I don’t usually plan my adventures, but this time I did. A girl from Tokyo asked if I would like to go to a maid café and I said I would. She was a curious girl who had spent a year in Philadelphia and referred to herself as “ore” (which is a bit like using boku only considerably more so). She said she thought they didn’t exist much outside Tokyo and other big cities, which was discouraging. Actually, it wasn’t intended to be discouraging. She was trying to encourage me to come to Tokyo. But that wasn’t really very possible.
So when I saw one just off the Dome of Stars on my Shrine Day felt this was an opportunity that should not be missed. So I made a plan to go the next day. Of course what I grandiosely call making a plan some people might call “putting off” and even less charitable people might call “chickening”. But lemony spoons to them.
You see the maid café was not on the street like a regular café where you can take a peep through the window and see what you might be getting yourself into. It was an elevator that descended to a funny little entranceway off the street. Each floor was neatly labeled with some establishment, and one floor was a maid café.
In the little recess where the elevator was—really just an alcove off the street—there was a notice-board with pictures of the maids:
Beside this was a very home-made-looking laminated sign, which could feel charmingly un-slick or a teensy bit seedy, depending on how you look at it. Actually everything was very floral and sweet, and one was inclined to think the best, but really it was just this elevator that would lift you off the street and deposit you in—whatever it did deposit you in.
So yes, I was a teensy bit nervous.
But I said to myself “Dolly-chan, you won’t be able to do this once you leave this Prefecture, and you will regret it for the rest of your life. Or as long as you remember it, anyway, which could easily be weeks.”
And I replied to myself “Yes, but I’m too scared right now. How about tomorrow?”
“Will you really do it tomorrow?”
“It’s silly pinky-swearing yourself.”
So tomorrow came, and I came, and a doll walked into an elevator. It was kind of strange. I mean you wonder what kind of place might be on the other side of an elevator that rises up from the street. Maybe I could take a peepy when I get to the top just to see.
Not a chance of that. The minute the elevator doors open, one is greeted by enthusiastic maid-chans. They ushered me happily inside.
It wasn’t a bit like anything I expected, and not, I think, like a regular maid café. If I had been able to peep in I would probably have terminally chickened. So I am quite glad I wasn’t able to.
It was more like a playpen than anything. A central area of deep white carpet, which was the maid-chans’ pen. They had big white bears to play with and a table with crayons and other drawing things in the middle. Around the carpeted area where tall glass-topped tables with bar-stools on the outside. The walls were covered with pink drapes.
The maid-chan who took the lead in ushering me in told me to choose the seat I liked. It was after lunch-time as I had deliberately tried to choose an off-time. There were only two other okyakusans who had seats on the side of the pen closest to the door, separated by several seats from each other. I chose one on the side at right angles to that, which, like the rest of the establishment, was otherwise empty. A maid-chan who introduced herself as Ramu explained the tariff and asked me what I would like. I had iced coffee.
The maid-chans mostly interact from inside the pen. They are mostly on their knees, playing with the big white stuffed-bear nuigurumi or each other. They bounce regularly up to okyakusans and make kawaii conversation. Ramu-chan was delighted by my hair-ribbon and my scarf (I was wearing the one with little hearts). They are playing a part, of course. Essentially their job is as actresses as well as waitresses. Since the customers were sitting with drinks, they were doing much more actressing than waitressing. In a way one could say that the role they were playing was only different in degree, rather than kind, from the role many Japanese girls play, though this particular café took the childish side of kawaii to an extreme.
Some people may take this remark about Japanese girls and role-playing as a negative criticism. Actually it is quite the reverse. I do not think the sloppy “natural” manner of Western Earthlings is any less of a role. It is just a less interesting, and less charming role. Nor do I think one can dispense with roleplay. Social life is roleplay. Being “natural” (in a very prescribed manner, as it is) is just a different kind of role.
Now this was something other than ordinary social roleplay, of course. It was theater, in a sense. Interactive theater. Maid-chans came to kneel by my table to talk with me. They asked ordinary things like where I was from and about my clothes, which they liked. They did other things, like introducing me to the (nuigurumi) bears. Ramu-chan asked where I had come from today and I told her my Japanese location. She said that was a long way and I said I took the bus. She said I was very brave to ride the bus alone, and she didn’t ride the bus alone. Which was funny because (ahem) I do think I am pretty brave to ride the bus. Riding a bus alone is not something I have ever done before. Ramu-chan was treating it as the adventure which to me it actually is. Our conversation was actually more “realistic” to me than an “ordinary” conversation with someone who takes riding the bus alone as a matter of course and assumes I do too.
In a lot of ways, I found this “fantasy” environment more “real” than the “real” environment that one roleplays in other places (or that I don’t much outside Japan actually – for the very reason that it is so false).
There were three maids. They were all charming. The one I liked best was called Arisu (Alice) she was in charge of the others and they called her Oneesama. When the other two started being silly with the nuigurumi, Arisu-san confiscated them. Ramu-chan tried casually to take them back (by “casually”, I mean in that whistling at the ceiling “I’m not really doing anything” kind of way) but Arisu-san firmly took them from her and replaced them where she had put them.
I asked Ramu-chan about Arisu-san and she said Oneesama was kowai (scary) and kibishii (strict). I said I thought she was yasashii (gentle/kind) and Ramu-chan agreed that she was also yasashii.
She asked me if I wanted to eat. Unlike the etiquette of a regular café, the maid-chans do try to get you to order things, but not very pressingly. I found I could drop the roleplay of being a sensible customer and said “Amai mono!” – something sweet. “Aisukuriimu!” (I’ll let you translate that one yourself!)
