Maid cafes have exploded in popularity across Japan over the past few years. Although they began in Tokyo, you can now find them all over the country – and they’re popping up in other countries too. So what is a maid café in Japan?
Tourists often have a skewed image in their heads of what a maid café actually is – and this can lead to some awkward moments. If you go into a maid café with expectations of having some sort of sexual fetish realized, you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. A maid café does exactly what it says on the tin, really – it’s a café, where you are attended to by servers who dress and act like exaggerated versions of old-school French or Victorian maids.
Going to a maid café for the first time can be a bit of an awkward situation, but it’s something you’ll probably never experience again – so give it a try! Worst case scenario, you’ll cringe through the hour and have a funny story to tell when you get home.
The Background of Maid Cafes
So Japan is pretty famous for its otaku culture. Otaku essentially refers to a person who is obsessed with a fandom or subculture – kind of a heightened version of the English word ‘nerd’. It’s worth noting before you affectionately refer to someone as an otaku, the word can have negative connotations in Japan – an otaku tends to have poor social skills and be withdrawn from the rest of the world.
The concept of the maid café falls under the otaku umbrella. All over Japan, you will see themed cafes dedicated to different characters and subcultures – this is just one in a very long line. The first maid café opened its doors in Tokyo in the late 90s, and the concept has since grown in popularity – particularly amongst tourists, who are fascinated by the novel concept.
Maid cafes began as a sub-genre of dating simulation games that were popular in Japan at the time. This very interesting study talks about the prevalence of long-term emotional relationships being formed between maid café staff and regular customers and provides a fascinating insight into why this particular café theme has survived and thrived in Japanese culture for over twenty years now.
Anecdotally, I have spoken to people who link the popularity of maid cafes to the intense nature of Japanese work culture. They hypothesize that because the Japanese work so hard, it can be difficult to have time to form emotional relationships – could the fact that maid cafes offer a kind of ‘connection-lite’ experience condensed into a lunch break be part of their draw for overworked businessmen?
Who Are Maid Cafes Aimed At?
While maid cafes do attract an increasing number of foreign tourists, they aren’t designed with this market in mind. Maid cafes are generally designed to appeal to male otaku hoping to live out the fantasy of being the master of a grand private home – which is why customers tend to be greeted as ‘sir’ or ‘master’ upon entering.
This is also why maids might exclaim ‘welcome back’ when you walk through the door – although you may have never set foot in the café before in your life, they are enabling you in acting out a fantasy where you live in a grand house with serving staff.
Can I Bring My Kids to a Maid Café ?
Totally! There are no age restrictions on visiting a maid café You’ll see all types of people there – and the over-the-top novelty of many pop culture cafes would probably make it a really fun experience for children. The maids behave in quite a childlike fashion, and there’s nothing inappropriate about the songs or dancing except for the fact that their uniform skirts can be quite short, which might not suit a conservative family. If you’re uncertain, your best bet is to research a particular café in advance of your visit so you can make a call on whether or not your kids would enjoy it.
How Do I Find a Maid Café?
You’ll find them all over Japan – but if you’re hoping to just stumble across a cool looking one, then your best bet is to head towards Akihabara. This little town in Tokyo is known for being the center for all things otaku, and if it’s a kitschy little day exploring themed cafes you’re after then you can’t go wrong here.
What Will the Maids Do?
It depends on the type of café you opt for. There are Victorian-style maid cafes, where maids are dressed conservatively, and provide very high-end, old-school service. These aren’t the images that usually come into one’s head when thinking about maid cafes. Usually, we think of pop culture cafes – these are the kitschy, colorful establishments where the staff wear less conservative costumes and interact in a fun way with the customers.
If you go to a pop culture maid café, the service you get depends on the combo you purchase. Every maid café is different, but most will have a few different tiers of combos you can opt for. These combos generally include things like getting a photograph with your maid, taking home a souvenir gift, or a private performance (don’t get any weird ideas – it just means the maid sings a song for you, and sometimes there are flashing lights). I have heard that some cafes offer hand and shoulder massages from the servers as part of their combo deals – I haven’t personally seen this. In fact, any café I have visited has been explicit in its no-touching policy.
