Mai Dreamin: Surviving the Akihabara Maids

Akihabara is easily one of my favorite places to visit, if only for the fact that I see something bizarre and novel every time that I go there. On this particular day, a few friends and I were shopping for anime and realized that it was lunchtime. Every one of us was intent on eating at a maid café except for John, who was decidedly against it. Nevertheless, we stopped at one of the many exuberant maids who petitioned customers on the street.


The Initiation:

As somewhat of a mischievous prank, we eventually coaxed John into going into a maid café with the rest of us. The maid showed us into the adjacent building and into a very small elevator. The elevator had an atmosphere of silence, but once doors slid open, we were immediately exposed to a barrage of loud music and singing. There were multicolored disco lights shining around the darkened room and one spotlight focused on a stage set up in the corner of the cafe where one of the maids sang. A single maid with a smile plastered on her face welcomed us into the otherworldy room.  The entire room, which was no bigger than an average size living room, was packed with people clapping to the music. The expression on John’s face explained everything; his eyes bulged open and his mouth hung wide at the sheer sensory explosion. I stifled a giggle.

We stepped into the café and were seated in one of the many rows of white tables. There was a very noticeable haze of cigarette smoke in the air and I could only wonder at how badly that affected the health of the workers. Sitting directly in front of me was a man who seemed like he had attended the café one too many times, as he sang along to every lyric proudly.

The Maid Show:

The environment was decidedly exciting, with every maid interacting  the customers in some fashion. Even the cook (who I could see from my seat) was dancing and singing along in her kitchen. Our maid, Ramune, removed menus from her apron and handed them to us asking, with impeccable politeness, if we were hungry. When the rest of us I finished ordering, we looked to Lewis and found that he was frozen with shock and hadn’t glanced at his menu. Ramune, very patiently, asked him once more and he casually pointed to whatever picture was on the menu in front of him. Not five minutes later, three maids appeared before us. Each one held a clean glass in their hand and a steel drink shaker in the other. They placed the glass in front of each of us, then held the shaker between both hands and instructed us to clap and sing along with them as they mixed the drinks. As she shook, I chanted “yuru, yuru” and found that everyone else seated around us joined in on the tune in some kind of drunken jubilance, including John, who only did so with the most embarrassed reluctance.

When the chant was over, everyone clapped and the maids poured the contents into our glasses, stirring the drinks daintily with pink swizzle sticks. I considered  the level of personal service at a maid café that can, at times, seems almost sexual in nature; the maid, dressed in petticoats and pigtails, dotes upon the customer to the highest degree. Flirting is not uncommon and, therefore,  it is not surprising that there are rules posted at the entrance: “do not grope the maids”, “do not ask for personal information”, and “do not exhibit embarrasing behavior” to name a few.

The Hard Sell:

As we waited for our food, the singer on stage departed and the bright fluorescent lights turned on overhead. Each maid came around holding small baskets of merchandise, trying to persuade the patrons to purchase their wares. I couldn’t help but feel pandered to. With the bright lights shining in their faces, I could see the fatigued demeanor of the maids  underneath their thick makeup. I would find out later (after noticing a job advertisement posted outside the café) that many maids work up to twelve hours a day.

Once our food arrived, we sang another little melody before eating, but this time it was much calmer than the fanfare before. We ate as quickly as we could; eager to depart before they charged us for another hour of entertainment. As the manager tallied up our bill at the register, we each received a Polaroid picture taken of us with one of the maids to keep as a souvenir. After paying each of our bills, which amounted to about 8,000 yen overall, we entered the elevator once more and heard a loud “sayonara!” from behind us. While we descended down the floors in the elevator, I could smell the second hand smoke emitting from our clothes. The doors opened and we were once again on the sidewalk.

“I’m just going to pretend that that never happened” John said, shaking his head.

May 26, 2011