Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A new maid cafe in LA?

The LA area has been going maidless since the closure of Culver City's Royal/T Cafe last July with the brief exception of Anime Expo. Now comes word that the Maidreamin chain from Japan plans to open a branch in LA in the Little Tokyo neighborhood. An exact date has yet to be announced, but you can get the latest updates on the Maidreamin USA Facebook page.

Here's hoping they can capture the magic of Akiba maid cafes in a financially sustainable way.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The future of maid cafes in Japan

Seldom discussed about maid cafes is the actual economics behind them, i.e. how they actually make money. For those of you who have visited one, it's apparent from the table charge and various other fees (playing a game with a maid, taking a picture with a maid) that it's certainly no charity. But opening a cafe is hardly a sure thing - with constant competition, both from the established players and new entrants, the survival rate is less than 50%, according to a Japanese article from business news site PRESIDENT translated by RocketNews24.

According to the author, maid cafes are struggling to define their art in the way that maiko have over centuries at teahouses in Kyoto. My take on the situation? Let's not over-intellectualize the reasons for ups and down in the maid cafe market. Running any kind of restaurant is tough, especially in a fiercely competitive market like Tokyo. Is the turnover of maid cafes really any higher than that of other restaurants in Akihabara? The basic tenets of running a successful restaurant - ambiance, food quality, service - still apply to maid cafes. The ones that provide a consistently great experience are the ones that will survive.

In any case, maid cafes have only been around since 2001, so it's far too early to assess their long-term cultural impact. As they say, let history be the judge...of maid cafes.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Visiting a Tokyo Maid Cafe

Let's say you're going to Japan on vacation and you'd like to check out one of these fabled maid cafes for yourself.

The center of the maid cafe universe is indisputably the Akihabara "Electric Town" neighborhood of Tokyo, where maids in costume hand out cafe flyers on every corner.

But with such a rich variety of choices, which one should you go to? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. If you don't speak Japanese, go to a cafe where they have English speaking maids - the whole experience is bewildering enough even in English.

A couple of the best-known maid cafes have English-speaking maids:

Note that the particular location you visit may not have an English-speaking maid on shift, so you may have to ask: "Eigo o shabereru maido wa imasuka?" (Do you have any English-speaking maids?) or just say "English?" with a hopeful look and they will get the idea. Don't try to take a picture, though; it's against the rules and will just piss them off.

Curtis Hoffmann of Maid Runner made a phenomenal chart with reviews of every maid cafe in Akiba circa 2010, including whether they have English-speaking maids and English menus.

2. If you're visiting as a tourist, go to a cafe where they have entertainment - a reasonably sized stage is a good indicator, such as the fourth floor of @Home's main location. Some cafes are more like actual restaurants, where they give you your order and mostly leave you alone, which is great for regulars and pretty boring for one-time visitors.

3. Know the rules. Yes, there are rules. Curtis of Maid Runner did a great job of writing them up, so take a couple of minutes and read up. One I would add is that there will be a table charge on your bill for occupying space in the cafe (@Home charges 600 yen, or about $6, per hour per person).

4. Enjoy it! Yes, it's totally bizarre, but don't just sit there looking confused. Order a big sundae and spend 500 yen on a photo with a maid. You'll be glad you did.

Maid in the USA?

Maid cafes have had a rough time of it in the US.

Aside from maid cafes at the major anime cons and the floating maid brigades (see right sidebar), there's only one active maid cafe I'm aware of, My Cup of Tea, in Washington D.C.

Fallen by the wayside:
Are there hidden American maid cafes out there? Tell me in the comments.

Monday, June 24, 2013

4 Unusual Japanese Cafe Concepts

Japan really does takes the themed restaurant thing more seriously than anywhere outside of a Medieval Times.

Here are a few of the stranger cafe and bar concepts you'll find in Tokyo:

1. Nyanron Hanten is a cat/vampire/maid-themed Chinese restaurant in Akihbara. Yes, this is perhaps the first and only usage of "cat-slash-vampire-slash-maid."

Unfortunately, the ambition seems to have exceeded the execution. Despite the cute staff and surprisingly decent-looking mabo tofu, the interior and costumes are nothing special.

Still, there must be some appeal to it since someone saw fit to open another vampire maid bar in Akiba.

Photo: Weekly ASCII
Photo: Moeten
2. Prison Bar Capture in Ueno is a "girls bar" where you are served by women dressed as sexy police officers. (A girls bar is a bar with cute female staff where, in addition to paying for drinks, you pay a fixed charge for however long you stay there, in this case about $20/hr.) The ultramodern interior just doesn't do justice (heh) to the prison theme - a missed opportunity in my book.

