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Tokyo Plays Itself

Tokyo is a wonderland of maid cafes, owl villages, and robot restaurants. What does it all really mean?

On the top floor of @home cafe in Tokyo’s geek-friendly Akihabara district, in a low-ceilinged, brightly lit room that smelled of a poorly ventilated deep fryer, a coterie of frilly aproned maids were delivering wobbly, abstractly decadent Jell-O towers to their eager guests. Their up-pitched cries of "Okaerinasai goshujin-sama!" ("Welcome home, master!") pierced the air every time a new group of customers arrived, and clusters of middle-aged men queued up to get a picture with their favorite girls and a selection of oversized stuffed animals. It had been nine hours since I last ate, and my head spun as my friend and I took our seat. But with a quick glance around at the clientele, both male and female, all dazed under the spell of saccharine maid energy, it seemed like I was the only person in the room thinking about eating.

@home, one of the most popular maid cafes in Tokyo, had been temporarily made over as the GudetamaX@home Collab Café, and was now adorned with the likeness of the "lazy egg" Sanrio character that's become wildly popular both in Japan and the States. The experience was only superficially different from what one gets at a regular maid cafe, which became established as a distinct genre of restaurant in Tokyo about 15 years ago: maids calling you master (or mistress, in my case), maids writing your name in ketchup on your omurice (a rice-filled omelet, the quintessential maid cafe dish), maids doing cutesy chants over your food to make it taste better. If you care to cough up more money, a maid will come play a game with you at your table and ask you about your hobbies and your favorite animal. None of this feels terribly unusual at first — it’s kind of reminiscent of a low-rent Disneyland cafe — until you start paying attention to the adult men who’ve all come here alone.

The Gudetama-shaped eggs at the GudetamaX@home Collab Café reside firmly in uncanny valley of poultry product

Maid cafes are still plentiful, especially in this part of town, having enjoyed a boom in the mid-aughts that has only very gradually subsided. The real marvel at the Gudetama pop-up was, of course, the eggs, which were so uncanny that they defied my ability to discern whether they were truly the spawn of a chicken: perfectly round little discs with something resembling an over-easy yolk resting in the center, stamped with the signature gude gude (lazy) face. When I cut into one, the yellow goo that oozed out was salty-sweet and room temperature, recalling the creamy, synthetic insides of a Cadbury egg. Mine came with an ungainly slab of (again, room temperature) bacon atop a club sandwich, and what seemed to be sloppily stamped grill marks in the shape of Gudetama turned out to be cocoa powder.

The cafe collaboration was a pure distillation of Akihabara, once Tokyo’s electronics district, and now the international capital of moe. Moe is a hard-to-define term that literally means "budding" or "burning" and is most commonly used to describe the hyper-adorability of teen idol groups and anime heroines, embodied IRL by the maids at places like @home. But it also connotes a kind of drop-out mentality, a refusal to take part in mainstream corporate culture: In other words, floppy, lethargic Gudetama, who never seems to have the willpower to face the day, is perfectly @home on the shoulder of a cafe maid.

Even theme cafes that don’t revolve around lazy eggs are riffing on a version of this self-aware worthlessness, consciously or not. If Japan has been going through an identity crisis since the onset of its more than two-decade recession — a declining corporate culture, fewer marriages, plummeting birthrates, and increased nationalism — there are few places where it plays out in starker relief than in the country’s photo-op dining experiences. There’s a sense of denialist deja vu at these places; elements of bygone modern glory — bubble-era ostentation, the Harajuku heyday — repackaged in the predictable, passive comfort of a cafe. And how better to distract yourself from political and economic uncertainty than at a cat cafe or with a colorful Sailor Moon-themed cocktail? Despite being a tourist draw, this isn't Tokyo talking to the world, this is Tokyo talking to itself.

I left the Gudetama cafe with a souvenir Polaroid, undeterred by the dull ache in my stomach. What was that about Tokyo's more than 200 Michelin-starred restaurants? Never heard of them. Don't care to know about them. Bring on more egg discs.

I don't care how highbrow or cultured you consider yourself; every foreigner is eventually lured in by some form of Wacky Random Japan. At a certain point, circa Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls era, businesses began actively catering to the exoticized imagining of Tokyo that was cultivated through endless re-watchings of Lost In Translation, and later, countless fashion-obsessed Tumblrs.

The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it's actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers' outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.

