Maid Cafes

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Thursday, September 27, 2012

No matter how prepared you are, Tokyo hits you like a ton of bricks. This city is big, it's busy, and it's also a lot of fun. How big and busy is it? Including Yokohama, a 2007 estimate puts the population at 35.7 million (the entire population of Canada is roughly 34.5 million) making it by far the world's most populous metropolitan area with a population density of 2,642 persons/kmē (Canada's density is roughly 3.75 persons/kmē). The area has the largest metropolitan economy in the world, with a total GDP (nominal) of approximately US$1.9 trillion (Canada has a $1.75 trillion dollar GDP as an entire country).

As the heart and soul of Japan, Tokyo can put forth a very serious face with a collective focus on the work environment and financial success. It can also be the place we discovered- a city that offers head snapping surprises around every corner. To that end, and with apologies to David Letterman, I offer up my own Top 10 List of the many fascinating, curious, and downright quirky things we experienced as we wandered the streets.

Number 10: The towers of Tokyo. What do you do when you live in an earthquake prone area along the ring of fire? If you're Japanese, you build the tallest tower (and second tallest structure) in the world, the aptly named Skytree which tops out at slightly over 2,000 ft. (the CN Tower in Toronto is just over 1800 ft high)- I'm not sure I'd want to be at the top when the earth starts shaking (at which point it might just become the formerly tallest tower in the world). Things start getting a little quirkier when you make your way over to the Tokyo Tower which is a virtual copy of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (although they did build it 13 metres higher). The setting certainly doesn't invoke the romance of it's Paris cousin and they've painted it to look very much like a cell phone tower but you've got to admire the attempt. And my favourite tall building in Tokyo has to be the Sumida Asahi Beer Tower, headquarters of the Asahi Beer Company- it's intended to look like a mug of beer complete with foam at the top (and there's a beer hall next to it that is in the shape of a beer glass and topped by the 'burning heart of Asahi beer' that is now unfortunately referred to by locals as the 'golden turd'!).
Number 9: Fugu. Knowing that a particular fish could be lethal if eaten would normally discourage most populations from throwing it on the dinner table...but we're in Japan. Fugu, literally "river pig" is the Japanese word for pufferfish and the dish prepared from it. It can be poisonous due to its tetrodotoxin; therefore, it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the meat. The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan and only chefs who have qualified through rigorous training are allowed to deal with the fish. Domestic preparation occasionally leads to accidental death- some consider the liver the tastiest part but it is also the most poisonous, and serving this organ in restaurants was banned in Japan in 1984 but it still happens. Forgive us if we pass on the actual experience of tasting this particular notorious Japanese dish (I still haven't managed to complete our wills yet).

Number 8: Capsule Hotels. At one time apparently, stranded (and somewhat inebriated) Japanese businessmen created the need for a place to crash without all of the frills (and expense) of a regular hotel room. Enter the capsule hotel. The 'rooms' in Japanese Capsule Hotels are a little bigger than a coffin and include all the conveniences one could ever need. If women are allowed to stay, they will be stored in a separate room of stacked coffins but since men are the primary customer, a certain tolerance to nighttime noises, smells and bad behaviour is required. 
Number 7: Vending Machines. One of the brochures I read suggested that Japan has almost 6 million vending machines with the contention that you can get almost anything from one of these machines (apparently there's at least one that you can purchase a Smart Car from but we didn't see it so I can't verify). We saw machines that would provide cigarettes (without any of the dire warnings), beer (without any age limit checks), soup and noodles, piping hot food (including french fries), umbrellas, pokeman toys, fresh eggs, neckties, flowers, box lunches, batteries, and other items DH won't let me describe as they take us into adult categories. I'm sure there were other oddities, and it probably requires a very low crime rate, but I really liked the concept.

Number 6: Tsukiji Fish Market. Tsukiji is the world's largest fish market, and is also the world's finest fish theater, a daily fish auction drama you can witness for free (although it's a very early daily drama- we were in the 5am lineup waiting for the very limited allocation of auction viewing spots).  The market's operations are staggering- 2,200 tons of fish are delivered each day. Throughout the night, the seafood arrives from all over the world, delivered by tankers and trucks from other ports and the airport. More than 40,000 people buy and sell about 450 species and varieties of fish at the market's more than 1,500 stalls. At one time you could wander freely through the auction area but apparently one visiting chucklehead thought it would be a great photo op to be seen licking the head of a frozen tuna. Hopefully he was immediately sterilized so he could not reproduce, but it did result in very strict roped off areas for tourists to now watch the auctions. We couldn't figure out who was bidding, and what they were buying, but we enjoyed the thought that, in this land of automation and technology, the sushi being served up at lunch counters all over Tokyo was bought and delivered via a market that has been around for hundreds of years (when Tokyo was known as Edo).

Number 5: Anime. One of the neighbourhoods in Tokyo, Akihabar, appears to be ground zero for the inexplicable anime (short for animation) industry in Japan. It's possible to find anime aimed at just about every age group, and it comes in all forms including video, TV, movies, comic books, etc. There's even anime cafes in which your favourite heroines come to life to serve you a coffee. We wandered through a couple of the multi-story anime stores and were amazed at the sheer volume of material- some of the comic book volumes would make War & Peace look like a short story. I don't think we ever quite figured out the pervasive fascination in Japan for these doe-eyed, spikey-haired superheros but it wasn't unusual to see a straight-laced businessman reading a comic book on the train??

