Akihabara. The mere mention of it conjures images of retro game shops, arcades, aisles of manga and maids, yes, maids. Wouldn't it be great to visit them? Like, right now?
If you live in Tokyo, that's a clinch. But for the rest of the world, visiting Akihabara isn't so easy. Enter Akihabara 360 Map, Google Street view for otaku (geeks). Like Google Street View, it offers a panoramic pavement look at the Akihabara area, but denotes local maid and manga cafes.
The page is largely in Japanese, but has enough English that non-Japanese speakers can click their way through. By clicking on the maid cafe icon, visitors can check out the insides of maid-run coffee shops, bars, relaxation spaces and even hair salons.
Maid cafes hit it big in Japan around 2003 and 2004. They were, and still are, standard cafes staffed by maids. Patrons can pay extra money to take a photo with them or play paper-rock-scissors with the polite maids. "There was a real flowering of otaku culture around then," says Tokyo-based game translator Matt Alt, who's authored several books on Japanese culture, including Ninja Attack! "At that time, otaku stopped being in the closet."
Around that time, otaku, who were traditionally viewed as creepy and insular, went mainstream, thanks in part to the popularity of Train Man.
Maids have been regular figures in otaku popular culture for decades, but it wasn't until the turn of the century that cafes featuring them exploded across Akihabara. During the late 1990s, promotions for the Japanese computer game "Welcome to Pia Carrot" included a temporary restaurant in 1999. By 2001, famed maid coffee shop, or "maid kissa" as they're called in Japanese, Cure Maid Cafe opened in Akihabara. It's success inspired other maid cafes. Their success, in turn, inspired other types of maid-staffed businesses like maid aroma therapy, spaces to play the PS3 or Wii Fit with maids as well as legitimate (and not so legitimate) massage parlors. "Maid cafes are essentially hostess bars for otaku," Alt points out.
The proto-maid cafe was "Anna Miller's", a pie house that served coffe. Anna Miller's was a chain of Pennsylvania Dutch-style restaurants from Hawaii that had waitresses dressed in outfits who accentuated their bosom, much like Hooters. While initially it was not for otaku, Alt says, the chain quickly became populated with them. The Anna Miller's uniform became iconic among otaku, inspiring waitress uniforms in video games and anime. The waitress outfit in Konami's love sim Love Plus, for example, is inspired by Anna Miller's. The chain has largely been overrun by the maid cafes it inspired.
For those who haven't visited a maid cafe before, fire up Akihabara 360 Map, pan around, zoom in, absorb the sights. It's cheaper than a game of paper-rock-scissors.
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