Cats, dogs, maids, butlers, toys, babies, owls, pop groups… and coffee also. This article talks about theme cafes in Japan.
My first introduction to the concept of the theme café in Japan came was I was taken to a cat café in the Yokohama China-town district close to Motomachi.
The cat café is simply a small café where several cats are allowed to wander around and the customers can interact, i.e. play with them for fun. The cafe is specially designed with the reception partitioned off from the main cafe area, so the cats can’t run away. There are also toys – bits of string, with shapes attached to the end, which you can dangle in front of cats. Cats love that sort of thing.
The general ambience of the cat café is relaxing. The decor is trendy. The cat cafe mostly attracts young ladies or couples. I suspect the guys were invited there by their girlfriends. The drinks and food was of good quality – coffee and a variety of cakes or icecream as I remember it, which is pretty standard for Japan.
It was all a very interesting experience and worth trying once for the novelty, especially if you really like cats. I think perhaps a selling point of it is that it is a good place to unwind. I have a bit of a cat allergy, so after a while it became a little uncomfortable, but still I was glad to try it once. I suspect you are probably not allowed to bring your own pets. I mean… you wouldn’t bring your wife to a hostess club? 😁
Not a cat person – How about dogs or owls?
If you are more of a dog person, then they also have dog cafes. I assume it has the same format as the cat cafe – but with puppies or cute dogs instead. I also discovered that they now have owl cafes in Akihabara, but I wasn’t particularly interested in going. Instead, I had my mind on the maid cafe, which I’ll come to in a while.
I know that a lot of people criticise Japan particularly over its practice of whale hunting, so perhaps people probably think these cat, dog and especially owl cafes are a sign of animal cruelty or manipulation. But I would have to say that is not necessarily the case. The cats were all very healthy and sociable. I think they were well looked after. I suspect the owls would be too, as they have a real incentive to look after them well. You wouldn’t want to pay to go into a café where the owls were sickly and featherless.
Its true, an inner city coffee shop is not a natural habitat for them, so on this, I agree. Although, it’s a bit hypocritical to say something about the Japanese treatment of animals, whilst western countries make use of intense factory farming methods, which are pretty barbaric. And I can’t say I agree with the concept of zoos in any country, after seeing a mentally ill polar bear in one of them.
But perhaps you prefer people not animals. Well they have theme cafes based on maids and butlers. The maid cafes are mostly centred around the Akihabara (electronics district) in central Tokyo. It’s not hard to spot them, as there are signs for them all over. They are usually on the second or third floors of the buildings along the streets with all the electronic shops and restaurant. These are cafes where the waitresses dress up as a kind of maid (with a shade of anime). I took a couple of European friends for a coffee and cake one time, and the expression of surprise and disbelief on their faces was worth it.
The maids are very friendly and follow a kind of script or theme. For example, the foods and places have special names. The toilet may be referred to as the ‘ fountain garden’ or something like that, so if you want to ask where the toilet is, you have to ask the maid ‘where is the fountain garden?’ The lift also has a special name. In one place we went to, we were given a glossary of terms for us to use on a piece of paper. They also use various comical gestures and expressions sometimes, which I think have come from anime dramas.
It sounds very silly but that is the point. It is about being silly and playful. There is absolutely nothing sexual about these places and making any kind of innuendo would be unwelcome. This is definitely not a place for drunken, course or rude behaviour, (typical for a lot of British tourists). They sell coffee, tea, cake and some small meals. Also, the prices are all very reasonable. There is a small fee which you pay for a set, which includes a drink and cake, but it is comparable to other cafes and restaurants. I think I paid around 2,000 yen. That is around 10-15 pounds, which is a little pricy, but the pound was not particularly strong at the time.
Not the same as a hostess club
If by chance you find yourself in a bar where women come up to you scantily dressed, flirtingly laughing at your jokes, asking you for drinks and you end up with a bar fine for hundreds of dollars, then I think you have very likely walked into a hostess bar, not a maid cafe. That is a completely different kettle of fish, which I’m not discussing in this article.
The bigger cafes will have a small stage in a public area and if you tell them it is your birthday, you may get invited up onto the stage to play some kind of kids game in front of everyone. Again it’s all pretty much harmless fun. I would say these place tends to attract mostly young men and (dare I say it – otaku), though I saw a few foreigners and some young couples also.
There is also the male equivalent – the Butler café. I can’t speak for butler cafés. I imagine they are the same concept as maid cafes, but instead of being served by young women in maid outfits, you will be served by young handsome men in butler outfits. I can image this type of café being more popular with women. I think I’ll give this one a miss.
Gundam and AKB48 cafes
The other options is the Gundam cafe. Gundam is a kind of action robot figurine which is based on a popular anime. I didn’t go in, as I’m not a Gundam fan, although perhaps I’ll give it a try in the future. Another more well-known café is the AKB48 café close to Akihabara station. AKB48 is a phenomenally huge all girls-pop group consisting of approximately 48 young girls. You can google them to get an idea. They are massive in Japan and have led to a few copy-cat bands. For example there is SK48. Again, I haven’t been to this one yet but I have looked through the window outside. I haven’t quite had enough courage to go in yet.
Finally baby cafes
In Daikanyama, the fashionable district of Tokyo, I visited a baby cafe. Put simply it’s a baby-friendly café where mothers and some fathers can have coffee and cake and bring along their babies. There are large flat sofa-like cushioned areas where their babies can be put down to stretch out and wiggle around as babies do. Yes, I did go with my baby.
It seems to be catered for the babies age group of 0-1.5. I didn’t see any toddlers there on the day I want. It has a kind of French theme to it, with its decor and music, so if I recall, it was kind of French bread, soup and special cakes. The place was very popular with mommies who could meet up, although you had to make a booking as it was very popular. There were a couple of other Western women on the day I went there. I do recall, there only seemed to be one toilet which meant you had to wait a little if you needed to change a baby. Otherwise it was a pleasant relaxing experience and kind of unusual to be in a large room full of mostly women and babies. As one of the few males in there, I did feel slightly self-conscious, but not terribly so.
Theme cafes in Japan: Lonely Planet’s Guide
I’m not sure if theme cafes are included in in the newest version of Lonely Planet travel guide. If not, they definitely should be. In fact, they have far more than place in this guide-book than the Tsukiji fish market, which a few years ago had to stop allowing visitors because they got fed up of tourists turning up, taking pictures and generally getting in the way of the workers. This is because Tsukiji fish market is not actually a tourist attraction. It is actually a fish market, that for some reason got hyped up as a tourist attraction.
If you visit Japan, I recommend you try out at least one type of theme café. I can understand people may be embarrassed or see it as stupid, but give it a shot. The point is about letting go of your seriousness and be playful for a little while. We have enough seriousness in our lives with money, work and family obligations and wearing our masks. Sometimes it’s just fun to let it go and relax but in an innocent playful way. At the very least, you will get to drink a good coffee and eat some delicious cake.