While we have theme restaurants in the west like Medieval Times where the audience gets into the swing of things, Japan's theme cafes don't usually involve cosplay by the patrons. It's the staff who provide the mood and the atmosphere, creating a soothing world where customers can feel right at home with their particular obsession.
The first Maid Cafes that appeared around 1998 deserve credit for jump-starting the boom in Japanese theme cafes. Simply stated, your average maid cafe appears normal from the outside, yet customers are greeted by subservient young women dressed in frilly French maid outfits.
The look is just part of the appeal. So-called "otaku" generally lack social skills and just getting out of the house and having to deal with fellow humans in daily social interaction can be extremely stressful for them. By acting as maids, the staff at a maid cafe removes any unpleasant social obligations an otaku might have to deal with. Instead, he (or occasionally, she) is coddled, cuddled even, while having needs from hunger to ear cleaning looked after by non-judgmental, non-competitive "real life action figures".
The success of the maid cafes, especially in Tokyo's Akihabara district (and also spreading elsewhere in the World) where geeks go gadget shopping, has led to other ventures that look more to the general public for their clientele while keeping an ear tuned to the otaku underground aesthetic. Examples include:
- Vampire Cafe,
- Prison Cafe,
- Ninja Cafe,
- Eyeglasses Cafe,
- Scientist Lab Coat Cafe.
There's also Patisserie Swallowtail, a "butler cafe" in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district that caters to female otaku. A butler cafe is the role-reversing alternative of the maid cafe: service is by immaculately dressed "butlers", all English-like with "Welcome home, Madam" and the like!
Perhaps the most unusual Japanese theme cafe is the Christon Cafe, a chain (yes, they seem to be catching on!) of church-themed eateries that serve much more than wine and communion wafers! To quote one review from The Blingdom of God, "The Christon Cafe in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district is reached by a dungeon-like brick stairwell, lit by dripping red candles, which leads to a dining area decorated with giant crucifixes, gargoyles and images of a bloodied Christ weeping on the cross. The menu includes such fare as the "Small Devil" cocktail flavored with strawberry cream and cassis, and "God-made Hamburger" (meatballs with cheese and rice).
Where do we go from here? If current trends are any guide, the maid cafe phenomenon is spreading out, not fading away. Some cafes, like the Little PSX Maid Darts & Bar, make things even more enticing for otaku by combining maids, food and games like the PS3 or Wii. Maid to order? So it would seem!
This article was written by Steve Levenstein from InventorSpot. Steve writes about weird and wonderful Japanese innovations on a regular basis and you can catch up on current & previous examples at his blog. If you are interested in contributing to the thinking process and become a guest writer on The Thinking Blog, find out more information here and be my guest!