Saturday, February 25, 2017

Tokyo Plays Itself

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.

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 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.

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.

by Emily Yoshida, Eater |  Read more:
Image: Ko Sasaki