Postcard from Tokyo

Originally Published in the FT Weekend

On first viewing, the ItaCafe, located in the Shinjuku neighbourhood of Tokyo, is a bit drab. Its haphazard decoration and jaundiced lighting give it the look of a school canteen. If you look a little more carefully, however, what seemed boring is, in fact, bizarre — the unlikeliest of cultural fusions.

On one wall, there is a large Vladimir Putin calendar, on another, a faux-fireplace adorned with Christmas decorations, and across from that, in the corner, a Soviet tank made of cardboard. The café is full — Japanese salarymen sit at tables, slurping vodka from shot glasses and laughing riotously at their companions’ jokes. In between these tables, three young Russian women dressed in bright red maids costumes move gracefully, talking animatedly to the diners in Japanese, who smile bashfully from behind spoonfuls of borscht.

The café, which opened last October, is the first Russian-themed “maid café” (meido kissa in Japanese) in Tokyo. Maid cafés, which have become increasingly popular since the first opened in 2001, were originally aimed at fans of Japanese animation and manga comics, in which maids frequently feature. Customers come to be served by physical manifestations of these characters, who not only dress in provocative costumes but act in an innocent, servile manner, calling their clients “master” or “mistress” and serving them with compliments as well as food (there are male equivalents too, “butler cafés”). In some establishments, maids spoon-feed customers, flirt and cast love spells — although diners are strictly forbidden from physical contact, asking for maid’s phone numbers or taking unauthorised photographs.

Anastasia Reznikova, ItaCafe’s co-founder, however, is keen to stress that this café is different from a typical meido kissa. “Although maid-themed, we will not be preparing love potions nor treating customers in a particularly flirtatious manner,” she tells me. “We talk to our guests, but we will not be cleaning their ears!”

Reznikova, originally from Moscow, has long had a passion for anime and manga, becoming famous online as a cosplayer, a performance art in which she dresses up to represent specific characters from the films and comics. She tells me she had always wanted to live in Japan and was able to do so when her current business partner, Takuya Omori, visited Russia two years ago to recruit new cosplayer models.

Indeed, Reznikova enjoyed the following years in Tokyo so much that she began looking for ways to prolong her stay. “I talked with Omori-san about how I could extend my visa, and he came up with the idea of opening up a maid café,” she tells me. “That way I could get a working visa.” The pair set up a campaign on a crowdfunding website hoping to raise ¥250,000 (£1,800). However, the idea proved so popular they were able to raise more than ¥3m.

I watch while Reznikova and her team slosh dark purple borscht into bowls from a bubbling pot in the restaurant’s kitchen. To accompany the soup, they serve up piroshki, Russian dumplings, and a traditional vinegarette salad. After a shaky start — none of the girls were experienced cooks or waitresses — business has begun to go well. “We only serve Russian food and drink in the café,” she tells me. “We wanted to create a place in which locals can come to sample classic home cooking and understand a little more of the culture.”

Some of the customers, of which all are men, seem initially unsure of the food, sniffing at it and making furtive glances at their dining companions before finally being charmed into trying it by the effusiveness of Reznikova and her team. “ I think we have been successful in getting people to sample dishes they had previously never tried or even heard of,” she says.

The young Muscovite is wearing a faux Russian military jacket and army boots. “ I always dress in character when at the café because part of our income comes from charging customers for photos.” At that moment, a group of tipsy Japanese businessmen asks Reznikova over for a photo. She agrees, lining the men up in front of the miniature tank. She pulls a variety of zany faces and hand gestures. The four fully grown men in suits do the same.

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