Only In Japan

Friday, June 29, 2007

Niche restaurants

For a number of reasons, the Japanese eat out often - probably more so than any other people on Earth. The main reasons must be that work colleagues generally have dinner together after a day at the office ("to forge bonds between workers"), people generally meet their friends at a restaurant rather than at home (Japanese homes and flats being so cramped), the Japanese are fundamentally epicurians who love being served... Anyway, the result is an incredible 1 restaurant or food joint for 88 people in Japan.

Think about it. It's pretty amazing.

Of course, the direct consequence of this situation is that competition between restaurants is extremely intense. The advertising market for restaurants is huge, and many TV programmes are devoted to this most popular topic. Restaurants also compete fiercely on price, design, innovation, service... Then when all else is exhausted, the most ambitious restaurants turn to niche markets.

And that's where it gets fun. Consider, for example, the "Moe" Maid Cafes...

The "Moe" (pronounced mo-EH) Maid Cafes are a fairly recent invention. Basically, they're regular cafes where the waitresses are cute young Japanese girls wearing lacy French maid outfits and treating customers with the utmost politeness; the kind of manners level an affluent 19th century French bourgeois would command from his servants. Depending on the place, the food and cakes will be plain to good, but there will always be an emphasis on cuteness and girlishness (think lots of strawberries and cream, and plenty of white-chocolate hearts...). Yes, it's a little kinky, but so what?

The "Moe" phenomenon originated in Tokyo's notoriously geek-friendly district of Akihabara, but has now spread to most major Japanese cities. And while the original target customer for Moe cafes was neurotic otaku (technology and manga geeks), the concept has been so succesful that recently all kinds of people have started to visit these cafes, just because they're a cute and fashionable. But ironically, there are so many "regular people" at those cafes nowadays that the poor otaku now feel completely out of place in the very shops that were created for them...

Anyway, a cup of coffee at a Moe cafe is quite a bit more expensive than at the ubiquitous Starbucks, but the lovely atmosphere and exquisite politeness of the maids do make up for the price difference. Besides, the Moe concept has been really well-thought, with great attention to detail and finesse of execution (as usual in Japan, you might say), all of which make a visit to one of these "maid cafes" a really funny and interesting experience.

Oh, and as an aside: Moe Madness is expanding! Not only internationally (Moe cafes can now be found as far away as Toronto and Paris), but also in its variety: with Moe hairdressers, Moe foot massage, Moe estheticians, etc., the French maid addict can now see all (well, almost all...) of his desires satisfied!
And not surprisingly considering Japan's particular brand of gender equality, "butler cafes" have also started to open in Tokyo. You guess the concept: good looking young men in tails, tuxedos or butler outfits trying to make their female customers feel like they are princesses... Something tells me business is going to be very brisk for the butlers.

Anyway, on to a very different kind of niche restaurants: Cosplay yakiniku!

Have you ever heard of the "Morning Musume"? They aren't as popular as they used to be, but they still have a cult following: the Musume are Japan's answer to the Spice Girls, a group of supercute 15 year-old girls singing some canned lyrics and dancing to some canned tunes. Their lyrics make the Backstreet Boys sound like Jane Austen, but who cares! They're supercute.

Now how would you like to have girls dressed as Morning Musume wait on you at a barbecued meat restaurant?

Not too much? So how about Budweiser girls? Nurses in sexy outfits? Flight attendants? Anime heroins? High School girls? French maids? There's bound to be an outfit that will titillate you!

Welcome to the world of Cosplay yakiniku, a very popular style of restaurants here in Japan. The principle is simple: they are inexpensive all-you-can-eat grilled meat restaurants, staffed by girls dressed as something cute, funny or exotic. It might sound childish, kinky or simply surreal (Nurse! Some more sirloin please!), but for Japanese people it does make sense: food, drinks and cute/sexy girls have always been considered a perfect combination for a merry evening out with friends or colleagues. The fact that the girls wear kinky costumes only adds to the fun, which in turn will help everyone relax more... Unwinding from all the stress of daily life is one of the major reasons why the Japanese like to eat out, so the girls in High School uniforms fit perfectly in the picture!
And by the way, don't think Cosplay Restaurants are only for men either: Japanese women have a very broad definition of what is "cute" or "fun", so if a Cosplay Restaurant is known for its lively atmosphere, they will just flock there without second thoughts. And actually, I think they have a point: If it's fun, just go for it!

Maybe not for a first date, but you get the idea.

So let's say that following my advice, you went to a Moe cafe, and then to a Cosplay yakiniku restaurant; you might now be thinking "yeah that was fun, but I expected something kinkier. Japan isn't really all it's cracked up to be..."
To which I say: try "no-bra" cafes. Or "no-pants" shabu-shabu. Neither is exactly cheap, but both will make for interesting conversation when your friends back home ask how Japan was like.

No-bra cafes are just regular cafes, quiet places where you can sip a capuccino after lunch. Of course, if very busty and very topless waiteresses tend to break your concentration, you might not be able to enjoy your coffee very much, but that's just a detail, isn't it?

Personally, I only go there because the coffee is good though.

No really! I mean it!

Anyway, if you are looking for real kink, "no-pants" shabu-shabu is the place to go... Even most Japanese people consider them a bit on the weird side, which says a lot!

Shabu-shabu is the name of a traditional Japanese specialty: thin slices of beef dipped in boiling water for just a split second (so as to preserve the softness of the meat) then dipped in a traditional Japanese sauce. Try it if you have a chance!

As to the "no-pants" part... Well, let's just say that the young and cute waitresses wear very short mini-skirts and nothing underneath. The floor of those restaurants is generally mirrored. And the fun part is to find excuses to make the staff stand on the tip of their toes, bend over, or generally do anything that will give the customers a chance to peep under their skirts. Sounds offensive? But it's all in good fun, no touching is allowed, and most waitresses are students playing their part of the game for a very generous hourly salary. So if you go there, no need to feel guilty...
Anyway when the bill comes, your feeling of horror will have quenched any ethical dilemmas you might have been having.

Beats Hooters any day, don't you think?


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