Maid cafes (メイドカフェ). A concept that is somehow simultaneously discomfiting, stirring, intriguing, and near ubiquitous in anime. Anyone who has watched a decent amount of anime series has at least had a brush with the concept of sugary sweet maids welcoming their masters into a cafe to shower them with attention. In such a fantasy world, the maids lovingly draw cutesy pictures on their masters’ food, cast magical spells to make their drinks delicious, and dedicate their attention to their masters with games and conversations. Despite their promised offerings of bliss however, the concept yet remains a presence mainly in Japan, specifically in Tokyo’s Akihabara area.
Akihabara (秋葉原), nicknamed “Electric Town,” itself is often branded as the otaku capital of the world with its sea of electronics, anime, manga, and video game stores occupying floors upon floors of specialty shops across the district. For this reason, numerous cultural icons from anime and manga are also brought to life here; the lines between the real world and the anime universe become blurred with immense buildings advertising not everyday commodities, but departures to otherworldly cafes, stockrooms of character figures, lost eras of retro video games, and events filled with people dressed as their favorite fictional characters. Indeed, it seems only natural that the original concept of “moe” (萌え) themed maid cafes originated here and has since gone on to spawn spinoffs such as “tsundere” (ツンデレ) maid cafes, “little sister” maid cafes, maid cafes where the girls are dressed as animals, cross-dressing maid cafes, and many more.
Still, the indisputable face of maid cafes is that of the classic moe maid cafe where maids invite their “goshujinsama” (ご主人様), or master, home to unwind with their cooking and company. Key to creating this atmosphere of course entails accurately capturing the essence of moe, said to be a description of feelings that are stirred in the presence of something precious — often with regard to innocent, youthful femininity. (I once spoke to someone who described moe by putting their hands over their heart and sighing contentedly). In fact, the concept of moe is so firmly entrenched in the premise of maid cafes that many of the “magic spells” the maids cast in their performances involve the word as part of their chant, as well as another oft-used term, “kyun” (キュン). This term expresses a similar connotation to moe, with kyun describing the momentary tightening of one’s chest or butterflies in one’s stomach felt when seeing a girl they like for the first time.
As one can see, the mere concept of maid cafes is nearly a subculture in itself, and to someone who grew up watching anime and became familiar with the concept over time, the idea of visiting one was too good to pass up. In my recent trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to visit no fewer than three maid cafes, one of which I dropped by twice. These of course included @home cafe and Maidreamin, the two prominent maid cafe chains in Akihabara, and a smaller standalone shop that was located somewhat away from the bustling foot traffic of Akihabara’s Chuo-dori (中央通り), or central street.
Although I had never heard of this cafe chain, it was clear that @home cafe had a large presence in Akihabara. Not only did a large banner advertise the multi-floored cafe along the Chuo-dori, but the street corner adjacent to its entrance was also dotted with maids clad in the cafe’s characteristic uniform, cheerfully asking people to come visit. Around the corner, a large maid’s headband with a bright pink bow stood fitted around the building’s entryway, itself leading to a small lobby with an elevator.
Within the entryway was an arrangement of portraits depicting various maids from the franchise, interspersed with cutesy decorations lending an ever so slight Gothic Lolita feel to the interior. Even before setting foot in the lobby however, one immediately picks up on the bubbly light music emanating from a small television next to the elevator. At the time of my visit, the television was playing a music video from J-pop group @17, a group that is in fact comprised of career @home cafe maids who are said to be “eternally seventeen years old.” Numerics aside, the polished display of entertainment in the building’s lobby truly gave a sense of how organized and dedicated @home cafe was to maid culture.
毎日がジェットコースター “Daily Roller Coaster” by @17. Music playing in @home cafe’s lobby during summer 2018.
Plus, it worked. Imagine this — I am walking around Akihabara amidst the blistering Tokyo summer heat and I come across a small shaded respite advertising cutely decorated confections, tender maids excited to welcome you “home,” and a carefree summertime melody being sung by the titular maids of the franchise as they bounced around to playful choreography. The atmosphere was such that it seemed to offer a departure from the real world into a fantasy world where one could forget their worries while pretending to be “master” for the day.
