March 6, 2007

Maid Cafés in Japan

January 15th 社会研究調査

As part of a societal cultural research learning field trip, Benkei and I went with a friend of his to the Pinafore Maid Cafe. We went on a Wednesday evening, in the rain. This actually turned out to be pretty important, but more on that later.

I went to and wrote about Maid Cafés in Japan once before, but that was an individual trip, I went on my own, alone. This time, I was going in prepared, with comrades and advanced information: According to Benkei's friend K, we were going to one of the most representative Maid Cafés in Akihabara. The place was actually pretty small, and quite busy so we had about a half hour wait before we were seated. The Maids were all very cute (a prerequisite for working there?) and very polite, to the point that I might need to study more honorific Japanese to understand the conversations completely.

The food was slightly more expensive than what you would find in a regular café, but not unreasonably expensive. The menu was quite heavy on the desserts, but the meal section was a bit sparse, with perhaps five major items. The most popular item (I presume) is the "Loving Omelette Rice", which is regular Omelette Rice where the Maid writes something on the Omelette in ketchup for you. Of course, you are allowed to choose what the maid will write, but the picture in the menu is "LOVE", with cute hearts around the side of the plate. A very cute dish.

I think the idea of writing on your food, giving it a semantic meaning and clearly-defined role, is a great one. I asked that the Maid write "栄養" (nutrition, nourishment) on my rice. She seemed a bit daunted (she was actually a Maid-in-training) but wanted to give it the old college try, and decided to write the Kanji characters. Unfortunately, she was a bit off and wrote something that looked more like "労良" (not a Japanese word, but maybe "work, labor, good"). Honestly, I probably wouldn't have noticed the difference, but Benkei's got a keen eye, and picked up on it immediately. K asked for the Maid to write her name, and the Maid, somewhat shaken by her earlier missed attempt, used incorrect characters for the name as well, but Benkei didn't say anything until after the Maid left. Still, I was impressed: I always thought that the line on Japanese youth today is that they can't write Kanji at all, and what I asked for is a fairly difficult word.

One of the interesting things about the place was, of course, the clientèle. There were a lot of people that seemed to be the classic Otaku, loners who looked a bit shy and lonely, and who positively lit up when the Maids talked to them. I can understand how targeting that demographic could be lucrative, as they might develop a fancy for a favorite maid and become regular customers. Surprisingly though, there were also some groups of very normal looking people, a salary-man or two, and a few women in the café. I'm beginning to think that Maid Cafés in Japan are just a kind of mini theme park, or some sort of Las Vegas theme microcosm.

As we checked out, we were told about the point system. They have a point card that accumulates points based on how much you spend. There are various multipliers that can increase the number of points that you get. We hit two multipliers on this trip: it was raining outside (x2 multiplier) and there was a female in our party (x2 multiplier, which is a very revealing one!) Because of this, my card filled up to about 20 points. At 15 points you get a laminated card with a Maid character (anime style) on it, and at 30 points you get another card and you can take a picture with a maid. I didn't mention it, but all of these places have very strict prohibitions against photography. They use the promise of photographs as a reward for return visits! Another avenue towards profitability.

Since Benkei was going back to America, and K didn't seem too excited about going back to the café I got the point card by default.

March 5th

A friend of mine from the US, Panos, went to Hiroshima to give an invited talk for a conference and then came to Tokyo for three days for a visit. Since we both went to Columbia together, he called me up and we decided to get together for dinner on Monday night. Panos has come to Japan a few times previously so wasn't interested in the usual tourist options, but when he said that he was staying close to Akihabara, I knew I had to take him to the unusual Maid side of Tokyo. I took him back to Pinafore, and we had dinner. This time I also got a 4x point multiplier (2x because it was raining again, and 2x because it was a weekday and we finished our stay within 60 minutes) so I collected another laminated maid card and a card for a picture with a maid if I ever go back.

I thought it would be nice to get a drink after dinner, so I did some searching to find interesting places in Akihabara. I had heard about a bar where you go and can play games of chance with the Maids (yep, another Maid themed place) like paper-rock-scissors to get a possible half-off the drink price, but it seems like that placed closed down. Too many customers getting drinks for half-price? People really love paper-rock-scissors here, so it is possible. A quick search turned up a crazy number of maid-themed places. There are even maid cafes in Roppongi and Ginza now: they are spreading out beyond Akihabara. There was a place that looked very interesting though: the witch bar unattico-sttrega. We went there and had a few drinks. It was a fairly nice bar that was like any other bar, except all the bartenders were cute women dressed up like witches. Which is somewhat surreal, but that is Akihabara for you. There were only six customers, two Japanese men at the bar, the two of us, and then later on two women came in and sat at a table. There was a 600 yen charge for sitting at the bar, and 300 yen to sit at a table, and then the drinks which were a bit expensive. We had some sake, and then since each Witch has a special cocktail, we each had one of the cocktails. One of the witches was complaining that she hadn't made her special cocktail in a while, and had forgotten what it was! They both turned out quite nice though.

