If you go to Japan, one unique experience that may or may not be on your list of things to do is to visit a maid cafe. My husband and I did go to one in Tokyo, both out of our own curiosity and also on the advice of a friend. It was…different.
A Brief History of the Maid Cafe
Maid Cafes got their start in Japan. It’s a rather strange phenomenon, where servers dress up in maid costumes. Maid cafes are a subset of cosplay restaurants, where the wait staff dress as different anime or video game characters.
The first maid cafe opened in the Akihabara district of Tokyo in 2001. The concept quickly grew in popularity, and soon the themes diversified into different niches. You can find maid cafes in countries such as China, South Korea, Australia, France, the Netherlands, and even here in Canada!
If you’ve never been to a maid cafe before, the idea itself is simple. Waitresses dress up in little French maid costumes – often complete with white stockings, short skirts with puffy crinolines underneath, an apron – the whole shebang. It’s a whole role-play, make-believe approach, where you are the master/mistress and they are your humble servant, solely there to please you and serve you.
Believe me, the costumes are not the weirdest thing about these cafes. So if the mere thought of being served by someone wearing a French maid costume already skeeves you out, you may as well stop reading now.
If you do decide to go to a maid cafe, there are a few things you should know before you go to get the most out of the experience.
Follow the Rules
You can’t just come into a maid cafe and act however you want. The rules in these cafes are even stricter than regular restaurants. If you don’t play by the rules, prepare to be removed from the premises.
Different maid or cosplay cafes may have varying rules, but these were the rules at Maidreamin, the maid cafe we visited. The one we went to specifically was in Shibuya. (As an aside, each Maidreamin cafe has a different theme and decor. The Shibuya location is called the Shibuya Digitized Cafe. It reminded me of being in an 80’s style video game):
Here are a few of the main rules to abide by:
- No underage drinking or smoking, and don’t show up drunk
- Be respectful to the maids as well as the other patrons around you
- Don’t touch the hostesses
- Don’t ask them for their private information, such as contact info, e-mail, etc.
- No Unsolicited Photos of the Servers Allowed – you can take photos of the food or the cafe itself, but not the wait staff. There are a few reasons for this. The cafes charge an extra fee if you want your photo with your hostess. Also, not all hostesses have told their family and friends that they work in a maid cafe, and they don’t want their secret to get out!
You’re Not Going for the Food
Let’s be real here – maid cafes aren’t a place you’re going to take a first date to impress them. There’s no upscale wine list, no 3-star Michelin rating. This is all about the kitschy cosplay and cutesy food shaped like Saturday morning cartoon animals.
Also, if you like to be left alone while waiting for your food, you can forget about that here. The hostesses are here to entertain you and keep you busy while your food is being prepared.
Our hostess came to our table with menus and a small battery-powered tealight candle, which she “magically” lit by cupping it in her hands and blowing on it. Then she introduced herself and wrote her name on a paper napkin, first in Japanese and then in English. She then wrote Mark’s name in Japanese, and she taught us how to say “my name is…” before leaving us to study the menus.
Since Mark and I went to Maidreamin just after lunch, we only wanted to grab a snack. We perused the menu and decided on sundaes.
Mark and I placed our orders, and as we were chatting, I saw Mark’s expression change slightly. Something over my head caught his eye, but he was trying to act nonchalant. Suddenly, I felt something touch my head. Our maid had sneaked up behind me and placed a bunny-ear headband on my head! She then tiptoed over to Mark and placed cat ears on him. After she stepped away, Mark said, “I saw her sneak up behind you but she put her finger to her lips in a shhhh gesture”. Oh yeah, now it was getting weird.
Our hostess returned to hang out at our table some more. She taught us a few other key Japanese words, such as oishi, which means delicious, and kawaii, which is for anything cute. Then we talked about where we’d been to in Japan so far, and which places we liked best.
As cute as our waitress was playing the part of an enthusiastic listener, I was rather glad when our food arrived.
