Last year, Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons, and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. Now he’s writing a column that focuses on traveling with kids.
During a recent visit to Japan, I had a chance to explore a side of Tokyo that was quite different from the one I saw when I was last in the city with my family almost two years ago. Before the trip, I came across a magazine article about a new trend in Tokyo that’s grown out of the Japanese subculture obsessed with video games, manga, and anime characters. Eccentric themed restaurants called Maid Cafés were sprouting up all over the city and throughout the country to give these Otaku die-hards a place to hang out, and I was curious to see what all the buzz was about.
Not long after arriving, I began to realize these cafés were not part of some secret underground society. They were advertised all around town, especially on the metro trains. Because both my sons, like most boys in the U.S., are really into video games, I asked some locals if they were popular with kids. I was assured that they not only attracted the hardcore gamers, but were getting quite popular with couples, tourists, and the simply curious. Being rather inquisitive myself, I decided to check one out to see just how appropriate they’d be for families.
I headed for the Akihabara, or high-tech district of Tokyo, to one of the original maid cafés called the @home Café. Once inside, I was greeted by several young ladies dressed in Victorian maid outfits like the kind you’d see women wearing for Halloween. This fashion trend apparently derives from “cosplay,” the costume play craze that is now booming in Japan. Tasked to make their customers feel special, guests are addressed as “Lord” or “Master” by the maids who wait on them. And what do they serve? Their menu consisted mainly of dessert items like chocolate brownies, ice cream, and milk shakes. There was alcohol offered, but that just didn’t seem fitting in this type of setting.
After getting a seat in front of a small stage and placing my order, I began to feel a little awkward. The decor made it appear as though I walked into a pre-teen birthday party, but there were no kids in sight. Instead, there were a few middle-aged men and a couple of twenty-something girls performing song duets and getting Polaroids taken with the maids for 500 yen (about $6) a pop. Feeling somewhat obligated to play along, I opted for a round of Crocodile Dentist with one of the maids, a game I last shared with my sons when they were preschoolers.
While pretending that I was actually enjoying myself, I asked the local friend I was with what the appeal was with these places. She told me that most of the patrons love anime and manga characters, so when they come here, it’s like stepping inside a cartoon. She further confessed how some of the café regulars are probably a bit socially awkward and sometimes uncomfortable around members of the opposite sex (there are now Butler Cafés for women), so these spaces serve as a sort of refuge, somewhere where they can feel accepted. I replied that even though many Americans might share this Japanese interest for video games and cartoon and comic book characters, I could never imagine something like a maid café in the U.S. Not because kids wouldn’t like them, on the contrary. In this country, they would be designed for kids, and kids only. The only adults you’d find inside would be the parents coming to pick their children up.
I left the café somewhat relieved to get out of this bizarre, yet fascinating situation. More importantly, I came away with a heightened sense of awareness and appreciation for just how acute our cultural differences can be. It’s what makes traveling so intriguing, and already has me looking forward to my next visit to Japan.
Photos: Rainer Jenss