After that Panos and I parted ways, since he had to catch a plane back to New York the next day, and was dead tired. Sadly, he will probably be about adjusted to the time difference tomorrow, when he leaves, and then will have a crappy week back in the US as he tries to re-adjust to US time. One week is just too short of a trip to get used to the time difference well.

I think Panos had a good time, we certainly had a lot to talk about, but now I feel a little bad about introducing odd aspects of Japan to tourists. I always worry that the Western media only picks up the strange and unusual stories from Japan, ignoring the many similarities there are here with normal city life. Still, those few unusual stories are quite interesting.

I'm not sure when or if I'll go back to a maid café, but I feel like I should at least go back once to use up my picture card.

January 23, 2007

Let's pound rice together (not a euphemism)

Last weekend, on Sunday I left my apartment to get something for lunch and ran into the local rice pounding festival. I guess these festivals are common during the New Year, since they are basically about making that delicious Japanese pounded rice treat Mochi. Mochi is used for a lot of things, but generally is like a sticky semi-sweet taffy, but from rice. It can be used in all sorts of ways, but for the festival that I went to (completely by accident, but since I live close by I trotted out my camera) they sold the final product in a little plastic box and put on some sweetener. There were three kinds, two of which I didn't know, and one I did, Anko, Japanese Azuki bean, which is what I ended up buying. It was pretty good.

The more interesting part for me though was the actual rice pounding. There were lots and lots of kids and parents there, so it seems like a thing you do as a family. I waited my turn in line, and was a bit worried about horning in on the kids' fun, but it turns out that everything was ok. They need to have a few reasonably good pounds (maybe thirty or forty?) on the rice before it is really done. They had a shop in the back that would bring out some of the rice that had been pounded to start with, but wasn't completely done. Then they would as for an adult (always a father) to pound on it for a while, or the older man in the green would do it if nobody volunteered. After a good number of vigorous whacks with the big hammer, they would bring out the small hammer and let kids (sometimes helped out by their parents) pound the rice for a while. So when a new batch came out I gave it a go, and after some brief explanation I banged away at the rice for a while. It was very satisfying.

Afterwards, I waited about half an hour in a line to buy the resulting snack. No discount even though I helped out. I took lots of pictures of all the kids having fun. They really had great big smiles and looked like they really enjoyed it.

October 25, 2006

Whale cutlets in the Cafeteria?!?

Today for lunch in the office cafeteria one of the set lunches was a fried cutlet thing. Usually (almost always) this is a pork fried cutlet option that comes with rice, some miso soup, a small salad, and some tofu. I assumed that is what it was today, but when I looked at the card, it said that it was whale cutlets. Whale? I was surprised. I'm pretty sure that, for the most part, whale hunting is outlawed. I know that of all the countries that do engage in whaling, Japan is one of the more prolific countries, but I was still quite surprised to see whale show up on a standard cafeteria lunch menu.

I just assumed that you could get whale in Japan, but that it was more of a specialty item, not something that shows up in cafeterias. It would be like a standard US cafeteria serving foie gras or something. Sure, you can get foie gras at specialty places, but you wouldn't expect it to show up somewhere completely regular.

Of course, I had to try it. Sadly, it was disappointing. I would have much preferred pork cutlets, and somehow the idea of eating whale just didn't sit well with me.

It did make a nice addition to a week in which I had already eaten something strange. Over the weekend, there was the 19th Annual Oyamadai Festival, a standard Japanese street fair kind of thing, with little stalls on the street side and so on. One of the places was for the local horse sashimi place. They had grilled horse on a stick for 100 yen, so I tried a piece. It actually tasted pretty good, but again I had a hard time with the concept of eating horse, so I don't really think it is something I will eat again. I'm certainly not ready to try raw horse, even though one of my French co-workers says it is just delicious. If I ever feel the need though, I do have a place within a three minute walk of my house that serves it.

Oh Japan, you are such a convenient country! You think of everything!

October 1, 2006

Adventures in Cooking: Omurice

I haven't had the time to cook since I got to Japan. While I was at IKEA the other day buying a new sofa, I also picked up a Skänka wok for about 2,500 yen. I thought it would be a good time to test it out.

I'm big fan of Omurice. (Omelette rice - basically fried rice wrapped up in an ommlette.) I thought I would give cooking some Omurice a go. Based on this recipie for Omurice I started on some Omurice of my own. I also added a paprika and some bacon to the mix, and for the sauce in addition to ketchup I used some Tonkatsu Sauce which is just amazingly great.

