''WELCOME home, master!'' is the typical greeting at Maidolce cafe.
In a country with no shortage of concept cafes, Maidolce in Osaka's Nipponbashi district, strives to create the concept of ''home''. That is, if your home happens to be staffed by teenage Japanese girls dressed as French maids (''meidos''), eager to wait on you hand and foot.
Japan is estimated to have more than 100 meido cafes. About 20 of them are in Nipponbashi, Osaka's equivalent of Akihabara Electric Town in Tokyo, which has about 30. These inner-city districts cater to the obsessions of ''otaku'' (Japanese geeks).
The maid has been popularised in otaku culture through anime, manga and computer games. In part, the meido phenomenon taps into the importance of politeness and ritual within Japanese culture, as well as ''moe'' - an adoration or fetish for anime, manga and computer game characters.
Maidolce is now in its sixth year. At 2pm on a Saturday, the lunch rush is just drawing to a close. The maids range in age from 15 to their early 20s, dressed in variations of a short, tight-fitting pinafore over a frilly petticoat and knee-high stockings. Some maids wear fluffy rabbit or cat ears while one sports dyed pink hair and a pair of red plastic horns. There are 10 on duty, attending to about 30 customers. A small bell is placed on each table so that customers, who are mostly single males, can summon a maid.
''I saw you running in the street, master!'' exclaims 19-year-old Haruki to Shun, 20, as she clears his table. ''I wanted to say hello, but missed my chance.'' A conversation ensues on Shun's new fitness regime. It is hardly surprising that they are on such familiar terms. Shun, an engineer who declined to give his second name, has been a regular at Maidolce for a year. ''I like having conversations with different meidos,'' he explains, ''but Haruki is my favourite because she's friendliest to me.''
There are, however, limits to customer-maid interaction. Visitors to Maidolce are forbidden to request personal information from maids (including their contact details and working hours) or touch them. Yet it is possible to request a reflexology massage by trained maids in a room upstairs. Kouichi Fukuda, Maidolce's 40-something manager, interviews about 50 aspiring meidos each month. ''Firstly, meidos must have the common sense of adults because they have to provide good customer service,'' he explains. ''They also have to co-operate with other meidos. If they don't they will be fired.'' He admits that some meido cafes are of a more sexual nature, while others are in a cabaret style with performing meidos.
Meido cafes have a high staff turnover. The work, which offers one of the few opportunities for cosplay (dress up) enthusiasts to be paid for their hobby, is not particularly lucrative in one of the world's most expensive cities. Maids at Maidolce receive 850 yen ($A10) an hour, plus extra for reflexology and for personally signed photographs of themselves with customers. Another downside of employment at Maidolce is that staff have a use-by date. The cafe's webpage seeks prospective maids no older than 25.
Utena, a meido with pink hair and red plastic horns, recently celebrated her fourth year at Maidolce. She lists her favourite hobbies as the martial art of kendo, punk rock, gambling and drinking. ''I used to come here as a customer,'' she says. ''There was one meido that I admired so much. I wanted to be like her.'' When asked her age, she is jokingly evasive. ''I'm devil! Devils are ageless!''