This wasn’t on the menu but Ramu-chan popped off and returned in a short while with the tiniest and cutest portion of ice cream you ever saw. It came in a lovely tiny dish with two heart-shaped wells.
It is a funny thing. My camera’s battery was dead today. Well that isn’t funny, just regular dolly management – but the fairies seem to tell me when and when not to take photos. I wondered if I should put off the maid café until I had a working camera. But I thought I should just go with what seemed was happening (and I had yubikiri shichatta—pinky sworn) and if photos weren’t supposed to happen they weren’t.
I now think that was right. I wouldn’t have liked to ask to take pictures, and actually I wouldn’t particularly want to show them. I think they could easily give a wrong idea of the place and misrepresent its real innocence and charm. Anyway, I did ask if it was all right to photograph the ice cream, hoping the battery would allow me one shot, which it did. Those were my thoughts at the time, though I later discovered that photographs are a paid part of the service in these places. They will take your photograph with a maid for a fee and private photography is not encouraged.
However, I did, with permission, photograph the ice cream with the tiny bit of juice squeezed out of the battery. I am sorry it is not very high resolution.
Arisu-san said she had found the red candy for me because I am so red and red suits me so well (I was dressed very much in red with pink accents, in a red dress with a gold belt, a red black and pink heart-y scarf, my rose hat (which I removed as Okaasan said one doesn’t wear a hat in a restaurant in Japan, but it was noticed and admired just the same) and a red and pink Hello Kitty hair ribbon.
In the picture you can see, through the glass table top, the deeply-carpeted maid-chan play-area, to which the table forms a boundary, part of the maid serving and part of one of the big, sometimes-disputed, white nuigurumi bears.
So, did I enjoy it? Enjoyment is a curious concept—for me at any rate. When one experiences something alone (alone here meaning without any of one’s own people, one’s own uchi) things are hard to assess. Usually for my people there is a group experience or assessment of things. Alone in (or just outside) the Playpen, I was nervous and time passed slowly. That is not necessarily a sign of not liking it. I am always horribly nervous and time passes very slowly with any sensei other than the one that thinks I am a child. Interacting with someone without one’s uchi is a very tense experience – not necessarily a bad one. It was certainly not that I found the place weird or “wrong”. It was certainly unusual, but I felt sympathetic to the atmosphere and more at ease than in most places.
At the end Arisu-san asked if it had been tanoshikatta – (had I enjoyed it?) and I said truthfully that I had. I felt she was a friend. A roleplay-friend, of course, but in some ways the character I presented there was more like who I really am than the character I present to earth folks in general on the few occasions I have dealings with them. It was roleplay, but life is roleplay. It was superficial (as a form of friendship) but if anything less superficial than most friendships with outlanders. I had actually been pretty much me. (As I have said, my ability to interact with earth folks is very limited. It is not quite so bad in Japan actually.
The real test of my feelings, I think, came just after I left. I felt a tiny bit bereft to be outside the magic circle. As if something was missing. The stars of that place still twinkled in my heart. If I had been anywhere but Japan in summer I think I would have felt heartbreakingly bereft.
Would I like to go back? Yes, I definitely meant to go back before I left this Prefecture. It is a magical place – and actually on a mundane level, rather a good place for Japanese interaction.
But that isn’t the main reason for going back. There was a magic there that I only half understand. Do I want to understand it more fully? Not necessarily. Not all things are made to be understood. But I do want to experience it once more.
CODA: Observations on maid café roleplay.
What is “roleplay” and what isn’t can be hard to define exactly. The confident but ill-founded Western-earth ideas of “natural behavior” and “real life” only confuse the matter further. Let me take an example:
Arisu-san told me she was not good at English (none of them ever tried to use any). I said neither was I (just in case they were thinking about it). She asked if they speak English in Mexico and I said no, Spanish, and she told me she had studied Spanish a little. I said buenas tardes and she didn’t know what it meant. I said it meant konnichiwa and she was embarrassed. I said she was kawaii and she was delighted.
How much of this was “roleplay”? Very little entirely. “Roleplay” (professional or everyday) is often just a matter of “tone” to a real interaction. Unless I miss my guess, she did know very little English, had studied a little Spanish, genuinely did forget something as basic as “Buenas tardes” (I have often done similar things myself), was genuinely embarrassed and genuinely pleased to be thought kawaii and reminded that being kawaii is more important than being knowledgeable. The roleplay may become tiring at times, as any job does, but if one did not genuinely want to manifest kawaii, one would not get into the maid café line of work. Nor would one be good enough to do it. And these girls are very good.
So, did the imouto maid-chans genuinely quarrel over the nuigurumi and did Arisu-oneesama really confiscate them? No. This was a routine or set-piece. It is easy to see how that works. You spend a lot of your time improvising, but it is good to have some set routines to fall back on. You learn by experience which ones are crowd-pleasers and you probably also learn what kind of “house” will appreciate which routines.
Japanese pop music played all the time and occasionally the maid-chans danced to it. The dancing was sporadic and done in the style of children playing at dancing when the mood takes them. (very like what my actual Japanese imouto—younger sisters—do). They are not supposed to be working as dancers. But one of the girls was very good and after she danced I applauded her quietly. A minute later she mimicked my applause and bowed and grinned delightedly, showing that she appreciated my appreciation. She was a good dancer and I believe she was trying to work a little of that talent into her role. She liked to have it noticed and appreciated.