The building itself housed multiple levels of different @home cafes with locations present on the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh floors (alongside an unassuming little souvenir shop on the second floor). As I boarded the elevator, small notes scribbled next to the buttons helpfully denoted which floors were full and which still had room for patrons. Even so, as I reached the fifth floor, there was a small queue leading up to the seating area, showing that the venue certainly saw no shortage of visitors. Nevertheless, I was not queued for long and the wait was made somewhat more entertaining by an energetic little maid wearing gray cat ears who kept peeking over a banister to excitedly wave to everyone.
As it happened, the energetic cat-eared maid ended up being my maid and excitedly gestured inside so that she could walk me to my table. In the midst of doing so, she paused to ring a small bell placed near the entryway which signaled to all of the maids in the cafe to pause what they were doing, turn towards the doorway, and exclaim, “Okaerinasaimase, goshujinsama!” (お帰りなさいませ、ご主人様!), or “Welcome home, master!” Following this somewhat flattering greeting, my maid scampered ahead to seat me at the counter directly in front of the stage and indicated this by politely pulling out a chair to offer me a seat. She then began the introductions and, although it was heavily accented (I honestly found this really cute), her English was quite good and I had no difficulty communicating with her.
The maid introduced herself as “Kariko,” which I later found out was her attempting to to pronounce “Calico,” as in the breed of cat. To begin, Calico pulled out an ornate envelope containing an official welcome card as well as a document outlining the “promises” (rules) between maids and masters. The rules were a pretty standard affair, mentioning restrictions against touching the maids, asking for personal information, and taking photos of anything except for the food without consent; although this stipulation is a little strange at first glance, one must remember that the main commodity such cafes are selling is their meticulously crafted experience and photos detract from the magic — the maids would make a big X with their arms to remind visitors who forgot this important rule. Finally, Calico reminded me that the cafe had a (fairly standard) one hour time limit, chiming in that “master is very busy!”
Once the formalities had been taken care of, Calico asked me where I was from. As I told her that I was visiting Japan for the first time from America, she bowed sweetly and sang out, “welcome to Japan!” She then pulled out a bronze colored replica of the old-styled American Express cards (with the centurion replaced with a picture of a maid) and signed the back with her name, my name, and the date of my visit to commemorate the occasion. I found the card, reading “LICENCE OF YOUR MAJESTY” across the top and comically denoting the duration of its validity with a small infinity symbol to be a cute little personal touch! The card too was not a flimsy paper affair — it was made out of plastic and doubled as a loyalty card that could rank up (as expressed by the “Lv. 1 MY MASTER” text printed on the front). After presenting me with this, Calico then proceeded to read through the menu with me (and occasionally paused with an endearing “eto…” (えっと…) as she thought of how to say what she wanted to in English) and helpfully pointed out to me which items had “magic powers.”
After I finished deciding on my meal, Calico brought me what she called “moe water,” noting that it had the effect of making the imbiber cute and how she drinks it every day. As she scampered off, only a few minutes passed before I was approached by a different maid who was passing out little heart-shaped torches to certain people in the audience. “Showtime soon!” she declared with a smile and walked off. I was momentarily confused but then I quickly remembered that @home cafe held short little dance performances at select times of the day. Thus, I was quite excited as the lights dimmed, sparkling colors began to twinkle across the stage directly in front of me, and four maids stepped out… one of which was Calico! As the maids danced to what has lately been adopted as the @home cafe theme, the audience clapped along and waved their light sticks to cheer the maids on. Meanwhile, the rest of the maids in the cafe patted along on tambourines to the beat of the music, adding energy to the room. When the song ended, the room was in high spirits, as were the maids who had just finished putting on a show for their masters!
永遠メイド主義 “Eternal Maidism” by @17. Music played during the show.
By the time the show had concluded, I received my order (brought by a different maid) though I was warned that it was not yet ready to be eaten. I had to first cast a spell on it with her by making a heart with my hands, waving it around, and chanting moe moe kyun! This would, according to her, activate the deliciousness of the food. Similarly, yet another maid popped up to mix together my soda cocktail and had me chant a few Japanese onomatopoeias (“furi furi, shaka shaka!”) along with the customary moe moe kyun as she was preparing it, once again allowing her to infuse her maid powers into my drink to make it delicious. As for the food itself, some people find dishes served by maid cafes to be bland though I honestly did not have a problem with my meal. In fact, I rather enjoyed the bubbly pink soda cocktail I was given!