3. Girls Office Tokyo was an "office lady" or "OL" themed cafe in Akihabara. In Japan, the term "office lady" (Wikipedia) is a widely-known archetype for women in administrative roles at Japanese companies. The cafe was staffed by attractive young women in business attire, but the bare interior left much to be desired. In any case, the OL-fetish market was clearly not as lucrative as expected since they went under earlier this year.

Photo: Radio Kaikan

That's one sad-looking office. (Photo: Radio Kaikan)

4. Grand Pirates is a pirate-themed maid cafe in Akihabara. They seem to have done a nice job with the theme. The costumes are well-done and while pictures of the inside are scarce, they seem to have done a nice job with the interior design and decorations. I might stop in for a visit next time I'm in Akiba.

Photo: sho Panda

Here's a video showing how to get there from the JR station:

Recommended reading:
  • Twisted Sifter's great round-up of three crazy theme restaurants in Tokyo, a ninja one, a horror prison one, and an Alice in Wonderland one.
  • The Daily Mail's review of the amazing Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku where giant female robots are controlled by real female staff.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

5 Ridiculous Restaurant Signs in Tokyo

There are a million and one wonderful restaurants in Tokyo, but sometimes their signs are pretty spectacular as well.

1. At Nemaki Neko ("pajama cat") Restaurant, you can enjoy the delicious cook-it-yourself-in-a-hot-pot tradition of shabu-shabu with a twist: your food is served to you by staff in cosplay. Boiled meat and girls dressed as maids and nurses with cat ears - a winning combination.

2. Feel a little more pescatarian? The sign for Kaikaya helpfully points out that the restaurant is "owned by a mysterious Japanese man who cooks marvelous seafood dishes." Who can say no to that?

3. Despite suspicious lies to the contrary, the Ghetto is a fine place for some Happy Dining. Ghett-outta here!

4. Ready to throw back a few cold ones? Well head on down to The Bar of Corn Barley, where you'll find nothing but the finest selection of Corn Barley-derived beverages.

 5. Finally, finish up your night at Bar Tina, which is as well known for its cocktail specials as it is for being "Full of Black Music."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Making HTC Sense less annoying on the HTC One V

I'm not a big fan of third-party skins for the Android interface; they seem to add clutter and bloat to an elegantly designed UI - differentiation for the sake of differentiation. So after getting an HTC One V, it didn't take long for me to start looking for ways to strip out the HTC Sense skin.

It turns out the only way to purge it from your phone is by rooting and flashing a custom ROM. Since I wasn't ready to go that far, here's what I did:

  • Installed these apps - all free unless otherwise noted - which replicate the stock experience:
    • Android 4.1 Jellybean Launcher - Edit 4/14: Here are instructions for setting it as the default launcher.
    • Google Calendar
    • Camera JB+ ($2). If you don't mind ads, you can go with the free Camera ICS and Gallery ICS instead. A nice side bonus is that the stock camera app lets you disable the annoying shutter sound.
    • Alarm clock: Clock ICS. If you prefer the JB version, you can get Clock JB (free, no alarm functionality) or Clock JB+ ($1).
    • Clock widget: 
      • Analog: Install Clock ICS or Clock JB.
      • Digital: Clock JB will give you a nice JB-style digital clock, but I ended up installing ClockQ, which, qgives me a lovely ICS-lockscreen-style clock on my home screen.
    • Android 4.1 JB Messaging SMS. Install the older version noted in the description since MMS is broken in the latest. Unnecessary if you use Google Voice.
    • The HTC browser isn't bad, but I installed Chrome, which gives me cross-device bookmark syncing. Note that there is pretty bad display glitching in Chrome on this device. It's a known issue that is fixed by an Android OTA update that Virgin hasn't pushed yet and may not ever. Yet another reason to root... Edit 4/11: Virgin has pushed the update. Check manually if you haven't gotten it yet via Settings > About > Software updates.
    • I haven't been able to find an ICS-like lock screen that works reliably, so I'm stuck with the HTC one.
  • Disable unnecessary services (Settings > Apps > All):
    • Calendar
    • Calendar Widget
    • Weather
    • Weather Widget: Use the News & Weather widget instead.
    • I use and highly recommend SwiftKey ($4), so I was able to disable HTC Sense Input as well.
  • Pick a wallpaper from the Wallpapers section instead of the HTC Wallpapers section.
Congrats, you now have a mostly stock-looking phone!

Am I missing anything? Comments, please!