You can find just about anything in New York City. Most of the world’s cultural exports end up here eventually, from bubble tea to bike lanes. But Japanese culture has only made its way selectively into this city’s cultural landscape. Despite the growing popularity of Japanese pop culture like anime and manga here in the U.S., the Japanese have largely left the weirder stuff back home, until now. The first Maid Cafe has just opened in Chinatown. Theme cafes are big in Japan, and especially hostess cafes which are a special blend of fantasy and female degradation where waitresses dress up in elaborate and often skimpy costumes and flirt with their, mostly socially awkward, male customers. In the Akiharaba district of Tokyo, young waitresses dressed as French maids, school girls and manga characters in platform pumps and thigh highs hand out invitations on the busy streets to passing potential customers. They were all too happy to pose for pictures too, as I found out.
At the maid cafes in Japan, waitresses greet male guests as “master,” listen dotingly, flatter and giggle behind menus. It’s an exaggerated femininity of the kind that feels uniquely Japanese. But, in some ways it’s familiar. What is Hooters if not a fantasy bar where buxom waitresses serve atomic wings instead of matcha? There is one small, but significantly disturbing difference though. There is no mistaking the Hooters waitresses for girls. Whereas the primary look of waitresses at many hostess cafes, and the popular look for Japanese woman in general, is kawaii, meaning cute, as in young, often a little too young. Hence, the popularity of the school girl look. At the Maid Cafe in Chinatown the French maid outfits are maintained but the rest of the experience has been finessed for the American crowd. The cafe holds special events where “traditional” maid service is offered. But regular service involves no references to guests as”masters,” or cartoonish flirtations, just young women in frilly maid outfits serving chicken curry with heart-shaped rice for $6.95.
One year (and a week) ago, I was in the alpine region of Japan (yes, there is one) awaiting the start of a festival. Every fall and spring, the tiny town of Takayama becomes the site of a 400-year-old festival that celebrates the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine with ornate floats called yatai that drip with illuminated lanterns. During my trip I kept a travel blog called Massaging the Octopus. Here’s my post from the festival with photos and some observations. On the first night of the festival the yatai get trotted out into the streets of Takayama, carried by teams of very fit locals. At the end of a narrow street, the crowd was especially thick and the music of a flute could be heard. This is where being 5’2 comes in handy. I burrowed my way through the crowd and got to see this.