Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Japan: Maid to measure in Tokyo

Nicholas Jones enters a weird world of dress-ups.

A maid cafe in Tokyo's Akihabara district. Photo / Creative Commons image from Wikimedia
A maid cafe in Tokyo's Akihabara district. Photo / Creative Commons image from Wikimedia

"Welcome home, Master," is the greeting at the door. But this is as far from home as it gets.

It's not clear why the small, tackily decorated room is stiflingly hot. Or why the overpriced menu contains - among other whipped cream-heavy options - a dessert resembling a cutesy panda face.

But most baffling is the young girl in a French maid's outfit who sits with a balding man, quietly colouring in a picture book.

Welcome to Tokyo's maid cafes, where nerdy men pay top yen to be pampered by girls dressed like the heroes of the anime/manga culture so prevalent in modern Japan.

Customers come to think of particular maids as akin to girlfriends and, the day of our visit, a group brought in birthday gifts for their favourite waitress.

Photographs and touching the dozen maids who flit about the cafe is strictly prohibited.

With the lights on and fizzy drink served in place of alcohol, the cafe has a harmless air - like a children's tea party infused with the sadness of a strip club.

The equivalent of a lap dance is paying a few hundred yen to have a photo taken with your favourite maid on a small stage with pink drapes and cheap plastic flowers. Before the photo, customers are required to choose from a rack of headbands with animal ears. I salvaged some manliness by becoming a lion.

While not to everyone's taste, the maid cafes of the Akihabara district help make Tokyo such a charming and fascinating destination. The city and its many million inhabitants turn heads, with the unusual and bizarre at almost every step.

And it's a destination that rewards observation - mostly free - as much as action.

Among the neon canyons of Shinjuku - where Lost in Translation was filmed - a restaurant tout dressed in a smart suit and Mexican mask yells out to hordes of oblivious commuters flowing past.

On the subway, an otherwise unremarkable middle-aged businessman rocks baggy leather pants with suspenders.

At the 190-shop LaLaport centre, there's a dog cafe where owners order meals for themselves as well as their chihuahuas, which wear dog clothes and arrive pushed in special dog prams.

Tokyo's districts each offer their own distinct sights and atmosphere, but people-watchers will find their nirvana in Shibuya to the city's east.

The intersection outside Shibuya Station is reputedly the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world and delivers a hard-to-knock "I'm in Tokyo" moment.

When the traffic lights turn red, they all do so at once, unleashing a wave of pedestrians from all angles, defying comprehension.

I spent an hour on a rainy Friday evening watching the after-work crowds peak while nursing a Starbucks coffee on the second floor of the Tsutaya building on the crossing's north side.

Every rest home should have a staring-window like it.

Frontlines of umbrellas advance towards each other with each cycle - you expect to see bodies drop to the concrete on impact - but each time the crowds somehow merge and swirl peacefully.

On street level, alleyways lined with record shops, boutiques and bars swarm with teenagers sporting impossible Dragon Ball-Z hairstyles and get-ups - leather jacket, torn jeans, ugg-boots, leopard-print Mickey Mouse backpack - to match.

A wind-up soft toy tied to a post walks around and around in a game parlour, its yaps ignored by attendants dressed in Pikachu suits and schoolgirls trying to win soft-toy llamas, chocolates and figurines.

Outside, huge trucks with neon carriages advertising the latest "Sexy Zone" boy band - think five Japanese Justin Biebers - jostle with retro cabs in the light of giant TV screens and hundreds of neon billboards and signs.

Shibuya is sensory overload, and it's easy to spot other tourists, who wander around like time travellers with mouths open and eyes up.

Others will come to Tokyo for its food, shopping, or ancient temples and shrines.

But if you just enjoy a good old stare, this city was built for you.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has five services a week to Tokyo with return economy-class airfares from $2031 each.

Where to stay: Imperial Hotel Tokyo is the legendary grand dame of Tokyo's hotels, having welcomed royalty, national leaders - including Prime Minister John Key - and celebrities for 120 years. It is within walking distance of Ginza's shops and offers a charming old-school elegance.

What to do: To enter the excellently bizarre world of Tokyo's maid cafes, wander through the Akihabara district and take a flyer from one of the many maids drumming up business for their cafes. The rush of people crossing the intersection directly outside Shibuya Station delivers a classic Tokyo moment, and in Shibuya's record shop-lined lanes, the city's youth culture can be observed in all its finery.

Nicholas Jones travelled to Tokyo with Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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