Number 4: Cat Cafes. Since so many Japanese are unable to own pets, a completely sensible solution in the form of cat cafes has become something of a phenomena in Tokyo. We had to go visit one of these bizarre concepts which you had to enter through a labyrinth of doors which presumably keeps the cats locked in. Once inside the cats are free to walk all over you or ignore you as cats do- we were given some string toys that a couple of cats seemed to enjoy chasing. The coffee part of the cafe was a vending stuck off to the side. Since you paid an admittance fee I'm not sure anyone ever bothered with the coffee- everyone we saw were strictly interested in playing with the cats. How does a serious country like Japan embrace slightly wacky ideas like this??

Number 3: Baseball Fanaticism. Baseball has arguably replaced sumo wrestling as Japans national sport so exploring Tokyo can't be considered complete without taking in one of the professional games on offer. We went to see the Yakult Swallows take on the Hanshin Tigers from Osaka and to be honest, after fighting to stay awake at one too many Toronto Blue Jay games, I wasn't expecting much. The slow-as-molasses game isn't much different but the action in the stands is captivating. I don't know if it was a typical game but the respective team fans were on opposite sides of the stadium and in the ultimate show of Japanese politeness, one group would chant, cheer, wave flags, and sing fairly involved songs for the entire time their team was batting, and the other teams fans would sit quietly waiting their turn. And when our team (the Swallows) actually scored a run almost every fan would pull out a mini umbrella and perform some sort of Mary Poppins dance?? Even the stadium food was uniquely Japanese complete with chopsticks but the beer service was remarkably civilized- young guys and girls were racing around the stands with the beer kegs of competing breweries strapped to their backs and dolling out copious amounts of draft beer.

Number 2: Dog Ownership. Some years ago I remember a feature story on one of those vacuous trophy wives who, mustering all of her functioning grey matter, decided that if she dyed her fluffy dog pink, the dog would stand out against her white carpeting and no one would step on it. If she was in Japan, I'm not sure anyone would have noticed. Dogs are all the rage and appear to be one of Japan’s finest fashion accessories. All dressed up, fluffy ones dyed pastel colours, little ones in hand bags and strollers- there aren't many large dogs to be found in Tokyo but the treatment the toy dogs receive is downright strange. With many people in Japan living in small housing, having a puppy is a status symbol. And if you haven’t got the space to own a dog, you can also hire one... by the hour- how strange is that? You can take the doggie for a walk, or treat it to a bone and steak salad at a dog cafe (get yourself a cappuccino and, believe it or not, get your puppy a puppychino and a sausage)- very strange. Many of the areas which have dog cafes also have shops which specialise in pet grooming. Here, the animal is treated like royalty, with shampoos, conditioners, blow driers and they can even have perms, colours or get their nails done. There also doggie boutiques where you can buy the latest fashion and jewellery for your pooch.
There’s nothing quite like seeing a green and pink poodle being pushed around in a pram with booties, diamond neck laces, sunglasses and a kids bonnet- very, very strange.

And the Number 1 Quirky Experience in Tokyo: Maid Cafes. It's been quite some time since anyone has called me "master"- probably all the way back to those early dating days with DH (although she now claims she was saying "mister"...and what she calls me now is decidedly more straightforward) but that's the introduction you get at the many maid cafes that dot the streets of Tokyo. And without any prompting from me they immediately started addressing DH as "Princess" after no more than 2 minutes of talking with her- how did they know?? Not all maid cafes play up the subservient role- some will actually abuse and degrade you if that's your cup of tea?? The maid cafe we were in did offer an overpriced menu of sorts with a spending minimum but we (and when I say "we", I mean DH specifically- I was kind of liking the whole 'master' thing) just wanted a quick stop here- it was an overload of cuteness with magic lamps and love spells on our drinks, and the maids were also overdone wearing uniforms that definitely targeted the male population. There were butler cafes nearby but DH was holding out for a cafe with sumo wrestlers serving up the drinks off the top of their bellies. You have to have fun in your DNA to come up with things like this!!

Japan has been a wonderful surprise. There is a bit of the stereotype of the Japanese worker shunning the individual in favour of the group effort but not too far from that is a charming sense of fantasy and colour that can be seen in the love hotels, anime industry, and maid cafes (North Americans could loosen up a little on these fronts). There was a constant element of fun that we saw at the ice hockey and baseball games, Pacinko Parlours, and the many bars and restaurants- the Japanese seem to play as hard as they work.

The strong sense of tradition was always on display with manners, customs, and behaviours reflecting centuries of practice, the magnificent temples that were an active part of Japanese life, and even the sumo wrestling embodied an ancient Japan that has obviously not been forgotten.

And then there's the people themselves- I don't know why I had expected a quiet, cool demeanor but what we experienced was warm hospitality everywhere we went. We both really enjoyed Japan and the Japanese people. I suspect that we'll be back soon.

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Elaine & Doug on

A very funny, insightful blog on the often odd, but always engaging antics on the urban Japanese!

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