Prior to leaving, I decided to have a commemorative photo taken (which is limited to one maid of your choosing). Naturally, I chose Calico (who bowed over and over to thank me in response) and was instructed to wait as she ran to the stage letting out an excited “ahhhhhh!” Calico then announced to the entire cafe that she was about to take a photo with her master and called me up to the stage by name (with the -sama honorific appended to it, of course). As I joined her, she excitedly turned to me holding a small box of props. “Let’s animal change!” she announced as she insisted on us both donning cat ears for the photo. Once we were ready, a maid stepped out from behind the curtain holding a pink Instax camera to take the picture (in which Calico insisted on that we held cat poses) and Calico rushed off to decorate the print-out. True to classic moe maid cafe experience, Calico presented the photo to me after having covered it in hearts and cutesy writings celebrating the occasion. As I got ready to set off, I thanked Calico and complimented her English skills. She was quite happy to hear this praise and proudly stated that she studies English really hard.
All in all, I left the cafe contented as the maids all bid me farewell, feeling genuinely happy that I had dropped by for a visit — it was a lot of fun! At no point in the experience did I feel that it was stressful or awkward and I enjoyed playing along with the cutesy atmosphere. @home cafe certainly also knew how to reach its foreign visitors (in fact, it appears that they have visited the Houston anime convention Anime Matsuri a few times) yet was still able to maintain a personalized feel. It was largely due to my positive experience here that I decided to visit other maid cafes in the area.
Maidreamin is another maid cafe giant with seven locations in Akihabara alone. I was actually aware of its existence due to its presence in a video game I had played a few years back called Akiba’s Trip, the story of which took place in a faithful recreation of Akihabara. Despite this, Maidreamin actually was not the next maid cafe I visited after @home cafe, but I feel that it would be more fitting to discuss here before moving on to the final entry in this post.
Unlike @home cafe, the various Maidreamin locations were scattered around Akihabara and its characteristic theme song (which was iconic enough to also be included within the Akiba’s Trip game) could be heard around every corner of Electric Town. Like @home cafe, the chain had massive advertisements along the Chuo-dori, an in-house group called QSCS (standing for Quality, Service, Cleanliness, Smile♡) to produce its music and, even more so than @home cafe, an astounding number of maids present either near entrances or waving from balconies to invite visitors to their locations. Likely a consequence of their lack of centralized location, most branches were tucked away next to stores or borrowed a few floors from buildings (which sadly did not allow for a lobby set up like that of @home cafe). Nevertheless, this dispersal was also used to an advantage — rather than all providing the same atmosphere, the locations advertised different themed layouts including a “dreamland” theme, a “secret base” theme, and one that appeared to be based on the Mario Bros. series.
どりーみんパスポート “Dream Passport” by QSCS. Maidreamin theme heard across Akihabara.
I eventually opted to visit the "Heaven's Gate" location next to Akihabara Station and, after taking the elevator up to the sixth floor, I was treated to a hallway that was painted in a “dreamland” theme showcasing a calming array of sky blue and forest green tones — a stark contrast to the sugary pink coloration that most maid cafes choose to adopt. The hallway itself was also designed to look like the entryway to a mansion (complete with a Big Ben-esque door bell that could be heard on the other side) and, with no action on your part, a maid would automatically rush out into the hallway to welcome you inside.
I have to say that this presentation was quite nice, and, as I was led inside, the “dreamland” motif truly shined as a whimsical departure from the scorching streets of Akihabara outside. The cafe was decorated with clouds painted across the walls, ceiling lights shaped like stars, hearts (naturally), and a lighting scheme that offered an elegantly sleepy atmosphere. Although I was not seated near it, this shop too had a large stage at the front of the room with a small mirror ball twirling above it. As the maid got me settled at my table, she performed a small ceremony that declared us master and maid. This naturally entailed us chanting the magic words, moe moe kyun, and culminated in the maid blowing on a small electric candle that lit up in confirmation of our efforts. She then read through the menu with me and was shocked when I ordered my chicken curry to have a spiciness level of ten.
