Monday morning I walked Bernadette down to the Mito train station. As we walked, I debated: would I have the energy to go through with today? I was still sick, but this would likely be my last time going through Tokyo, because tomorrow I would be on the road to the airport and then home. I was still sick and certainly walking around Tokyo would not be helping things, but this is my vacation and I gotta live it to the fullest or I’d definitely regret it.
I waved to Bernadette as she disappeared on the otherside of the turnstyle. I waited a little bit longer and lingered around the Newsday store and then decided to head back. At that point, I wanted breakfast, but not anything fried or full of rice. This seems to be the issue with Japan. All the food is phenomenal. Don’t get me wrong on that point, but when you start to feel under the weather a fried pork cutlet doesn’t sound appetizing, to me anyway. A rice ball is better, but still not something I feel like having when I’m coughing up phlegm. Just give me some fruit. Give me some juice. Give me something soothing for my throat. Under the departure level of the train station was a local grocery store. I picked up an apple for 400 yen — a big, juicy one. They sell these back at home for $1.99/lb. I grabbed an orange to fulfill my vitamin C needs and went on my way.
With breakfast over I ventured back to Tokyo on the Super Hitachi train. It takes only an hour from Mito to Tokyo so I was in Ueno Station in no time and back on the Yamanote Line in search of Ippudo Ramen down in Ebisu. It took some meandering around and asking, but I eventually came across it and got myself the lunch special — tonkatsu ramen, gyoza, and all the rice you could eat — at least that’s what the English menu said. I definitely didn’t have it in me to pig out and the meal was filling. Good ramen, I believe, is in the broth, and at Ippudo it was good to the last drop. Maybe, because I was ill, but I felt it in the back of my throat. It was a very rich and flavorful soup. The noodles, I believe, were hand pulled and firm. I tell you, once you’ve had ramen in Japan, it’s hard to go back. This is no comparison but when I got back I had some Sapporo Ichiban ramen — the 89 cent ramen dry package ramen — and all I could taste was the salt. At some point in the past I remember enjoying this but now that my palette is a little more refined, it just doesn’t cut the bill. I suppose if I want ramen like Ippudo, I’ll have to live in the land of the rising sun. Or, I hear there’s a branch in New York City.
Shinjuku was next on the list. I had come here Saturday night only to eat some sushi at a department store and go home, but now it was mid-afternoon and I would get a chance to see more of it. Shinjuku is where all the skyscrapers are. The Tokyo metropolitan government building sticks out of the ground like a large tuning fork. The JR and subway rail stations are connected to a vast underground concourse that links to a series of skyscrapers so you never have to see the sun or rain if these are the buildings you commute too. I walked beyond this concourse out into the daylight and snapped all the skyscraper porn I wanted.
I continued walking to the Shinjuku-Chuo Park (central park). It’s undergoing some heavy reconstruction. If you’re curious where Tokyo hides all of the homeless, it seems to be here. Sitting in groups on the park benches are the homeless. There are kids doing kickflips with skateboards. Business women and men walk by the homeless without the fear of being robbed, attacked, or accosted for money. The homeless themselves are quite orderly — so it seems. I ventured further into the park and found a small shantytown by the temple. There were blue tents erected in a field. The homeless seem to collect all the discarded umbrellas in Japan and use them as additional shielding for their homes. Their spaces were nice and tidy too. A broom was lying against a tree; the dirt in front of a shanty house had been swept. There was an analog clock hanging on a branch of another house. I snapped a few photos. Nobody seemed to be home, or if they were, they didn’t come out. I went on my way and wandered around the temple behind the shantytown before heading out of Shinjuku for good. There’s much to explore, and definitely a second trip with more time would do it justice.
I had to go back to Akiba. This is one of the reasons why I came to Japan after all. The toys. The electronics. The games. The anime. I won’t bore you with my shopping adventures. Needless to say I found the only Maria-sama ga Miteru gasaphon machine in Akiba again and plunked more yen into it until I was satisfied that I got more of the characters — all of them except Yumi.