A maid at the GudetamaX@home Collab Café, a pop-up in the popular @home maid cafe

The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After "modern" hangouts with names like "Café Printemps" had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; "Europe" was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. "Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor," writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, "the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings."

"Cafes of these sorts were like theme parks, where you could go to take on a different 'self,' a playful performance," Merry White, a Boston University anthropology professor and author of Coffee Life in Japan, told me via email. "The salaryman postwar generation was also looking for novelty, for self-expression in the ‘third space’ (not work, not home) of the cafe." While they show all the signifiers of a tourist trap, most theme cafes still function primarily as a diversion for locals; the range of glamour has stratified as well, from the flashy anime-themed meccas to some so-called cafes that feel barely any different than just walking into a stranger’s apartment.

The 15 minutes I managed to spend at the Butlers Café in Shibuya were among the most excruciating of my life. After entering the cramped, dim vestibule I was met by a laminated sign outlining a list of things I was not allowed to do: take pictures, talk too loudly, walk into the restaurant by myself. It was achingly quiet. I was finally greeted by the first of two butlers on duty that day, a nervous middle-aged man in a ratty black wig. He was succeeded by a second butler, a Russian kid in his twenties, who greeted me in English with an exuberant, "Welcome, my princess!" I choked back the urge to drop dead right there on the spot, and followed him.

The butler cafes are a kind of gender-reversed answer to the maid cafes, though they are not nearly as numerous. Like the maid cafes, they are heavily reliant on conversation and communication, so if you’re not somewhat fluent in Japanese, it might not be worth your time. The one I visited was also clearly in decline — the wallpaper was peeling in the small dining room that could just as easily have been a tax-preparation office, and the only other diners at the peak of lunch hour were two teenage girls silently picking at tea sandwiches. My butler pulled out my chair for me and I sat, taking in a table setting of old doilies and fraying faux roses that recalled the sitting room of a senile grandmother. I only had a moment to look at the inkjet-printed menu before I remembered to ask my butler if the cafe took credit cards.

The floppy, lethargic Gudetama, rendered as squeezable as possible

It did not — which seems ridiculous, given what I had read about how easy it is to rack up a bill full of surcharges at a butler cafe. When I told my butler that I would have to leave and come back, he looked deeply disappointed. It had taken roughly forever for me to sit down, in between the inexplicable wait and the pomp and ceremony in guiding me to my table. "You'll come back though, right?" he asked sadly as he helped me into my coat. All I could focus on were the fried ends of his wig hair falling over his eyes. I mumbled in the affirmative and rushed out the door. But as soon as I was on the sidewalk, I knew there was no way I was going back into that lacy chamber of terrors.

The line between Wacky Random Japan and abject patheticism is pretty narrow, it turns out. I felt so bad for Butlers Café that I almost want to recommend it out of pity, but alas, you should not go there.

Just as the trappings of old-world teatime never really left, vampires never die in Japan. It was a slow night when I visited the Vampire Café, which is hidden away on the seventh story of an office building in ritzy Ginza. My unsmiling vampire waiter led me down a hallway luridly illuminated by a glowing red-blood-cell-patterned floor, into a main room with an elaborate coffin centerpiece covered in skulls and dripping candelabras, and seated me in a booth by myself, between what sounded like a birthday party and an office get-together, neither particularly raucous, both 100 percent female. I couldn’t see them — I barely saw any of my fellow visitors — mostly due to the red velvet curtains that were drawn around my booth for the duration of my dinner. There were numerous brightly colored drinks available in the big flip-through pictorial cocktail menu, but I ordered a goblet of red wine ("The Blood of the Sacrificed," as it was listed) and tucked into my bat-shaped cracker-garnished mixed-green salad and bloody meat skewers while the sound of iPhone camera shutters clicked around all me.

