Geeking Out in Tokyo

After my peaceful time at Meiji Jingu Shrine, I headed back into the forest to get back to the city. On the subway again, I headed towards the anime museum, the Ghibli Museum, in Mitaka, just outside of Tokyo.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I got there, but I was expectiing good things. After all, anime is a big part of Japanese culture, and I had to purchase tickets to the museum beforehand, something I don't think I've ever had to do before. Was this place really so popular that people needed to arrive at an appointed time? With all the annoying transfers and stops, it took an hour to get there from Meiji Jingu.

Even though I had given myself a lot of extra time to get there, I arrived at the museum just on time. The museum itself was like a big stucco mansion. It had multicoloured pastel paint on the outside, and vines and overgrown plants crawling all over the walls; it had the appearance of a child's imaginary house.

Inside, the rooms were no different. They were haphazardly organized with a messy collection of watercolour paintings and piles of objects, from books to toys to old-fashioned machinery. It felt less like a museum and more like an old house, where the loner owner had recently died and now people came to visit the crazy old man's place and see what he had been up to all those years. Most things were interactive; we weren't kept a safe distance from the paintings or books. I flipped through some of the old books of anime ideas, wishing I could read Japanese so I could understand the notes that accompanied the pictures.

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The museum also had a short anime film. Having never watched anime before (with the exception of Sailor Moon--does that even count?), I was quite excited to see the show.

A little girl in a pink dress and pig-tails takes a walk. It's windy outside. She opens a caramel candy, but before she can take a bite, the wind picks up. It blows the candy into the air and disappears. A wind tunnel chases her into her house. The wind tunnel turns into a 6-legged cat. She gives the cat another caramel and she eats one, too. They laugh together. A bigger cat comes, this one with eight or ten legs, and both cats leave.

At night, the little girl is sleeping when the cat comes to her window. The cat's back opens up and she crawls inside. The cat is like a flying car: its eyes light up like headlights and the little girl sits inside like the driver. They go for a ride.

They're passed by bigger and longer flying cat cars, some the size of trains, until they get to a forest. The other cats have purple-grey, egg-like alien animals inside. In the forest, the cats bodies disappear as they drop the aliens to the ground. The little girl seems to be confused as she watches all these creatures walk by her, until she sees a big, bear-like animal carrying an umbrella walk by. She runs up to it and gives it a big hug.

A huge, multi-storey flying cat car appears. It is so big it can carry all the alien creatures together, and they're all loaded up inside. The little girl gives it a caramel candy. It eats it, then licks the little girl's entire body with its giant tongue. She just laughs. She licks its nose and then they both laugh together.

The 6-legged cat returns and the little girl gets inside. It takes her home, with her laughing all the way.

I sat still at the end, with one big question in my head: What the heck was that about?

Sufficiently weirded out, I decided to get back on the subway and head for another Tokyo neighbourhood: Akihabara, the geek neighbourhood of this geeky country. Japan as a whole is like Akihabara: everything "geek" is cool here. A short walk around the area revealed a large number of video game shops and even more manga (Japanese comics) stores.

I walked around a few of these manga stores, even heading down into the 18+ sections. I was curious: could there really be cartoon for adults' eyes only? Yes, and it's called hentai, and it's creepy. I felt awkward being in the porno rooms with the businessmen, flipping though comic books with not-so-innocent Sailor Moons. The worst part though, was coming across the live-action porn, with a large number of children. When I saw pre-tween little girls dressed in bikinis and posing seductively to the camera. I knew it was time for me to get out of there; I wasn't so curious anymore.

Besides video games and manga, Akihabara is also known for its "maid cafes." After my awkward encounter with hentai and little girls in bikinis, I was a little weary of entering a maid cafe, where the servers are dressed in maid costumes. Was it a "boys only" kind of thing? Would it be a little more sexually charged than I can handle right now? I finally decided that I was, again, too curious to pass it up and, worst-case senario, would just bolt out of there it got weird.

Ads for a "maid cafe"

Ads for a "maid cafe"

I passed by a few cafes before taking a deep breath and heading back to the first one I saw, where cute, costumed girls were standing out front to attract customers. I quickly sat down and order a Coke and slice of chocolate cake.

The cafe was decorated like a dollhouse: cute, not sexy at all. The place was simple, with long, unadorned tables and chairs. The focus, it seemed, was on the girls. The girls, as advertised, were all dressed as French maids, though each had her own style. Most outfits were the traditional black and white, though some were pink or blue. They each had crowns in their hair and high white socks. Looking around, there were only men around me. I wondered if it was unusual for a single girl like me to be there.

After watching the action around me as I ate, I was left with a lot of questions. Mostly, "Why?"  I wondered why the girls knelt down to talk with the boys they served. I wondered why they did this "heart dance" (for lack of a better name) after they served the food, where they made a heart with their fingers and"danced" it around the plate of food. And I wondered why they didn't do the dance with me. I wondered why, when they had some downtime, the girls knelt down and scrubbed the floor with a cloth. I wondered why there was a white girl working there. I wondered why someone would pay 1500 yen for a 3-minute video of themselves talking with one of the French maid waitresses. I wondered how these maid cafes came about in the first place.

One of the waitresses spoke English and, when I was feeling brave again, asked her a lot of my questions. "This started out as a geek thing," she said when I asked her if they ever had girls come in alone, "but now it's like a sightseeing thing. Don't feel weird. I girl came in by herself just before you." Whether she was lying or not, I felt better. About the mysterious heart dance, she said, "It's to put magic in the food. It's like we're putting our love in your food." So geeky.