I didn't do such a good job on the Omelette part, but the rest of it was just great. I ended up with six "omlettes" but that's only because I had six eggs. I'm also left with a lot of fried rice, so I'm set for the next week. As long as I don't get tired of it...

April 23, 2006

Cooking, writing, and revising

This weekend has been consumed entirely by writing and revising, with a short break in between to cook dinner. I'm trying to finish off a fellowship application by Sunday, but I also wanted to cook, something I haven't done for a long time. I decided I'd make my standard spaghetting meat sauce (mushrooms, multi-colored peppers, hamburger meat, and tomato sauce base) for spaghetti that would hopefully feed me a few times in the coming week. I also made garlic french bread (burned, as usual) and onion potatoes. These potatoes are really great, my mom has made them a few times. Basically you marinate some cut up potatoes in onion soup mix and oil, then bake them for about half an hour until they are soft. I couldn't find the onion soup mix that I usually would use, but did find some "onion consume" which worked, but the flavors were a bit weak. Still, they were pretty good.

Anyway, it was nice to take a few hours off from writing to cook and have dinner with Tai and Aya. I would like to cook more often, but I'll have to learn some new tricks if I do. I've already made curry a few times, and Gyuudon would be expensive here. I might try Oyakodon soon though.

April 2, 2006

Hamarikyuu Park and Monjya-yaki

F. and I went for a walk in Tokyo on Saturday. We first went to Hamarikyuu Park, and looked at some of the cherry blossoms. They are just about in full bloom now. NHK was there filming, which we later saw on TV that night. Hamarikyuu Park has a pine tree that is 300 years old. It's a pretty impressive tree.

After the park, we walked through Tsukiji, and went to a place that specialized in Monjya-yaki. Monjya-yaki is like Okonomiyaki, only it doesn't thicken up as much. It was quite good. We had an order of Cod fish eggs (mentaiko, 明太子) and a mix of shrimp, octopus and something else. It was very nice. I think architects and artists would like monjya-yaki (a Tokyo-area specialty I'm told) because first you have to build a restraining wall with space in the middle out of the solid ingredients, cook it a bit, and then pour in the soupy stuff, and cook it all together a bit. Once it has firmed up a bit, you mix the stuff up and cook it through, then eat it up. Good stuff.

On the way to dinner we also passed by the Tsukiji Hongwan temple, which is a very unusual temple architecturally. It looks more like it follows in Indian architectural tradition. It was closed though, so I didn't get to find out very much about it.

October 12, 2005

Trip to Hiroshima, do I have to change this website to FuguTabeta.com??

On Tuesday evening I took a train from Tsu to Nagoya, and from Nagoya to Hiroshima on a Hikari Shinkansen. The picture is actually of a Kodama Rail Star train from Hiroshima because the shot I got of my Nozomi 700 Series Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Tokyo didn't turn out well.

On arriving at Hiroshima, I met with Professor Hidetsugu Nanba (難波 英嗣 先生) for a very, very nice dinner. We ate at a place called きっ川, proprieter 吉川 修平 (Kikkawa Shyuuhei). It was a fresh seafood restaurant, small, and with a very nice personable atmosphere. Every dish is described and explained by Mr. Kikkawa before you eat it. I really enjoyed the dinner, it was just excellent. We also had a nice local Sake with the dinner, 雨後の月 (Ugono Tsuki).

The first course was a nice Sashimi, and then there was a baked fish and a stewed fish? There was a great tempura course, and as Mr. Kikkawa explained, the anago (conger eel) was caught earlier that morning by Mr. Tiger, a famous Anago fisherman in Hiroshima that has been catching them for 40 years. It is said that he catches the most delicious Anago. It certainly was delicious.

The next course was a soup with many interesting things, mostly mushrooms and oysters, but there was also Fugu. Yes, Fugu. The namesake of this site, which I've been running since about 2000, but of course I've wanted to try Fugu for much longer than that. Maybe I first heard of it in 1996, in my first long trip to Japan. So, I had the Fugu, and it was delicious. Now, do I have to buy the domain FuguTabeta.com?? (FuguTabetai means "I want to eat Fugu", FuguTabeta would mean "I ate Fugu".)

So if you are ever in Hiroshima, I highly recommend Kikkawa. The phone number there is (082) 241-0002, but you had better know Japanese if you call there. It is a small place, so reservations are recommended.

 

November 25, 2004

Evans Siblings Thanksgiving

Evans Family Thanksgiving Thanksgiving at my place. I even cooked a Turkey, since both of my sisters came here!
 