It was a strangely quiet meal, save for the oppressive organ music that played on the sound system. A feeling of gloom settled over me as I bit into the crucifix-shaped tortilla that adorned the seasonal New Year's sushi roll. I got that this was a place to have a not-so-serious meal with your friends, but there was little glee in the dark, candlelit room, not even the morbid variety. From a gap in the curtain, I could spy on the waitstaff standing around in their goth make-up and party-store fangs, unoccupied on this slow winter weeknight. The Vampire Café, with its coffin-shaped cocktail menu and elaborate, tepid dishes, felt like a nihilistic lark, a dumb distraction before a death that I was cruelly denied. If this was the intended effect, then it's the most genius restaurant concept I've ever experienced.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that, at their root, the animal cafes are an almost completely distinct phenomenon from the rest of Tokyo’s theme cafes. As awareness has filtered out toward the States, animal cafes have largely been understood as cute-bomb curiosities, but many of them serve a very real need. After starting in Taiwan, they exploded in Japan, where animal companionship is one of the few socially acceptable forms of emotional therapy and many city dwellers are not allowed to keep pets. First came the cat cafes, but soon more exotic animals became available for an afternoon. On a quiet little side street in chic Omotesando, not far from outposts of New York City staples Luke’s Lobster and Magnolia Bakery, a colorful, sculpted sign adorned with a drawing of a pooping rabbit beckons you upstairs to the chillest bunny menagerie in Tokyo. The incredibly named Rabbit And Grow Fat, or Ra.a.g.f, is a space about the size of a small doctor’s waiting room, where for ¥1,100 you can don a pair of hot pink shower slides and spend an hour petting a soft bunny.

A patron takes a selfie with an owl at the Owl Village Cafe in Harajuku

I’d heard some less-than-encouraging things about some of Tokyo’s animal cafes, which can often give off an alert-the-SPCA vibe, so I was wary of the spectacle of animals kept in cramped, unnatural quarters for the benefit of cooing teenagers, but Ra.a.g.f couldn’t have been more soothing if it tried. The main space is made up of two pens, which your rabbit is brought into after you select it from the bank of 12 or so cages closer to the entrance. After perusing the selection I picked my rabbit; she was named Rakuda, or "camel," for her impossibly velvety caramel-colored fur, the attendants told me. I splurged on a plastic cup of fruit and veggie slices for ¥150, which I spent the next half hour baiting her with so she’d come close enough to me to pat. You aren’t allowed to pick up or hold the rabbits at Ra.a.g.f, which I desperately wanted to do, but I accepted my temporary pet’s boundaries. It was fine — when Rakuda ignored me, I could distract myself with the gut-twistingly cute display in the pen next door as two little girls gawked at the giant bunny they’d selected while their parents snapped photo after photo.

As you get closer and closer to the clogged pedestrian streets of Harajuku, the animal cafes’ therapeutic origins become less recognizable. Sandwich signs lining Takeshita-dori lure you into countless indoor petting zoos — I walked into one spot that was fully decked out with fake trees and jungle sound effects. Here the number of foreigners leaps up as well — from zero percent to something like two-thirds. Chalk it up to the location, maybe — if it’s in Harajuku, and it’s cute, tourists will be there.

The Owl Village Cafe, an American favorite, is located just off the bustling intersection of the Harajuku Station and Takeshita-dori. It’s a tranquil spot with a modestly cute interior and a nice seating area and beverage selection. But once I was in the owls’ enclosure, a tight corner of a space that’s roughly the size of a New York City studio apartment, surrounded by the gorgeous, alien-like birds — who, every Google search tells me, are predators that need lots and lots of space — a sense of wrongness returned, even though the Owl Village is a more educational experience than most animal cafes.

Guides at the Owl Village Cafe provide instruction on how to properly caress the owls

A guide takes you around to meet the owls — six when I visited — while lecturing about the different species of owls. If you want to let an owl perch on your arm, a leather falconer’s glove is provided, and the guide tells you how to pet the bird — in English no less, which was not readily available at Ra.a.g.f. The guide also told us which owls to stay away from. A dusky grey owl was apparently in a bad mood that day, and I didn’t blame him. There was barely enough space for me and the half-dozen American tourists as we maneuvered from the beverage station to the birds’ posts, and I couldn’t help feeling like the owls were just aching to stretch their wings and pounce on some mice, or at least snatch the wig off a thirsty Gothic Lolita wannabe on the sidewalk below.

Though Owl Village is nowhere near as exploitative as some of its competitors, there’s a different mood there, and I’m not saying that just because my latent phobia of birds makes me more of a rabbit person than an owl person. The ratio of looking vs. touching is inverted, which makes for a less intimate or relaxing experience; the owls are a thing you pose with, rather than a creature you commune with. But at least there’s craft beer.

