Last week I took a visiting journalist to a Maid café in Akihabara. It was an uncomfortable experience. The journalist was nervous, requesting pre-café caffeine for courage. I was worried he might take offence to the maids` bizarre behavior and appearance.
Chuckling nervously, we took the elevator to the 5th floor. The café was called Maidreamin, part of a chain. The entry fee was 1,000yen and drinks cost 700 yen: 6 times as much as a normal coffee shop. Having said that, not many go to maid cafés for the quality of coffee; they go to meet the maids.
Ignoring the pink frills, colour contact lenses and fake eyelashes, the maid outfits looked vaguely authentic – from the waist up anyway. Below the waist was more unsettling to look at: mini petticoats – puffed-out and multi-layered – hanging above knee-high black stockings; shimmering between are 20cm – I approximate here – of exposed, daikon radish coloured thigh.
The maids seem like neither children nor adults; they float somewhere in between. I imagine them as 21st century geisha, they are performers paid to act out a fantasy, and like geisha, entertaining customers is part of their job. Judging what a customer is thinking requires the maids to read the atmosphere (kuki o yomu).
Our maid, an 18 year-old calling herself Nagi, must have had a hard job reading our foreign atmosphere; even we did not know what we wanted.
What do you talk to a fantasy character about? The upcoming elections? The goose-bumps on their daikons? I had already upset one maid by asking if her eyelids were pinned back. “Shitsurei!”
We ended up asking Nagi the safest question we could think of: “Where are you from?”
“I jumped out of the world of pictures!!!!!!” she squeaked, miaowed, tilted her head to one side and made a scissor-shape with her forefinger and middle finger. How do you respond to that? Oh, excellent. Well done. Good for you. Now would you mind putting some trousers on?