It’s a mark of petty pride and immense shame to be greeted in a maid café with a “Long time, no see” from the manager. To be honest, a café is an easy way to find native otaku, especially in Tokyo, where most greetings are more likely than not to be met with total silence. For introverted Japanese otaku, these places serve as a ludicrous lifeline to get a taste of social contact. For me, it’s about trying to figure out this country, one overpriced cup of coffee and frilly outfit at a time. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
But what goes far less mentioned is that most of these cafés, which have become synonymous with “Japan Cool” in the Western world and often glamorously portrayed in several J-Dramas, tend to have a short life span. In the streets, it’s not hard to see why – the market is over-saturated. When the several buildings in the tiny Akihabara region have at least three cafés stacked one on top of the other, it’s no surprise that many go under no matter what kind of gimmick they throw on their omelet-rice.
It’s kind of doomed from the start, in a sense. Starting up a joint is time and money-consuming—need to make a unique costume to differentiate from all the other joints, hiring a pack of young girls to take to the streets to promote and serve overpriced food and drinks and that’s before getting into the infamously exorbitant costs of property in Tokyo. While all that we, the end consumer, see is the tacky-cute “moe moe kyuuuun” side of the business, there is quite a bit of stress behind the scenes. Something that your intrepid reporter came face-to-face with in the closing of @Sweet.
As I went into the place to pay my last respects, there was a very heavy air. The chairs were all turned over; the girls were nowhere to be seen; the Xbox and karaoke set-up had been taken down. Rather than some fanfare-filled send-off into the sunset or a kamikaze strike into the UFO Catcher arcade downstairs, it felt being inside the gutted carcass of some animal. The only people in the room were Mr. T and Mr. S with the girls nowhere in sight.
Unlike the first time we met, I knew better than to ask questions. However, Mr. S had all too many for me. In his effort to liquidate his wares, every other word was a sales pitch – everything from the outfits to the souvenir keychains to the microphone in his hand. The candy-colored décor and blood-shot Doraemon doll being the few witnesses to the spectacle, it’s almost comical in retrospect, but bittersweet in the moment.
Thinking back on it, it’s not incredibly surprising that the place would go under so quickly. It’s not that the gals weren’t charming or the service terrible. Even the location—a well-trafficked area near the main intersection of the district—was accessible and easy to identify from a distance. It’s just that the place wasn’t terribly original (the name itself was a thinly veiled spin on the far more long-lasting @Home Café) and, in an overcrowded market, it didn’t seem to do enough to set itself apart. There was a last ditch attempt when the place was rebranded as a “Yandere” (read: Murderous psychopath) café, but it was it too little late for the already down-and-out place.
For now, I leave you with some photos of the place from its happier days. It wasn’t the greatest thing ever, but it had a can-do essence about it that was infectious. Although I’m loathe to admit it, I was indeed “moe” for @Sweet. There, you bastards, you finally got me.
Fernando Ramos currently lives in the Saitama area of Japan and has yet to regret it. His website can be found at http://www.mroutside.com