Although friendly and easy to communicate with, it is unfortunately telling that I cannot recall the maid’s name since I did not see her any more after our initial interaction (I suspect that it became turn for her to stand outside to recruit guests). Even so, I noticed that the general mood of the cafe simply seemed to be laid back and I saw some maids idling around rather than engaging their guests. Do not get me wrong — every interaction I had with them was friendly and polite, but the maids’ general lack of initiative seemed to detract from their maid roles. When they were around, the maids still playfully casted spells to make the food delicious (one being “delicious delicious fuwa fuwa beamu” for my curry) and would take the time to teach me little phrases in Japanese.
For the sake of completion, I decided to also get a commemorative photo with a maid and was given a small booklet listing short biographies of each cast member. All of the maids had cute little details written under their profiles such as them hailing from “futon land,” “cotton candy planet,” or “neko land” alongside their favorite things such as “sweet things,” “the heavenly sky,” “fashion,” and “cats with soft paws.” I thought the listing was a charming little presentation though the effect was somewhat sullied by each maid recommending their favorite menu item (which seemed to list the most expensive choices) via QR codes (that did not work). Nevertheless, I settled on choosing the one who happened to serve me the most frequently (a maid named “Huwarin” who was inexplicably covered in accessories depicting the Pokémon Gengar) and had my photo taken on stage without much fanfare.
Heading back to my table to finish my meal, I was a little disappointed to see a maid going around with a cart to sell souvenirs, not unlike the manner in which airlines push “duty-free” merchandise during international flights. Once again, although the maid was completely polite about it, I could not help but feel that the conspicuous marketing cheapened the experience provided by the cafe. As I prepared to leave, there was yet again little fanfare as a maid clad in white led me to an inconspicuous sales counter tucked away in the entryway (alongside flyers showcasing some last-minute souvenirs for sale if I so chose) where I paid my bill.
As I bid the maid farewell, I left feeling, well, not unsatisfied, but rather that the experience was a fairly hollow one. On paper, Maidreamin had all the proper “parts” of a maid cafe — it had maids, magic spells, cutely decorated food, and performances (though I did not get to see one since their shows take place every two hours, therefore, I will not factor this criteria into my thoughts regarding the cafe). Yet, the chain was clearly designed to move as many people as possible with menus available in an exorbitant amount of international languages and an array of souvenirs that clearly targeted foreign visitors hoping to see a real life maid cafe during their trip to Tokyo. Although in the strictest sense, guests did receive a maid cafe encounter, there was little to make the experience feel like a personal one rather than a relentlessly commercialized one. I consider myself fortunate that this was not my first exposure to maid cafes as I likely would have foregone visiting any others during my stay in Japan.
Akiba Zettai Ryōiki (アキバ絶対領域)
Prior to visiting Maidreamin, I actually visited another maid cafe first, though, given that it was located somewhat out of the way from the Chuo-dori, the shop had a rather unassuming presence. Close inspection did in fact reveal signs advertising it as a maid cafe, but a cursory glance while walking by made them easy to miss, especially when compared to the massive banners used to promote @home cafe and Maidreamin; in fact, the shop itself was only around one-third the size of the aforementioned cafes' floors (which were about the same size). Despite this, from the decorative frosted windows outside, the cafe did not seem to be crowded in the least. Encouraged by the fun I had visiting @home cafe the day before, I decided to drop by the little cafe called, per the all-Japanese signage hanging above the storefront, Akiba Zettai Ryōiki.
The term zettai ryōiki can be translated to mean “absolute territory,” but more colloquially refers to the area of bare skin between the over-knee socks and skirt that are typically worn as part of a maid outfit. Hilariously, this term originates from the popular anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion in which the boundaries between life forms were referred to as “Zettai Kyōfu Ryōiki” or “Absolute Terror Fields (Territories)” noted to be “holy areas no one can intrude upon.” Though the name was amusing, its colloquial nature made me somewhat unsure about the level of accommodation the cafe would be able to provide to an English-speaking guest (and there were many great standalone maid cafes in Akihabara that were unable to do this).
