Trends in Japan > Pop Culture > Welcome To Otaku Town
From Maid Cafes to Canned Noodles, Akihabara Is Where It's At
(January 8, 2008)

A maid cafe. (C)@home cafe

Tokyo's Akihabara district is known around the world as the center of Japan's otaku culture, which includes such phenomena as anime, manga, and "maid cafes." The term Akiba culture (Akiba is short for Akihabara) has been heard a lot recently, having been coined to describe Akihabara's pop culture in general. Here we take a look at some of the latest developments in this district that continues to send out otaku culture to the world.

Changing with the Times
With its easy access to the nation's transportation networks, Akihabara originally developed as a part of Tokyo dominated by wholesalers. The black market thrived here in the aftermath of World War II, with shops handling electrical components especially common. It was from these roots that Akihabara developed into a hub for electronics and household appliances. Until recently it was best known as a place where people who were passionate about electronics, whether it be computer geeks, audiophiles, or HAM radio operators, could be sure to find the special components they were looking for.


A maid cafe. (C)@home cafe

In recent years, though, other types of shops have sprung up to cater to the various needs of otaku (anime and manga fanatics), including outlets that handle manga fan fiction and anime character merchandise. Visitors to Akihabara will also find a unique series of canned foods, including canned oden (a winter dish featuring various foodstuffs stewed in a light broth), canned ramen, and canned udon (wheat noodles). The appearance of maid cafes, where the waitresses wear maid costumes like those often featured in manga, further cemented Akihabara's reputation for quirky pop culture. Akihabara is now closely identified with otaku culture, which has spread from this part of Tokyo to all corners of the world.

Many foreign tourists visit Japan for the purpose of going to Akihabara. The Tourism Industry Association of Japan provides weekly free tours of the area for these foreign visitors called the Akihabara New Discovery Tour. This is a walking tour with an English-speaking guide, and it is extremely popular among overseas visitors with an interest in Japanese pop culture.


Canned Oden. (C)Tengu Canning Co., Ltd.

Themed Cafes Proliferate
Even more than the electronics outlets, it is original themed cafes that are flourishing in Akihabara recently, with one new place after another opening its doors. The primogenitor of this kind of business is the maid cafe, a coffee shop where visitors can enjoy kosupure (costume play), as the waitresses, all dressed in maid uniforms, roll out the red carpet and address customers as "master." For an additional fee, a customer can have a favorite "maid" sing a song for him or have her listen while he sings to her. As offshoots of this, some maid-themed businesses now provide such services as having "maids" clean customers' ears, wash their hair, or even provide reflexology. With such a wide variety of maid cafes in operation, it is almost as though maid garb is the unofficial uniform of Akihabara.

There are, naturally, similar cafes that cater to women. At these places, elegantly dressed butlers address the customers as "m'lady." A number of other variants have appeared, such as a cafe where the staff members are dressed as apprentice wizards from a role-playing game. There are also cafes where strong-willed staff members intentionally treat the customers with disdain, as well as places where the customers and staff pretend to be brothers and sisters. All these different shops enable otaku to imitate the anime and manga characters they love.

If you travel to Tokyo, be sure to make some time to explore Akihabara and experience what it has to offer. In so doing, you can play a role in the evolution of Akiba culture.

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