Is this the craziest place on Earth?

Is Japan the craziest place on Earth? It has to be.

Let's forget, for a second, the Harajuku girls, the cosplay, the lolitas, the J-pop, the fetishised vending machines, the hyper-technical toilets and the freakish neatness of cities that, for their size, really should be polluted hellholes.

Let's jump straight to the maid cafes. Because if ever you needed proof that a seemingly up-tight, hard-working and traditional society can have an unexpectedly bizarre underbelly, it's the maid cafes.

Let's talk about Meow-Meow, my maid café host, who right now doesn't look impressed. She'd been all big smiles and over-the-top enthusiasm a few seconds ago, but the façade is beginning to crack.

"You do it too!" she yells.

"Um... okay," I say, and self-consciously join Meow-Meow in singing a cutesy song that she's directing towards my beer, presumably in an attempt to ... actually, I have no idea what it is an attempt to do. And I don't know what the words to the song are; I just make some noises. And I didn't really get the dance moves that go along with it; I just flail around.

Bill Murray might have thought he was lost in translation sitting in a Tokyo hotel lobby, but he clearly never came here, to the Mai Dreamin' maid café in the same city.

What's a maid café? Well, I'm at one and I still don't really know. It's almost easier to talk about what it's not.

It's not a restaurant, although you can get food. It's not a bar, although you can buy a stiff drink – and you'll need one. It's not a theatre, although there are performances. And it's not a fetish den, although the appeal is vaguely sexual.


Maid cafes started springing up in the early 2000s in Akihabara, Tokyo's bustling, glowing electronics district. Inspired by the locals' fascination with manga and anime, the cafes are a fantasy land for what the Japanese call "otaku", and what we'd call nerds.

The girls who work there – and there are only girls working there – dress in the hyper-real way a manga character would, with short frilly dresses, knee socks and cat ears. It's as if you're dining inside a manga animation, which, if you're into that sort of thing, is highly appealing.

The girls run the cafes like their personal playthings. Customers, all facing the front of the room, are either fawned over embarrassingly, teased, ignored or directly abused, depending on the café and the maid's mood.

Customers at Mai Dreamin' can order food and a maid will draw a smiley cat face on it. They can order drinks that are sung to. For an extra 500 yen they can play a game of Jenga against a maid of their choice.

There are no windows in maid cafes. There are no photos allowed. Customers are expressly told not to touch the maids, or ask for their phone numbers. But it's not seedy. Guys bring their girlfriends along. Business colleagues come on their lunch breaks.

There are about 30 punters at Mai Dreamin' today, all men, all sitting at pink chairs eating ice-cream sundaes decorated with cat faces while five girls in frilly maid outfits sing and dance on a little pink stage.

The maids greet newcomers with a scream of "Irasshaimase!", before curtseying and introducing themselves. "My name is Meow-Meow," one says to me. "I'm a cat!"

Of course you are. I have no way of accurately describing what happens for the hour I spend at Mai Dreamin', because I don't understand any of it. The maids yell things at each other and occasionally pretend to be cats. The customers sit mostly in awed silence, and occasionally applaud.

A lucky dip box is passed around. Meow-Meow hums a cutesy tune as each customer fishes around in the box and pulls out a card. The person next to me wins a cigarette lighter. I win a photo of a maid. Score.

"This is Chi-Chi," Meow-Meow says to me, pointing at the photo. "She very cute. Veeeeeeery cute. Yes?"

"Yes," I nod.

Meow-Meow smiles, satisfied. Then she moves on to the next nerd and starts singing again.

Is Japan the craziest place on Earth? It has to be.

Have you been to a maid café in Japan? Or seen something equally bizarre there? Do you think it's the craziest place on Earth?