Years ago, some clever entrepreneur opened two copyright-skirting bars in Tokyo: Zeon Bar and Federation Bar. Located on different floors of the same building on an Akihabara side street, these saloons offered patrons a Gundam-inspired drinking experience, with decor draped in a sort of low-budget theming that featured Gundam toys behind the bar, projector screens playing Gundam cartoons and Gundam-inspired food items such as Pocky renamed “Dom heat sabers” on the menu. Employees wore Gundam clothing from Cospa and would get really upset if you tried to take photos of the place. It was disappointing and overpriced but kind of endearing in a “quirky Japan” kind of way.
For whatever reason, they didn’t last. Federation Bar shut down first and Zeon Bar eventually followed. Whether they were closed for legal or business reasons remains unknown, but the idea of a Gundam-themed bistro was clearly a solid idea, as an official Gundam Cafe was opened a couple of years ago, also in Akihabara. Located just outside the Electric Town station exit, the Gundam Cafe offers visitors the chance to grab a coffee or bite to eat, ensconced in Gundam-esque surroundings.
Everything from the menu items (such as the Haro-latte) to the decor are dripping with Gundam references, with walls that look like they were designed by Hajime Katoki himself, replete with the aircraft-inspired warning notices his mecha are slathered in. The result is a cafe that looks like it was pulled right out of the White Base. There are the obligatory Gundam model kits on display and the flat screen TV playing Gundam commercials and videos on loop, not unlike the unofficial Gundam bars, but everything feels well-made and speaks of a much higher budget.
When we went, we noticed a large number of attractive, single women enjoying lunch. A bit odd, we thought, for a cafe that was inspired by a giant robot cartoon series. Perplexed, it didn’t quite make sense until we realized the cafe was running a special promotion for Gundam SEED shot glasses. The fact it can attract customers that look like they’d be more at home sipping coffee in a cafe in Shibuya is impressive when you consider the male-dominated atmosphere of most cafes in Akihabara, although SEED fandom is a strange, strange thing.
Quirkiness aside, the food and drink wasn’t particularly great and we’d imagine much of the Cafe’s success comes from its novelty factor rather than a regular clientele who enjoy the subtle atmosphere provided by plastic walls and a TV that screams G Generation commercials at you. For tourists dropping by this isn’t much of a concern; grab a drink, check out the ridiculous toilets (seriously, remember to do this) and maybe grab a Gundam takoyaki on your way out (assuming you can stomach the disgusting flavors they offer). For Gundam fans visiting Akihabara, it’s a recommended stop but it speaks of a larger trend within the area towards overly-commercialized venues.
In the wake of the Japanese government’s focus on “cool Japan” tourism and the booming popularity of nerd culture, Akihabara is in the process of turning into a Disneyland for nerds, and the Gundam Cafe is a fantastic example of this trend. It’s a perfectly-crafted product that ticks the right boxes and presses the right buttons, but still feels like a wholly manufactured product devoid of any real human element. It’s an amusement park attraction, crafted with an excessive attention to detail but disingenuous to point of being off-putting. If Disneyland expanded to have an “Animeland” area, the Gundam Cafe could be dropped in without missing a beat, but in the real world it takes on a slightly surreal feeling. Whether or not this really matters is up to the visitor. Just as plenty of people snap photos of the Eiffel Tower on the Las Vegas strip as if it was the real thing, plenty of people are likely to enjoy the Gundam Cafe.
It’s not the kind of the place you’d want to visit more than once, but as a one-time novelty, it works. It’s a silly place to grab a really mediocre cup of coffee and snap some photos, just don’t expect it to be anything more than that.