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Monday, July 23, 2018

Exploring Japan, Vol. 7 - Themed Cafes: Butlers, Maids, Trains and more!

So last week, we talked about animal cafes in Japan.  They’re pretty epic and if you’re an animal lover, chances are there is a café out there with some of your favorites just waiting for you to interact with them.  Like I said in that post, there is another kind of themed café in Japan that goes in a completely different direction than the animal cafes.   These are restaurants and bars that pick a theme and then go all out to give you an experience along with your food and drink.

Some of the more popular and famous include a prison-themed café where you dine in ‘cells’ and a vampire café where you’re served by the undead with the food and drinks themed appropriately.  There are tons more though and we’ve visited a few.  Here are some that may appeal to you if you're heading to Tokyo.
Maid Cafes – This is probably the most famous type of cafe.  I'd heard of maid cafes long before any of the others.  We felt that we had to go to one just for the experience, but honestly it wasn't our thing.  Basically, you get assigned a hostess who dresses in a stylized French maid outfit.  She then waits on you while making cutesy faces and singing songs (some of which you’re required to sing along with).  Japanese patrons will come, eat and talk/flirt with their maid although you should understand that there is nothing sexual about this.  That's a big difference in Western sensibilities and Japanese.  The maids will be glad to converse with you, but the discussion will be about where you're from, what you like to do, etc. It's entirely innocent.

Every food item is made to look “kawaii” (cute) but flavor isn’t necessarily a selling point.  Face it.  If you're eating a Japanese curry that's been colored pink, it's probably going to taste at least a little like food coloring.

It’s actually that way at most themed cafes.  You’re there for the experience, not necessarily because of their culinary delights.  There are two or three exceptions to this, one of which Karen and Lil both declared to be their favorite.
Butler Cafes – You may think that this is the male counterpart to a maid cafe but you'd be wrong.  The Swallowtail Butler Cafe in Ikebukuro is the ultimate high end tea house experience.  Karen and Lil went and while no pictures are allowed inside (Karen snapped the one below on the sly), they told me that it was better than any actual high tea service they've ever experienced. 

One thing that they had to get used to quickly is that you’re not allowed to do anything for yourself.  If you drop something, the butler appears and picks it up for you.  If you want more tea, the butler appears and pours it for you.
To top it off, the food here is magnificent.  Karen and Lil both said that the tea service of tiny sandwiches, etc. was better than they'd had at real tea houses here in the States.  They loved it so much they bought a photo of their butler!

Alice Cafes – These are Alice in Wonderland themed.  There are more than one but we visited Alice in Fantasy Book located in Shinjuku.  
This was an epic fun time.  You actually enter the lobby from an elevator and are escorted through an arch that is shaped like a large book.  You're also given rabbit ears or bows that you're required to wear.

Once inside, there are playing card and white rabbit themes everywhere.  The Mad Hatter’s tea party is in full effect.  The food here is actually very good and the deserts are even better. 

This was something we would definitely go back and do again.  Even the menu was epic with this killer pop-up page inside the cover.  

Now not every café is worth the effort.  For instance, the train café in Akihabara is well past its prime (if it ever had one).  The pictures we took of this place make it look way better than it actually is.  

While technically it’s a themed restaurant and yes, your food comes out in miniature trains, there are videos of trains playing as you eat and you can sit in train seats, sipping drinks named after different train lines, it’s kind of a craphole.  Plus, the theme is barely hanging on by a thread.  

The food is just so-so and if you go, you’re really only going because you love trains.  For us, it was a late night option for dinner that we happened to be right next to, so we took a chance on it.  We won’t go back.  It's overpriced, the food is just so-so and it was also pretty smokey.  Many restaurants and cafes no longer allow smoking inside but there are still some that do.  This is one of them.

Other cafes you may want to check out include the Gundam Café (giant robots) or some of the temporary cafes that pop up around the city.  These are generally sponsored by one of the chain manga stores and they last about two or three months.  They are usually themed around whatever the hottest animes are at the time.  We’ve never been to these to eat but we’ve looked in on an Attack on Titan one and it seemed pretty cool for what it was.  There will be posters and pictures on the walls and the food will be named for characters.
Now, next week I'll show you the two most over the top themed cafes in Tokyo as well as my favorite themed bar of all time.  It's dedicated to the Japanese superhero Ultraman and I'm being honest when I say that if I had the chance, I'd take the ten hour flight just to spend another few hours there with a bunch of like-minded friends.   
Until then, ponder why none of this stuff exists here in the States.
See you next week!

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