Tapping the little push-button sliding door (that seems to be common across Japan) to enter the cafe, I was immediately greeted by a trio of maids, all wearing cat ears, perking up excitedly to welcome me inside. Since the maids had been standing behind a bar counter interacting with guests, the entrance fell in their immediate line of sight. A quick look around the room also revealed table seating and a small dance platform at the front of the room that appeared to be their version of a stage. A short-haired maid named Takuto (たくと) rushed out from behind the counter, welcomed me in English, and led me to my table. This time, I somehow managed to sit even closer to the stage than I had at @home cafe with Takuto invitingly pulling out a seat for me to sit mere inches from the dance platform in front of me, the closest seat in the house.
Takuto then brought out a menu booklet that was helpfully printed in both English and Japanese and knelt at my side. “Master, please read our story,” she tenderly supplicated and pointed to the English text printed on the first page. The story narrated the tale of a stray cat being rescued by a human and experiencing human kindness for the first time. The cat longed for a way to repay its human’s love and, one day, had its wish granted in the form of a place where cats could temporary take on a human form. This place became known as Zettai Ryōiki and the cats there worked every day to welcome humans and repay their kindness.
By the time I finished reading, my eyes were probably watering as I returned my gaze to Takuto. I have a soft spot when it comes to cats, especially stray cats — I once spent over two hours playing hide and seek with the strays in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess because I felt so bad for them. Smiling, Takuto confirmed that the staff in the cafe were all cats (and the menu referred to them as such, making no mention of “maids”) and thus, so that we could communicate more clearly, she wanted to turn me into a cat as well. “Please close your eyes,” she requested as she placed a cat ear headband over my head. “Tadaa! You are now a cat!” she clapped as I was allowed to once again open my eyes. Unlike the other maid cafes, Takuto only talked through some of the more important rules such as “no touching the cats” (this broke the spell and turned them back into cat-form) and opted to let me browse through the menu at my own convenience. When I was ready to order, I had to summon her by meowing, “nyā nyā!” (ニャー ニャー!)
Just as was the case in the other cafes, the menu showcased adorably decorated food and drinks, most of which were clearly themed after, well, cats. Unlike the other maid cafes however, it appeared that Zettai Ryōiki did not have scheduled show times so performances had to be ordered. It did not take long for me to make my selection and, when I signaled this with the customary “nyā nyā!” all of the cats in the cafe acknowledged by meowing back before one of them zoomed up to take my order. This time, rather than Takuto, a cat named Karin (かりん) crouched down beside me to await my request. Like Takuto, Karin’s English was also superb and she spoke to me clearly with a “high pitched” archetypal cat-girl voice, appending “nyā” to every other sentence. Adorably, she struggled with numbers a little bit (choosing to instead draw out the numbers with her hands) but she was able to take my order without issue and scampered off with an affirmative, “hai (はい), nyā!”
After a few minutes, I received my drink and Karin excitedly asked me what she should draw on it. “Cat okay?” she checked with me before setting off to work on meticulously drawing a cat with a bow-tie over the froth topping my beverage. Adding a heart to her drawing as a final touch, Karin proudly arched her back and invited me to chant with her the magic spell to make it delicious. “Deli-cious, deli-cious, moe moe kyun!”
Shortly after, even before I received the rest of my order, I noticed Karin clambering up to the little dance platform in the room — someone had asked her to perform! For a moment, she questioningly looked around the shop, apparently waiting for a song to start playing as she bopped at her microphone in adorable annoyance. Finally, the lights dimmed and it was time for her to start, immediately setting the room full of energy as she started dancing! Colored lights sparkled across the stage, the bass echoed through the room, and Karin bounced around to, not the light music played in the other maid cafes, but rather a hyperactive beat that was much more fitting for cats.
To me, this is where the smaller scale of Zettai Ryōiki truly worked in its favor. As Karin proceeded to dance to another song, she would point to members of the audience, playfully stick her tongue out to certain others, and, at times, leap off the stage to run up to guests mid-show; her proximity to the audience allowed for personalized interaction throughout her performance. The air in the cafe was positively electric as the guests cheered for Karin, the cats shook tambourines to the rhythm of the songs, and Karin herself was smiling as she was clearly having a blast! It was actually during her performance that I received my white curry that I had ordered (shaped like a cat) but I was honesty so enamored with Karin that I did not even begin eating until she finished dancing.