I planned to leave on the 19:00 pm train to go back to Mito. I missed it by 5 minutes and decided to stick around to the 21:00 pm train. This gave me two hours to kill. I went to Club Sega and played some Street Fighter 4 at 100 yen a pop. A guy over the network handed my ass to me with Blanka.
Then I decided to do the nerdiest thing I could do. You have to if you’re in Akiba, even if it is against your better judgement.
I went to a maid cafe.
There are a bunch. You can’t walk across a street corner without a girl in frilly maid outfit trying to shove an advertisement for her cafe in your hands. I took one for a cafe called Maidreamin’. It was on Chuo-dori sandwiched between the Softmaps and Club Segas. There it was, a neon pink banner slapped onto the side of a nondescript white building.
“What the hell,” I thought and took the elevator up. It would be good. I could get off my feet. I could get away from the Akiba noise and light show outside. Maybe, it being a cafe, I could get some tea to soothe my sore throat and if it was delivered by a girl in frilly dress, then, all the better, right?
The doors opened and a maid greeted me with a deep bow. “Irasshaimase!” (I believe that’s what she yelled at me.)
“Hello,” I said.
One of the girls asked if this was my first time in a maid cafe. To that I said, “yes” and she explained how it worked. Before anything happens, you pay to sit in the maid cafe. 500 yen will get you 30 minutes at the bar. 1000 yen for an hour. 1000 yen will also get you an hour at a table, but if it’s a table you want to come as a group otherwise a single person will have to pay for two people — so 2000 yen if you sit by yourself at a table for 30 minutes. I opted for the bar for 30 minutes.
How shall I describe the room? It’s pinku. Pinku everywhere. The walls were pinku. The sofas. The karaoke stage. The room’s not big. The bar was a white counter with a pink heart shaped end. I had a basket under my feet to tuck my belongings into so I could keep them off the ground. To my left and behind me was a small kitchen. The floor was wood and spotless. When I sat down, a waitress, uh, maid, came over with the Japanese and English menus. You could have dinner here, but none of that seemed appetizing. I opted for maple strawberry tea and a parfait — a really expensive one by the maid’s suggestion — it was 1300 yen. Figures, of course, she’d pick the a really expensive one as a recommendation, but I went along with it. Why not? It was supposed to be fun after all.
As I waited for my food and tea to arrive, one of the maids came by every now and then to chat with me. I suppose it’s apart of her job description, but then again, of all the maids working there, she was the only one that spoke with any semblance of English. I’m sure a lot of American otakus come to Japan, so having someone on staff to speak the language is good for business. Our conversation wasn’t deep; it wasn’t like I discussed Nietzsche with her or anything. Regardless, it was nice to try and hash out a conversation in my native tongue.
She asked me where I was from. “California,” It told her. That got some big “OoooOos.”
Later on she walked by again and asked, “How long are you in Japan?”
“Just a week.”
Later on, “Where are you staying?”
“I’m staying in Mito at my friend’s.”
It seems like I didn’t say much, but I tend to write curt dialogue. Plus I don’t remember everything I said to her. A lot of it also was just repeating the same thing over again because I said it too fast.
A different girl than the one talking to me brought my tea out. She knelt down on the otherside of the counter and set the kettle in front of me with the grace of a young woman trying to be a trained geisha. “Here is your tea, master!” She said with a flourish of her hands. So there it was. The “master” bit. The part that made Michael Moore on his visit to Akihabara blurt out, “Oh no, we’re not your masters!” It’s goofy. I understand it’s meant to be polite in a strange way. I also figure, it’s just something she’s paid to say. So I just smiled back and thanked her. “Would you like milk or sugar?” she asked.
“Both would be nice.”
I watched her prepare my cup of tea, but before I could have it we had to do one more thing. I call it an “incantation.” She put her fingers together to form the shape of a heart to her right, then her left and then in the middle of her chest and splayed her hands out. “Now, you and me!” I grinned. Okie-dokie. I mimed her moves and when she seemed pleased and moved off I cured my scratchy throat with a cup of tea.