I have to admit, the sundaes were really kawaii:
But our hostess wouldn’t let us eat them yet! First she had us do a little song and dance. We had to chant “Moe moe kyun!” and make a heart symbol with our hands. Apparently the chant comes from an anime meme and can’t really be translated. But the impression is that it’s like a magical spell to make the food taste better, or to imbue you with good feelings.
Depending on what you order, your hostess might come out and draw a little character or cartoon using ketchup or chocolate sauce on your plate as well.
For the most part, maid cafe food consists of drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), sundaes, hot dogs, omelette rice, curry, etc. Nothing too fancy or unique. Again, the food is secondary – or perhaps even tertiary.
A Visit Can Get Expensive Fast
You’re not just paying for food and drinks at a maid cafe – you’re paying for an experience. The main concept of the maid cafe is to feel pampered, like you’re the master and the maids are there to cater to you. But it’s not intended in a sleazy way – if that’s how you view it, that’s on you. They approach everything in a lighthearted and cute manner; the waitresses, the food, the decor, the conversation.
The prices, if you’re not careful, can be the opposite of cute. The sundaes we ordered were a little pricey (770 yen, about $10 Canadian). And, while creative, they weren’t necessarily the best value. They stuffed the bottoms of the sundaes with cornflakes for bulk! But it’s all part and parcel of going to one of these themed cafes.
But if you decide to stay a little too long, or partake of some of their “package” deals, the prices start to climb. The “Happiness Combo” includes a dessert, drink, gift and photo for 2060 yen – approximately $26 Canadian. It doesn’t sound like a terrible deal. But wait!
Did you know that there’s a 500 yen charge per person just for sitting down? That’s roughly a $6 cover charge and you haven’t even ordered anything yet!
On weekdays, if you stay past an hour, there’s an additional 500 yen charge. But if it’s a weekend, the additional charge is 500 yen per hour, plus you must place another order for each hour you’re there. Suddenly, the thought of lingering isn’t so appealing. So when you go, be aware of those extra fees, because they can start to add up quickly!
Our waitress did try to sell us extras like a samurai stick or the bunny ears, but we politely declined.
Lean into It and Just Have Fun, Otherwise It’s Just Weird
I really wanted to enjoy this experience, but honestly, it felt a bit forced. I prefer to watch other people make fools of themselves, but I’m not great at loosening up and joining in. So when our hostess made us chant “nyan nyan” and do little cat paw gestures before eating, I was just not feeling it, you know? I was like, “take our picture and just let me eat, ok?” But we were the only patrons in the cafe, so we did as our waitress asked, because that’s what you’re there for.
I was happier once I finally got to dig in. (And yes, my hair was pink/lavender on our visit, it’s not just the lighting):
You really need to be in the right frame of mind to get into the spirit of a maid cafe. I think it would have been fun with a group of friends. But when we went, there were only two other (male) patrons, who left a little after we arrived. So all of the focus was on us, and it made me feel a bit self-conscious.
If you feel that the women working in maid cafes are exploited, then you probably won’t enjoy the experience. Let’s face it, these cafes are designed to appeal to geeky, teenaged boys and lonely, leering men.
On the flip side, butler cafes – restaurants with all-male staff that cater to women’s fantasies – are popping up due to high demand. And the hostesses in maid cafes make the same wages as wait staff in regular establishments. Many girls work at maid cafes because they get to sing, dance and wear cute uniforms. For others, it’s a great way to practice their English skills with tourists.
After we finished eating and paid our bill, we headed on our way. We made sure to remove the bunny and cat ear headbands and left them on the table. They looked…a little worse for wear.
On our way out, our hostess thanked us profusely for coming and waved goodbye.
As we stood by the elevator in the hallway, we turned to see our hostess, face pressed up against the glass door of the maid cafe, still waving frantically to us.
I reflexively pushed the elevator button again and avoided making eye contact.
Will you feel like you’re missing out on the full Japanese experience by not visiting a maid cafe? I would say no. It’s totally up to you. Ask friends who may have visited a maid cafe and see what their opinion is. But don’t feel like it’s something you must do just because you’re there. Seriously, Japan has SO much to see and do, you won’t be hurting for attractions to occupy your time if you decide maid cafes aren’t your thing!