In good spirits, when I finally began to eat, I was able to observe the general atmosphere of the cafe. Unlike @home cafe, patrons did not have a maid assigned to them. However, unlike Maidreamin, the cats constantly meandered around and interacted with guests; even despite the smaller size of the cafe, there were always three or four cats nearby at any given time. I watched as the they batted at each other’s hair, took selfies with one another, and even poked at certain guests with blank cat-like stares before bursting into giggles. I myself seemed to receive a good amount of traffic at my table (I definitely stand out as a foreigner) and I had one come up to me to bat at my hair before removing a piece of fluff that must have gotten caught in it (the cat was delighted at successfully accomplishing this). I was also quite pleased that even the cats who did not have as strong a grasp of English were unafraid to approach my table even if only to introduce themselves. “My name is Yuyu!” one would exclaim before scampering away. Another tentatively approached my table, curious about the large external lens screwed onto my iPhone. “Camera?” she asked as I nodded and showed her how it worked. Delighted, she played with it a little bit before asking which country I was from. Just as Calico had done, she welcomed me to Japan and asked me how long I would be staying. Before leaving to attend to others, she introduced herself, energetically exclaiming, “My name is Chihiro (ちひろ)! It is spelled C-h-i-h…” (and at this point, she tripped herself up and slowed down in her spelling, ultimately misspelling her name — the effort was utterly cute nonetheless).
Having thoroughly enjoyed my experience with the cats at Zettai Ryōiki, I decided to have photos taken with both Karin and Chihiro. Both insisted on a pose where we joined our hands together to form a heart and, just as Calico had done, the cats first decorated the Instax photographs with hearts, paw prints, lettering, and drawings before presenting them to me. As fate would have it, I had actually caught Karin on her final day before she “graduated” (left the cafe) so I counted myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet her. “Bye bye, nyā!” the cats waved as I left the shop feeling warm and contented inside.
It was actually a few days later from this point that I decided to visit Maidreamin. In all honesty, I did not expect for it to measure up to the incredible experience I had at Zettai Ryōiki, but I also did not expect for it to feel as bland as it did. For this reason, I decided to visit Zettai Ryōiki a second time to confirm that my positive experience there was not a mere fluke — besides, it was my final day in Japan!
When I next entered the small shop, I was invited to sit at the corner of the bar counter which once again placed me close to the dance platform. This time, a cheerful little cat named Cocoa (ここあ) went over the cafe’s story with me and placed a set of cat ears over my head. Yet again, I had no difficulties communicating with Cocoa as her English skills were wonderful (though her accent charmingly shined through as she pronounced her name “Coco-ah”). When I asked Cocoa which drink she would recommend, she excitedly pointed to the “iced cocoa” drink listed on the menu exclaiming, “this one! Because it’s my name!!” While my order was being prepared, Cocoa also brought me a cup of what she called “nyā water” and warned me that I would permanently become a cat if I drank too much (though this was tempting).
This time around, I also opted to order a “live show” and was presented with a little whiteboard displaying pictures of the cats who were available to perform. The live show option was actually different from the available “dance show” option in the way that the cat would actually sing the song live while dancing. For this reason, the selection of cats who could do this was understandably smaller, but I ended up choosing a cat named Hani (はに). According to Cocoa, Hani was not yet present at the cafe but would arrive shortly for her shift.
Just as Cocoa was delivering my drink however, I saw Takuto emerge from behind the curtain of beads separating the cafe from the kitchen area. As she saw me, she paused in her tracks with a slight gasp, her mouth slightly open (much like a cat), before pointing at me and holding up two fingers. As I nodded to affirm that I was indeed back for a second visit, she smiled and walked out from behind the counter to come chat with me. “Hot outside?” she asked concernedly as she pinched up the sleeve of my shirt to tug at the undershirt beneath. She clearly did not approve of my lack of effort to stay cool in the summer sun, but as usual, she was a delight to talk with. I explained to her that I had stopped by one final time because it was my last day in Japan and she let out a sympathetic “aww” with a pained expression.