Usually, your maid will interact with you in a cutesy way – she’ll tease you, sing songs with you, and generally pay you loads of attention. You’ll be encouraged to chant along with your maid and make hand signals – a common chant is ‘moe moe kyun’ (you can’t really directly translate this, but it pretty much just means extremely cute). If you don’t speak Japanese, it can be a little tricky to follow at times what your maid is asking you to do – don’t worry, it’s not an exam! Just follow along as best as you can.
When your food or drink is served, the maid will often draw a cartoon or message on it in ketchup or chocolate sauce. It is also likely that you will be dressed in some kind of costume – usually novelty animal ears.
This can all feel a bit awkward at first, as it’s not the usual café experience – but once you get over the initial weirdness of singing songs in bunny ears with a stranger in a maid costume it’s actually a lot of fun.
What Sort of Food Does a Maid Café Serve?
Menus vary, but the emphasis tends to be on the look of the food rather than the taste. In maid cafes, they like their fare to be kawaii (cute), and brightly colored desserts are served up alongside hot drinks with cartoon characters drawn into the foam. In many maid cafés, you can order basic main meals – these tend to be very expensive for what you get.
It’s very kitschy, very Instagrammable, but I definitely wouldn’t be choosing a maid café for lunch or dinner. Go for a coffee and get some tasty street food after you leave!
Can You Take Photos?
You wouldn’t take pictures of the person serving you in another restaurant without their permission (at least I hope you wouldn’t) and the same principle applies here. For some of the girls who work in the cafes, the outside world might not know this is their job – taking their photograph with the intent of sharing it publically can be disrespectful.
Also, having your photo taken with your maid is often part of the combo deal – snapping pictures of your server outside of this allotted time makes you the café equivalent of those people in Disneyland who take sneaky phone pictures of their rollercoaster reaction photo on the gift shop screen. Definitely frowned upon.
However, most maid cafés are cool with you snapping photos of your food, drink, or yourself and your friends. Just check first!
How Much Should I Budget For a maid Café Visit?
These places are pricey – but you’re paying for the experience, rather than the food or drinks. There’s often a fee just to sit at the table, plus the price of whatever you order. There’ll be some attempts at upselling (there are usually plenty of souvenirs and drinks upgrades available to purchase), but a polite no is all you need to say if you’re not interested.
One point to note – the usual time you’re allotted in the café is one hour. If you stay over this, most cafes will charge you extra, and many will demand that you order something new. Unless you’re on an unlimited budget, this is not the place to while away an afternoon – get in and out within your allotted hour.
I can’t give you an exact figure to set aside for your maid café visit, as each café will be different and prices have probably changed since my last visit, but many cafés will have their menus and price lists online – do your research before you go if you’re on a tight budget to avoid nasty shocks.
Should I Have A Drink Before I Go?
You wouldn’t skull pints before heading to Starbucks, so why would you do it going to a maid café? I’ve spoken to a few tourists in the past who have been tempted to pre-drink before their first maid café experience to offset any potential awkwardness – trust me if you’re drunk you’ll make it awkward. These aren’t night club style set-ups – they’re very much cafés, and it’s not the right vibe.
Saying that, some maid cafeé do have alcoholic drinks available to order in-house if you fancy something a little bit stronger than green tea.
Is it Ethically Okay to Go to A Maid Café?
Some people feel uncomfortable with the concept of a maid café. If the idea doesn’t sit right with you, don’t go – it’s unlikely you’ll feel any better about it once you’re in there.
If you are concerned about the welfare of the staff, be assured that these aren’t sex workers – they are cosplaying service staff. They receive a service staff wage, and for many, this is a sought after job because of the fun element of dressing up and interacting with customers.
If you feel that the existence of maid cafes is in some way misogynistic or sexist, it may or may not put your mind at ease to learn that there are growing numbers of butler cafés in Tokyo, too – where male service staff put on the same show for customers.
Is It a Must-see When in Japan?
Personally, I don’t think this is a ‘must-see’ activity. It’s a fun way to pass an hour and you’ll get some silly stories out of it, but it certainly won’t be a highlight amongst all the other incredible things Japan has to offer.
If it’s not your thing, don’t feel bad for giving this one a miss! And if you’re desperate to try a themed café but something about the maid thing makes you feel uncomfortable, never fear – there are a wealth of options all over Ahikabara catering to just about any theme you can imagine. You’ll find the right one for you!