The basic standard of all Japan’s cafes is the humble kissaten. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is something that can be experienced at home, though, as these places have a unique and distinctly Japanese flavor of kitsch.
More often than not, a good kissaten is run by a friendly old couple, with the husband manning the front of the house and the wife managing the kitchen. While some may have a modern upgrade or two, a truly authentic location will look more like your grandma’s living room than a Starbucks. Dimly lit and smoky, these places serve tiny, 400 yen cups of too strong coffee with a side of cozy nostalgia for the Japanese boom times in the 80.
Almost too obvious to be included on this list is the much ballyhooed Cat Cafe. Now ubiquitous in all of Japan’s major cities, the phenomenon has spread across Asia, Europe and North America. The idea originated in Taiwan, and the first cat cafe drew throngs of curious Japanese tourists. In the cities of both countries, apartments rarely allow pets, and taking some time at a cat cafe is a rare chance to interact with an animal.
The cafes in general are set up with tables for customers along the walls and and variety of cat toys and furniture in the center of the room. Though there are strict rules for treating animals gently and not disturbing sleep, with locations housing up to 50 cats, every customer has plenty of opportunities for one on one kitty time. Expect to pay around 1,500 yen for a drink and an hour’s entry.
Maid and Butler Cafes
Maid cafes are all too representative of Japan’s obsession with the cute-but-secretly-erotic. Found in all major cities, customers are greeted with a bubbly “Welcome home, master!” upon entry. Dressed as mini-skirted French maids, the waitresses cater largely to the otaku market, entertaining fantasies of super-cute manga and video game characters in petticoats. Drinks and foods are served with adorable drawings in chocolate sauce or ketchup, but not until it’s been enchanted with a magic spell.
Butler or gentlemen cafes are the gender reversed answer to maid cafes. The original Butlers Cafe in Tokyo’s Akihabara employs all foreign male staff, who help female customers live out Western fairy tales by taking coats, pulling out chairs, and even giving out tiaras to wear for their meals. Similar cafes around Japan have a similar concept; waiters are not necessarily foreign, but all have a look that borders between handsome and adorable, lavish attention on guests, and wear a variety of costumes – like tuxedos, coattails, or even schoolboy uniforms.
The Owl Cafe is one of the latest pet rental services to sweep Japan. The owls are most often hand reared since hatching, thankfully not wild caught. Customers pay by the hour to sit with the birds, pet them, stare into their enormous, terrifying eyes, and possibly ask them how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-Pop. Though ostensibly a cafe, only the owls do any eating – the less squeamish can purchase frozen baby mice to feed their new found feathered friends.
Just remember to keep quiet and avoid sudden movements!
Ask a five year old raised on anime and video games to draw you a picture of a restaurant in Japan, and there’s a good chance the waiter he imagines will be a robot. Unfortunately for our young illustrator, the real Robot Restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area is definitely not a place to take children. Scantily clad young co-eds perform frenetic dances, stage fights, and musical numbers atop, inside, or at least next to killer robots and giant metal dinosaurs against a backdrop like an explosion of neon, black light, lasers and chrome.
This is another place where the food is definitely left on the back burner. Instead, this is the fever dream of geeks and otaku worldwide. Book well in advance and bring at least $150 per head.