Still, I could not have asked for a better finale for both my final day in the country and my final visit to Zettai Ryōiki. As luck would have it, I had dropped by at the same time as a regular who had happened to order five different dances from multiple cats. Additionally, before the show actually began, Hani entered the cafe while a cat named Rui (るい) stood preparing to open with the first dance. “Hani!” another cat called Nano (なの) announced to me while pointing to her. She then walked over and explained that I would be looking forward to seeing her perform. This of course brought a smile from Hani and she briefly introduced herself to me in English before heading to the back to prepare. With everyone settled then, Rui got up on the little dance platform and music flooded the room.
わるき一 “Walky~” by NMB48. The song Rui opened with.
Dancing to one of the songs Karin had danced to during my last visit, the tiny cafe immediately transformed into a magical dreamland as Rui pranced around on stage! As before, the audience clap, clap-clapped to the beat of the tune, the cats shook their tambourines, and some cats (like Takuto) pawed at Rui’s feet as she flit around. And then, it was one dance after another with Rui performing a second dance, followed by Takuto.
ネコネコス一パ一フィーバーナイ卜 “Neko Neko☆Super Fever Night” by Samfree. The song Takuto danced to.
Three songs in, the room was already awash with energy and once Hani took the stage to perform the “Please Darlin’” song that Karin had performed before, not a single person in the room was eating as the audience was completely riveted by the show in front of them! Hani followed this up with a frantic Vocaloid tune that kept the momentum going as the best was still yet to come…
気まぐれメルシィ “Whimsical Mercy” by Hachioji-P. The final dance in Hani’s set.
Finally, as Hani stood onstage panting with beads of sweat beginning to appear over her forehead, she stepped down for a brief moment. Walking behind the counter, she leaned over, handed me a blue glow stick, and grinned. It was time for the live show. Understanding at once, I snapped the glow stick and got ready to cheer her on with everything I had. With that, Hani once again took to the front of the room, this time with microphone in hand.
初恋サイダ一 “First Love Cider” by Buono!. Hani’s song.
Picture then, the following: a room at the peak of its excitement, a flutter of shimmering colored lights dancing across the stage, a song starting slowly only to light up in burning intensity, and a little cat-maid passionately singing her heart out just for you — and you know this because her gentle eyes are fixated on you while singing, occasionally letting out a knowing smile as you cheer her on. The song’s lyrics too were so beautiful, yet so sad in the context that the cats knew I would be leaving the next day, unlikely to return for a long time. As Hani performed for my final memory in Japan, I felt like I was sitting in the center of the universe; I was enthralled.
I was pleased too that her live song was actually sung live and not lip-synced — there were a few times when I got a little too enthusiastic waving my glow stick around which sent Hani into a fit of giggles, only for her to resume singing at the start of the next verse. It was charming and added to the fun of the entire experience. When she finally finished (to the cafe’s thunderous applause), she walked behind the bar counter for a drink of water. I praised her performance, to which she responded with a bow, “yatta (やった)! Thank you, nyā!”
The cafe was buzzing with excitement, and by then a mostly new shift of cats had arrived (though Takuto was still around). Word had spread to them too that I would be headed back to America the next day and, since I was having photos done with the rest of the cats, I decided to include the new faces as well. Following this, two of the new cats, Same (さめ) and Shilo (しろ), hovered around me quite a bit, especially since we had not previously met. (The third, named Miyu (みゆ), did not appear to speak much English and was relying on typing things into Google Translate.) Astonishingly, one of the cats’ names was quite similar to my real name and I took out my passport to show them. The sight of a blue American passport proved to be interesting for the two and they did not even notice at first that I was pointing to my name since they were distracted by everything else on the page.
“You’re good-looking!” Shilo murmured with a kittenish smile as she tapped on my picture, “but I think you're cuter with cat ears!” Meanwhile, Same idly tugged at my cat ears until she finally noticed what I was pointing to. Both cats gasped as they connected the dots, at a loss for words as they read my name. Laughing, I put my passport away and told the two that they should visit America sometime. For some reason, Shilo responded to this by asking “California?” and I had to correct her to visit Texas instead! “Tex…as,” she sounded out.
Getting ready to depart with my head full of unforgettable memories, the cats wished me a safe trip home. The cafe had provided me with a microcosm of bliss that stood completely apart from the rest of the world; as I left, I wanted to never forget how I felt during the time I spent with the cats of Zettai Ryōiki.