The Robot Restaurant exists in another universe than other theme cafes, one in which Tokyo’s dialogue with itself has been turned outward completely and capitalized on deftly. A chaotic, electronic cabaret announced by an enormous, multicolored marquee that takes up nearly an entire block of the red-light Kabukicho district, it requires a reservation in advance and asks a cover fee of ¥8,000. And on a Friday in February, it was at capacity. As the evening's guests gathered in the gaudily mirrored preshow lounge, and the MC guided us through a sake toast (for a surcharge, of course), I took the opportunity to eavesdrop on my mostly Australian fellow visitors. And what did they make of this LED-covered spangly spectacle and its warm-up band of robot-suited keytarists?

"This is some crazy fucking shit, man!"

When it was time for the show, we were led down a sparkling, butterfly-covered stairwell, past a strip club that nearly everyone accidentally walked into before being shooed out, and into the basement for the main event. Every step along the way was outrageously photogenic, and all of it was further declared to be "crazy fucking shit" by those around me.

The technicolor cabaret in Shibuya's Robot Restaurant, a supremely popular tourist attraction

Everyone goes to the Robot Restaurant, it seems. It's heavily promoted on TripAdvisor's Tokyo page, with thousands of reviews peppered with words like "insane" and "acid trip." The show that it revolves around is about 45 minutes of all-out sonic and visual battery: giant sparkly remote-controlled robots piloted by dancers in sequined bikini tops, who fight each other, dance and (I think?) save the planet from invaders. It's rocketed in popularity (and price) since it first opened in 2012 — helped by endorsements from the discerning Anthony Bourdain; here he is calling it "the greatest show in the history of entertainment" on Parts Unknown. Nowhere in Tokyo is the promise of Wacky, Random Japan doled out so indulgently, and nowhere is it lapped up so eagerly. Its founder and impresario says she wants to take the show to Vegas.

The Robot Restaurant is also, almost defiantly, not a restaurant. The food options include a series of bento and sushi boxes more suspicious than what you would find in the refrigerator case of an Oklahoma supermarket. They do have alcohol, and many opportunities to purchase it over the course of the hour-long cabaret show. And it sells. Drugs are notoriously hard to come by in Tokyo (not to mention extremely illegal), so it seems like many party-loving tourists have settled on an evening at the Robot Restaurant and five or six Kirin Drafts as a not-so-cheap substitute. Seven nights a week, three to four times a night, hundreds of foreigners gather to get high to the sight and sound of Tokyo playing itself.

Tourists at the Robot Restaurant

Maybe at one point this place was for Tokyoites, and maybe it felt genuinely subversive, with its giant robots and bikini-clad dancers pounding away at Day-Glo taiko drums. It’s the big-budget form of the useless cuteness of a maid cafe, the pitch-black nihilism of a parfait glass filled with multicolored Jell-O cubes at 100x scale. But now no local would even think of getting their kicks here; the MC doesn’t bother speaking anything other than English. This is contemporary Orientalism regurgitated by enterprising Japanese businesspeople who know what so many Westerners expect out of their Japanese vacation: some crazy fucking shit.

After the Robot Restaurant, I took refuge in nearby Golden Gai, the shantytown of tiny bars adjacent to Kabukicho. These may be the original theme bars of Tokyo, little spectacles of ambiance packed into spaces the size of a walk-in closet. I picked a bar called Cremaster, of all things, and sat down for a beer in between two salarymen. The bartender and I conversed in a mishmash of Japanese and English, about movies and Trump and her career as a jazz singer, in the glow of neon lights and the fishtank in the window. I learned about how the original bar had burned down, and the owner rebuilt it in tribute to Matthew Barney. Why, you ask? He liked Matthew Barney’s films and thought it would be cool.

Golden Gai is touristy — it can’t help but be, due to its location and its appeal to quirkiness. But it’s not just a place to look, it’s a place where you’re forced to interact, elbow-to-elbow with other customers, many of whom are Japanese. You can’t just show up, take your photos and leave — because, among other reasons, photography is technically not allowed. So what do you do here? Enjoy a drink, a snack, a conversation, language barriers willing — and the chance to temporarily escape to an alternate reality. If that’s not the foundation of any self-respecting theme cafe, I don’t know what is.

Emily Yoshida is a film critic at New York Magazine and hosts the podcast It's Cool To Like Anime. She lives in Brooklyn.
Ko Sasaki is a Tokyo-based photographer.
Edited by Meghan McCarron and Matt Buchanan
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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