April 14, 2004

Say Hi To Your Mom

Caught Say Hi To Your Mom at the Mercury Lounge. It was a great show. They are a great band. Had dinner at Waikiki Wally's (a really kitschy Tiki place, sister restaurant to Lucky Cheng's) before that. Really cute ambiance, and surprisingly good food.

March 29, 2004

FuguTabetai.com cookbook

I cook sometimes, so I threw up a cookbook that I wrote for my friends and family. Mostly family, since I bought most of them rice cookers.

September 1, 2002

Hanging around Austin

Avenue Cafe in Austin 9/1/2002 - Alana and Thon got up and ran at 8:00am. I didn't go; I sprained my ankle playing basketball last week. At about noon we went out to get brunch at Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, my sister's favorite place downtown. It's a mexican place. I got a Plato de Churrizo, which is basically refreid beans, and churrizo with egg. Put all that stuff in a tortilla, and it is some pretty good eating. Of course, it didn't feel right having that for breakfast, but still...
Barton Springs Barton Springs In the afternoon, we went to Barton Springs. It's a part of the Austin city parks, basically a few blocks from downtown Austin. It's a natural spring that flows up from limestone which Austin built a nice little park around. The water is always a chilly 68 degrees, so it's pretty cool to go out there on a hot day and relax on the grass, popping in and out of the water. Of course, it was pretty crowded since a lot of Austin seemed to have had the same idea that we did...

For dinner, we went to Mangia, which has the best pizza in Austin, according to my sister. They make a Chicago style deep dish pizza there. The owner is a die-hard runner, and wanted to have a "healthy" pizza, so he created a deep dish spinach double stuffed pizza on whole wheat bread. That is what Alana and Thon ordered, while Dad and I got a double stuffed mushroom, smoked bacon and pineapple pizza on a white crust. It was actually very good. Afterwards, we headed home, and mom and dad took the Allante back to Dallas. Thon, Alana and I headed out to a nearby park with a view of "bat bridge." This is a bridge that has tens of thousands of bats living under it, and at sunset, the bats come out and fly around. We took a seat on a dock near the UT-owned boat house, and settled down to watch. Unfortunately, bat season is just about coming to an end - the bats are migratory and head to Mexico for the winter, and there were not too many out for us to see. On the way back, we stopped at Amy's Ice Cream again, and I got another chocolate (dark chocolate this time) with strawberries and hot fudge, "sundae style" (so the strawberries weren't pounded in to the ice cream.) That improved it, but still it wasn't up to Halo Pub standards.

At home, we watched a few episodes of the Simpsons from the newly acquired season 2 DVD that Thon picked up, and then played a game of scrabble to the Director's cut of Aliens (which Alana has amazingly, never seen before.) I got completely trounced by both Thon and Alana, and we finished off the movie. I'll have to play more scrabble...

August 3, 2002

Max Soho and Showman's

Met up with Y.I. for a video (As Good As It Gets) and dinner. We ate at Max SoHa which is usually pretty good. Then we headed down to Showman's for some drinks and jazz. Pretty fun evening, all told.

July 28, 2002

Fort Tryon Picnic

Fort Tryon PicnicMet some friends at Fort Tryon park near the Cloisters for a picnic. I brought the proverbial bucket of KFC chicken. While walking through the park, I noticed a cute little cafe that I've put on my list of places to try called The New Leaf Cafe. I haven't had good luck with picnics - it was really hot and humid, and at the previous picnic I was on (4th of July 2002) in Central Park it was also amazingly, meltingly hot.

July 27, 2002

The Mercer Kitchen

Brunch downtown at SoHo with Y.I. at a place I've been meaning to try, The Mercer Kitchen. Brunch has been one of my favorite meals lately, and I've been frequenting Kitchenette Uptown, so it was nice to compare. I had a great pancakes with banannas and mixed berries dish. Really fresh, tasty fruit. Afterwards, we checked out the new Apple store (pretty cool!) and did some shopping in the area. I picked up a new candle from Portico and some clothes on sale from Bananna Republic...

July 24, 2002

Some Freak Magazine

Blue haired girl7/24/2002 Evening - Went downtown to meet Benkei and friends. Had dinner at Cafeteria. Looking over the menu, I just had to get the Fried Chicken and Waffles. I love breakfast. I'm a big fan of fried chicken. Why not put them together? Before eating, I took a picture of a cute blue-haired girl. I asked before hand, just because you know, it would be strange otherwise. Not like it wasn't strange enough as it was. Anyway, when I took the picture she said that she had made a face, but I said that was fine, since I didn't want to make her feel like I was hitting on her or anything. As I left, her friend said "Oh great, now you're gonna be in some freak magazine."

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