The first thing one notices when they set foot in Akihabara is the immense world of anime and manga surrounding them from every angle. The second is the multitude upon multitudes of maids lined up on every walkway passing out flyers to come visit their cafe. Akihabara is special in the way that it allows for a departure from the real world to play along in a land of fiction. Having finally experienced the unique atmosphere provided by maid cafes, along with the innocent yet formidable power of moe, I left feeling a little sad that I would not experience it again, at least not for a long time. For someone such as myself who lives a double life between the online world and a the professional world, sometimes it is fun to escape reality for a little while.
I have to hand a lot of credit to @home cafe for making my first maid cafe experience an exciting one, mostly due to the personal touches it offered along with the shining personalities of the maids. (Aside from Calico, it appeared that the other maids also had unique personalities. I had to laugh when I observed one maid constantly giving her master a death stare, even going so far as to wordlessly and continuously smash her tambourine inches from her guest’s face during the show.)
Still, the best experience for me was indisputably my time visiting Zettai Ryōiki — the atmosphere was casual, the food was cute, and the cats sincerely enjoyed interacting with their guests. The close-knit dynamic within the cafe also showed in the cats' playfulness, with one particularly humorous moment standing out to me when Rui was dancing and noticed the guest who had requested it was busy talking to another cat during the performance — this prompted her to slightly modify her routine so that, instead of pointing to him during a certain verse in the song, she, for a split second, flipped her guest off before covering it with her other hand, causing the rest of the cats to gasp and burst into fits of laughter. In another instance highlighting the cats’ frolicsome attitudes, Hani at one point emerged from the back room without her cat ears on. When I mentioned to her that her ears had vanished, she looked shocked before hanging her head like an embarrassed cat who had been caught. She then slowly put her hands over her head (to cover up where her cat ear holes would have been) and slinked away into the back to fix herself.
I later learned that the unique atmosphere at Zettai Ryōiki can be attributed to the work the manager had put in; the cafe is advertised as a safe environment to work, a fulfilling place to build inner charm while making others smile, and an excellent means to practice English. Additionally, the cafe does not hire high school students and the age conditions they have in place actually put the cats’ ages in the ballpark of my age. This was reflected by the shop’s selection of background music as the majority of the songs came from anime aired in the 2000s. Since this is the era in which my anime knowledge has permanently arrested, imagine my joy when I heard songs from Macross Frontier, the original K-On!, A Certain Scientific Railgun, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Bakemonogatari. (In fact, one of the cats named Takuto is also a Code Geass fanatic!) I also happen to know that the cafe is doing well enough that they will be opening a second location soon — just this year, the cafe won TripAdvisor’s 2018 certificate of excellence so I sincerely wish them all the best and hope that they can maintain the high standard of their work even as they prepare to branch out.
How sad it is though, to leave knowing that you will never see someone again.
As I departed, I left wondering about the girls who chose to work these cafes — regardless of one’s feelings about the concept of maid cafes, I find the pursuit to be an admirable one; to want to earnestly serve others, entertain them, and make them feel welcome with the power of measured cuteness… what must the personalities be like for these girls? Do their classmates know about their work? Are they closet otakus? Are their maid personas kept a secret from the others in their lives?
Regardless, I do believe that it takes a special personality to perform the role of a maid well, and I like to think that at least some part of their maid personas is rooted in their actual real-world temperaments (Faris comes to mind from the Steins;Gate series). Zettai Ryōiki actually blurs boundaries even further by providing publicly accessible Twitter profiles (all named cutesy names such as @nya_shiloO, @hanimori_zettai, and @chocomint_same) for each cat in which they post pictures of themselves even outside of work. (Naturally, such profiles are carefully curated by the cafe manager and the cats are not allowed to follow back or send DMs).
Maids aside, I firmly believe that for the guests too the ability to allow oneself to relax is an important skill that not everyone possesses. For things like maid cafes, one not only has to allow themselves to be swept away by their magical pretenses, but also be in the mood to play along. Despite working in an often serious, professional environment, I have always prided myself in my ability to cast it all aside when provided with an opportunity to wholeheartedly relax. Nevertheless, I feel that not even subsequent visits to such cafes could top the magic I experienced this summer and I feel contented that I was able to enjoy myself to the fullest.