From reading my last post you could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is simply a country of tranquil tearooms, zen gardens and traditions stretching back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But, as I hinted, there is a whole other side to the place, and for my money it's a side every bit as interesting. Nowhere is this other side more evident than in Tokyo. Tokyo is quite definitely my kind of town: streets as busy as Oxford Street on a Saturday; neon lights that dazzle your eyes; and noise emanating from shops, arcades and even passing trucks. It may rain a lot (witness the umbrella cover dispensers outside every shop) and it may not be the most beautiful of places but it really feels alive.
I began and ended my trip around Japan in Tokyo and I loved every minute of it. Of course the fact that you can drink tea everywhere helps: from the tempura place serving hojicha, to the karaoke bar offering iced oolong, this is a country, and city, that loves its tea. But there was one spot we visited where I gave tea (at least in liquid form) a miss.
Tokyo's electronics town Akihabara - or Akiba to its friends - is the kind of place that people like to talk about in the same breath as the film Blade Runner. And there's no doubt that on a rainy night it does have the feel of a dystopian future world where cheap electronic goods could mean the difference between life and death. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an area loved by people into manga, anime and computer games, and features plenty of manga cafes. These places offer you your own little padded cubicle, not completely dissimilar to a padded cell except that you have your own TV, computer, selection of manga comic books and access to a shower in case you end up making a night of it. But although these places were actually surprising chilled out and cool we had come for something else: to visit a maid cafe.
Maid cafes have been around for ten or eleven years and feature staff dressed as french maids. Although this may sound overtly sexual, and in some of the newer cafes the maids certainly look somewhat on the tarty side, this was not the original idea. We went to a more traditional maid cafe (if there is such a thing) called Mai:lish where the waitresses, or maids, play the role of a humble servant. When we walked in we were greeted by the maids saying "hello master" and "hello mistress" in a very high-pitched and cutesy voice. The room itself was bright with a huge TV screen showing a Harry Potter film, and soothing classical music was being played. The place was fairly full of salarymen and others although, perhaps predictably, I was the only woman. Obviously my lack of Japanese made it difficult to follow exactly what the maids were saying to us but everything sounded incredibly polite, deferential even; in fact, it was sort of like being served by a very servile cartoon character.
The combination of the high-pitched, childlike voice, and the costume and hairstyles straight out of a manga comic was pretty bizarre; but it was nothing compared to the behaviour of some of the customers. My particular favourite was the thirty-something besuited salaryman sitting next to us. He was very keen to engage his favourite maid (having favourites is encouraged, you can even buy merchandise) in conversation and spent most of his time talking to her from behind his hand whilst giggling like a six year old. This continued until he was leaving the cafe where he proceeded to have a giggling fit about the fact he had momentarily misplaced his wallet. The maid joined in with the childish laughter but I couldn't help wondering if behind the scenes they were all rolling their eyes.
Anyway, I decided this probably wasn't the kind of place to have a sophisticated cup of sencha and decided instead to go for maximum sugar. I achieved this via a chocolate milk float and the special of the day, a piece of Matcha Gateaux. To be honest my hopes were pretty low as to the quality of the food and drinks but I was quite wrong - my cake was pretty darn delicious.
And Coffee Boy was more than happy with his Mai:lish Toast - a dizzying concoction of toast, honey, ice cream and chocolate sauce. We left the place in something of a sugar daze - so much so in fact that we bought a plastic fan featuring a picture of the maids (why?) on the way out.
Sadly photos are not allowed in the cafe so I had to make do with sneaking a couple on my iPhone but I just couldn't manage to get any of the maids in the flesh without giving the game away. Although this wasn't one of the special breed of cafes where the maids berate you for your entire visit then cry when you leave, I still didn't want to make a spectacle of myself by breaking the rules. But you can see pictures of all the maids here.
All round, it was a pretty extraordinary experience. And it summed up that whole other side to Japan perfectly. Remember, this is a country with an amusement arcade on every other corner and where the culture of cuteness is so all-pervasive that the ancient city of Nara celebrates its 1300th anniversary of becoming the country's capital with the help of Sento-kun, a buddha-like boy cartoon figure with antlers. But it's this dichotomy, the ancient traditions and the crazy modern madness, that make Japan so fascinating. But wonderful as this flip side to the traditional is, I have to admit that when when Coffee Boy asked if I fancied visiting another maid cafe later in the holiday I declined. There's only so much weirdness I can handle on one trip. Maybe next time...