A Japanese maid cafe is the closest you can come to having sex with an anime character.
Before you get too excited about this blog post, I should clarify that it's not really all that close.
While it sounds like the most obvious front for a brothel imaginable, maid cafes feed off the anime role-playing subculture of Japan and are (reasonably) innocent. They are more accurately bars, where the premise is to pretend you are a Lord (or Lady…. but unsurprisingly, more often a Lord) having a drink on your estates, served by one of your beautiful young maids. They address you as 'master' and --despite your obvious wealth-- you seem unable to provide your staff with entirely adequate clothing.
These cafes attract the lonely, the curious ...
… and astrophysicists taking their visiting seminar speaker out of a drink.
Don't you all want to come and give a presentation at Hokkaido now? Thought so.
Before I get called up in front of the head of faculty, I would like to say it was all the speaker's idea. He even knew where the cafes were located in Sapporo. I hadn't a clue.
This particular cafe was small, with about 16 seats lined up along the bar. Anime posters hung on the walls and figurines above the bottles formed a ferocious line-up consisting of ninjas, giant robots, space aliens and high school girls. Two bookshelves of manga stood at cat corners and serving the drinks were three young maids.
These girls were dressed in something approaching a traditional maid's uniform, but with an anime twist. They wore black skirts and waistcoats, with white shirts and aprons. The frilly extents of the skirts were just about decent, ending a good few inches above where the long black socks started.
Upon sitting down, we were presented with the rules of conduct. You were not allowed to touch the maids or ask for their address or phone number. Photographs were strictly forbidden. There was an initial cover charge for the first hour and then an added amount for each extra half hour you stayed. You were also expected to buy a drink. In total, I spent 1400 yen (~ £11 or $17) for an hour and a half, which was cheap for a maid cafe and frankly totally worth it.
When I initially sat down, however, I was perplexed. Sure, the girls were attractive and looked like they stepped off the pages of a manga, but doesn't the novelty of that wear off after the first five minutes? Possibly the answer was 'no' for a particular brand of lonely salary man, but maid cafes were popular throughout Japan. What was the attraction?
What I didn't appreciate was the level of interaction you had with the maids. They chat continually to the customers, drifting up and down the bar as if it were the stage of an interactive theatre. We only bought one drink each during the 90 minutes we were there and the rest of the time chatted with the girls and each other.
As well as bringing you a beverage, you can also ask your maid for a picture. One of the maids had a collection of photographs of herself in different anime-related costumes that you could buy for a few extra hundred yen and all of the maids would draw you a picture on a coaster. When I told my maid I like the anime show, Prince of Tennis, she drew me a picture of the progenitor.
Of course, the main skill in being a hostess is saying what the customer wants to hear. In my case, this was clearly "Can I draw you a picture from the anime you are obsessed with?" but for others it was more about the pretence of the relationship with the maids.
This is probably because they have never watched Prince of Tennis.
Seated next to us at the bar were a couple of young men. As they left, one told a maid that he had no friends. She replied that she did not either and would be delighted to be his friend. He went away happy, but it was really a business transaction; he would keep paying to come to the cafe and she would make sure to be pleased to see him when he returned.
My companions --having translated this conversation for me-- were highly dismissive.
"The ones that come with people are weak," one of them informed me bluntly. "They want to come alone but they dare not, so they bring someone."
Well then. I was just enjoying the atmosphere but apparently my friends were all about judging all the other customers.
Still, I had the temptation to return for quite a different reason; feeling obliged talk to each customer and not speaking a word of English makes the poor girls excellent subjects to practise my terrible Japanese.