My parfait was brought out with similar fanfare. Again before I could eat it, the same maid knelt down on the otherside of the counter and had me mime an incantation with her. This time she had me trace a heart with my fingertips, then a heart to the left, then right, then cat ears. “Kupi, Kupi, Kupi, Nyah nyah!” I repeated after her. I suppose if the point is to make you smile, even if its goofy, it works. You can’t help it.
The parfait was a mile high and probably gave me diabetes. It’s two scoops of ice cream over Del Monte fruit and a bed of cornflakes — I don’t know why cornflakes, but I hear the Japanese love courne, I mean, corn. Over the ice cream scoops it’s whipped cream used to stick a small pie crust down. On the pie crust is a dollop of pudding. On top of that more whipped cream used to hold down another little cookie with a dog shaped face on it. I ate the entire parfait and when they girls came around again they uttered “Sugoi! Suuugoi!!” as if, while in the kitchen, they were colluding with one another while making the damn thing and saying, “I bet that idiot foreigner couldn’t finish this!” Just so you know, we Americans have bottomless stomachs. Where else in the world can you get a 72 oz steak and get it free if you chow it down in an hour? How about a mammoth breakfast burrito? Or a pizza that has to be custom delivered in the back of a pickup truck and is larger than most Japanese apartments in terms of square footage? Where else can you get a 6 lb hamburger made from the tomatoes, cheese, bread, and hamburger meat of lesser hamburgers? America. That’s where. We have no problem eating this kind of stuff.
As I sat there enjoying the ambiance, another foreigner — he was a white guy — entered the cafe and sat down at the opposite end of the bar and one of the maids began the same shtick with him. A group of young Japanese guys entered and took a table. They seemed to have the most fun. At some point all of the maids were clapping and yelling what I might equate to “chug chug chug” at a frat party. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but it looked fun and/or crazy.
I talked some more with the only maid that could speak English and as a last thing to do, I snapped a photo with her for 500 yen. I got my pick of the harem, but even when I was presented with the entire roster of girls, I pointed at her from across the room. I connected with her the most. Mainly because she spoke English. For 500 yen, they turn the lights up and bring you up to the karaoke stage. I was handed a pair of gaudy cat ears and made the nyan-nyan Asian pose. Another girl brought out a giant Polaroid camera and snapped us in the moment. Me and my maid. Something I’ll remember forever. 500 yen forever. I guess.
She drew some cute little things over the photo and gave it to me. I realized, I didn’t know her name, but she told me it was Midori. “It means green,” she said. That I actually knew.
I had paid to stay to 8:45 PM but I had a train to catch. I wanted to cut out early which seemed to surprise them, as if no one had done that before. You don’t pay until your allotted time is up which is how it works. I tried to ask one of the non-English speaking maids if I could pay the bill. When I spoke to her, she laughed nervously and immediately searched the room for Midori and waved her over. I tried to explain to Midori that I wanted to pay the bill and leave and she eventually understood. Once I had paid they waited for me to enter the elevator (i.e. I was politely getting kicked out) and Midori bowed deeply. I gave her a little bow. She stayed that way until the elevator doors closed.
I spent 3000 yen there for the right to sit at the bar, have some tea, a parfait, get a photograph taken to commemoriate the experience, and get a little “magic” candle trinket.
I had written some observations about the maid cafe experience, but I chopped it out of the article. If you want some culture shock and humor, here it is.
The next day I spent traveling to the airport. I bid Kenny farewell around 7 in the morning. He went off to work. I did my laundry and prepared for my long journey home. No more pictures. No more Tokyo. No more buying things. The night before I managed to stuff all my toys into a backpack I carried along with me. I had three bags going home. I wheeled everything precariously down the back alley to the Mito Station around noon and got to Ueno around 1:30 pm. From there I headed down to Tokyo Station and took the N’EX to Narita. There were things to see around Narita, but admittedly, I was done. I checked my bags. I crossed through security. I massaged my weary back in one of the massage chairs onsite, and then caught my plane at 6:45 pm. I left Tuesday evening. I arrived home Tuesday morning. I didn’t sleep at all on the plane since some parents can’t silence their spawn. On my way out of SFO, I saw the SFPD and paramedics holding down a man screaming in anguish.
It’s good to be back in America.