Thoughts on life after the PhD
The butler cafe was supposed to be a “research” trip, or just one of those at-least-I-can-say-I-did-it experiences. But I ended up kind of loving it.
Butler cafes are one of a varied group of “cosplay cafes” in Tokyo that allow patrons to temporarily immerse themselves in a manga / anime-based fantasy world. There are maid cafes, which have probably gotten the most press–these feature young girls in conservative maid outfits who use deferential language and sing songs or play games with the mostly-male clientele. There are “tsundere cafes,” inspired by certain characters in anime and manga who have a prickly exterior but a warm heart (“tsundere” is a combination of “tsun-tsun” [to turn away] and “dere-dere” [to become lovey-dovey]). In those places you’re paying for the privilege of being berated, though the girls usually apologize at the end and ask that you please come back. There are “little sister” cafes, where female staff play the role of a teasing younger sibling.
And then there are butler cafes, sort of a counterpart to maid cafes. The staff are all attractive (and very tall) young men dressed in tuxedo-like outfits that, again, resemble costumes worn by certain characters in anime and manga. They address the (mostly female) guests as “ohime-sama” (“my lady”) and generally wait on them hand and foot during their time in the cafe, carrying their bags, pouring their tea, and pulling out their chairs whenever they need to go anywhere.
All of these cafes involve some level of role-playing on the part of both patrons and staff. The butler cafes feature men using very polite, formal language and waiting on women, in a country where it’s usually women who do the tea-pouring. The women, in turn, get to play the role of a high-class lady. For fans of these cafes, they’re a chance to escape from the real world for a bit and pretend to be an adored princess, a man who’s exceedingly popular with attractive girls, or just someone with a wisecracking sister.
Unlike host and hostess clubs, which charge an hourly fee and tend to pressure clients to purchase very expensive food and drinks, maid and butler cafes are affordable. They’re not cheap–there are service charges and plenty of optional extras–but they’re well within the budget of the average high school student or twenty-something.
I’d never had much interest in any of these cafes, mostly because a) I’m not a hardcore anime / manga fan, and b) I don’t want to seem like a gawking outsider in a world that can be kind of sacred for its devotees. I went to a maid cafe once and it was kind of a non-event. The customers were a mix of men and women, the staff were dressed like maids, and that was about it. (Admittedly, I went to one of the lower-key cafes–there were no songs, no game-playing, and no calls to do childlike chants with the maids.)
But when some female friends and colleagues who study Japanese media and pop culture invited me to a butler cafe outing, I said yes. It seemed like it might be a fun experience with the right group.
My first question: what to wear? Were we supposed to dress like 19th-century ladies? Not according to the website, which tells everyone to dress however they like. Still, I opted for a long skirt instead of my usual jeans.
The seven of us went to Swallowtail, the most well-known butler cafe. It’s located in Ikebukuro in an area known as “otome road,” which is filled with bookshops selling homoerotic “boys love” manga and is popular with female otaku. Swallowtail requires you to reserve an eighty-minute sitting, and the cafe can be booked up weeks in advance.
We arrived a few minutes early and headed down into the basement of a nondescript building where several other women were waiting. When it was our turn, an elderly gentleman in a tuxedo guided us into the entryway and introduced us to our butler–a tall, smooth-faced young man with glasses and a jaggedly cut hairstyle. He looked as if he’d stepped right out of the pages of a manga.
The older butler and our young attendant explained the rules (no photos, we would receive our check about 30 minutes before departure time and would need to leave on time because “ladies have very busy schedules”). They then took our bags and coats and led us to our table.
This was where the real performance began. As we entered and made the long walk to our table, we were greeted by a chorus of “okaeri nasai-masse, ohime-sama” (welcome home, my lady) by literally every single “butler” in the cafe (and there were about a dozen of them). The idea was that we were not visitors, we were “home”: high-class ladies in our own palace with our own bevy of attendants. We all giggled a bit, but the staff were 100% into their roles.
The first thing I noticed was that the place was NICE. The Akihabara maid cafe had felt cheap–casually decorated with uncomfortable furniture and really bad food. Swallowtail is gorgeous, with enormous chandeliers, beautiful furniture, and expensive-looking curtains. Someone paid a lot of attention to detail when designing it, and surprisingly it never feels kitschy or gaudy, just elegant.
Glancing around the room, I saw mostly pairs of female guests and a few singles, but no men. (The website notes that men are welcome, but suffice it to say I don’t think there are a lot of male customers.) Most of the women were very nicely dressed, some in the Gothic Lolita-style frilly skirts and blouses favored by young girls who hang out in Harajuku.
Our butlers (there were two of them now) explained the rather complicated menu. Most of us opted for one of the “afternoon tea” sets with names like Cordelia, Victoria, and King Lear. I chose the Anna Maria: a plain scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam, a mini-quiche, and a trio of small desserts with Darjeeling tea.
The tea arrived first, and the butlers took their time explaining the very expensive cups it was served in and the tea itself, and of course poured for each of us. For the entire time we were there, we were never allowed to pour our own tea–we rang a little bell and they would rush to pour it for us. At first it felt bizarre to constantly ask other people to do what I was perfectly capable of doing myself. By the end of the afternoon, though, I have to say that I didn’t mind.
The food was amazing. The portions were small, but they were quite filling, and everything tasted fabulous. The butlers served our tea sets on three-tiered trays, asking us which plate we’d like to sample next and then delicately placing it in front of us.
I think we were all surprised by how much fun the whole experience was. From the minute we walked in the door we were all smiling at each other. For me, at least, there was nothing fake or creepy about the butlers–they didn’t overdo the flattery and didn’t try to flirt with us, they just remained nearby and performed little acts of service every few minutes, all while speaking in very formal language that really wasn’t so different from the kind of language you’d hear in a fancy restaurant.
It was, perhaps, the first time I’d been waited on hand and foot by a group of men, and it was confusing in kind of a fun way. It’s not as if I spend my days waiting on and being incredibly deferential to men, but even so, it was intriguing to take part in something that felt like a role-reversal. It’s part of the basic appeal of role-playing–stepping outside your usual sphere and being someone else for a little while.
I also realized that I enjoy spaces with a certain level of formality and certain kinds of rules, at least for a little while. Swallowtail doesn’t allow photos or cell phone use, which makes everything feel a bit more formal. The atmosphere and the attentiveness of the staff made it fairly easy to pretend for a moment that you were royalty, which was fun.
The cost was a little over 3000 yen per person. Definitely more than I would usually pay for tea and snacks, but really, it didn’t seem overpriced. You’re paying for an experience, and you’ll certainly get one. It helped that the food and tea were fabulous.
So, if you’ve been curious about butler cafes but were a bit hesitant over the weirdness factor, I say give Swallowtail a shot. I didn’t feel like an outsider invading a secret world, just a guest having a cup of tea and enjoying myself. The hour and twenty minutes flew by, and when my friends and I all made our way up the stairs we expressed a little sigh of disappointment at returning to a “real world” where no one calls you “ohime-sama” and welcomes you home with a bow.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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