediscovering Akihabara’s maid cafés

Plus Alpha is a weekly column that explores life in Japan from the perspective of American expatriate and game-industry veteran Jarik Sikat. Having worked in numerous areas of the game industry since 1994, Sikat relocated to Japan in 2010.

About six years ago, at the peak of Japan’s “maid” explosion, one could barely make it past the exit of Akihabara station without running a gauntlet of maids promoting their cafés. The mania didn’t stop with quaint restaurants, but quickly spread to such odd services as having your ears cleaned while resting your head on a maid’s lap, or the more questionable practice of having a maid escort you around Akiba by the hour.

During the boom, I went to one café and never looked back. The mainstream media frenzy has died down, but the cafés are, thankfully, flourishing.

Electric Town’s main avenue of Chuo-dori and its bustling side streets are dotted with maid cafés. Though in an effort to stand out from the crowd, a growing number of “concept cafes” are coming up with new ways to serve you, with themes including: school girls, “OL” (office ladies), girls dressed as cats dressed as maids, girls in samurai-era clothing, even girls dressed as boys (“dansou”) and boys dressed as girls (“josou”). All the while, the shops’ costumed pixies are out in swarms, passing out fliers, keen to lure you in.

On a recent trip with a guest, I took one of the fliers in passing, but the sprightly maid was far too eager to let us get away. Looking into her huge, puppy-dog eyes, there was no way we could say no. So she took us to a dimly lit lobby, where we crammed into an elevator and rode up six stories to Maidreamin.

Upon being seated (or “entering the kingdom,” as they like to say), our maid lit an “enchanted” candle to signal the start of our dream. While Maidreamin offers a complete lunch and dinner menu and a wide selection of alcohol, I settled for a chocolate-and-Oreo-cookie parfait that looked like a bear (800 yen). My friend had the tiger pancakes (600 yen). With the help of two maids, we cast a magic spell on our sweet creations and dug in.

It had been years since I’d set foot into any maid café, so initially there was some real otaku creep factor involved. At a table near the entrance, there was a somewhat sad-looking salaryman who must have been in his 50s. Another customer, perhaps in his 20s, would hide behind his PSP, only to steal occasional glances of the maids and compare them to the collection of photos he’d accumulated of the girls. It seems keeping a maid photo album isn’t all that uncommon, though; a girl seated across from us in an elegant Lolita dress thumbed through her own book of photos she’d taken with the shop’s maids.

Whatever creepiness we felt soon wore off, and we soon found ourselves joining in a few rounds of birthday songs and cheers (a girl had come to celebrate with her boyfriend). There was also a young guy spending his birthday alone. Although he was having fun, I couldn’t help but feel sad for him, because no one should have to celebrate their birthday alone.

Unlike a typical restaurant, where a server is given assigned tables, the maids at Maidreamin make it a point to serve all of their guests. The salaryman we saw earlier enjoyed a game of Jenga with one of the girls, while on stage, the Lolita was snapping another photo to add to her collection. All of the girls were disarmingly cute, but Coco (who, according to her staff profile, hails from “Planet Kyun Kyun”) became our hands-down favorite. It came as no surprise to learn that she was Maidreamin’s most popular maid.

Maidreamin operates nine cafés throughout Japan, including five in the Akiba area alone. At their “honten,” or flagship store, which is the one we visited, the staff can speak some basic English, and the menus are written in both Japanese and English. In spite of the servile fantasy angle, the chain does have a set of strictly enforced rules for customers to obey, including: no rude behavior to the maids or other customers, no asking for a maid’s personal information and no giving gifts to the girls. Photographing the girls yourself is also forbidden, but for 500 yen, you can have a Polaroid-style photo taken with your favorite maid.

Having your dreams come true doesn’t come cheap. It’s 500 yen (about $7) to sit at a counter or table for one hour, or 1,000 yen for sofa seating. Should you ever visit, take my advice and go for the counter, especially if you enjoy people-watching. Want to play Jenga or card games with one of the maids? That’s also on the menu – at 500 yen for five minutes!

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