Maid Cafe’s are, as I’ve written about before, a cultural institution in Japan. So much so that over the years, the conceptual offshoots that have opened in Akihabara’s back alleys range from cute and quirky to batshit bonkers. It’s difficult then to believe that the recently opened Shangrila is Tokyo’s first maid cafe staffed by plus-sized girls, especially considering it’s come quite a while after cafe’s staffed by cat-girls, zombie girls, ninja girls and girls who are actually boys.
Most people are probably aware that the Japanese have a deep-rooted obsession with being thin. It’s a relatively recent thing here to celebrate fuller body types, even more so than anywhere else in the world, and realistically the very idea of Shangrila probably wouldn’t have been possible as much as a year ago. Thanks to popular characters like Super Pochaco, terms like Muchi-Muchi (chubby) or Pochi-Pochi (fat) have recently found favor with many young people, who have, in turn, decided that ‘Marshmallow Girl’ is a much cuter way to describe girls with more meat on their bones. If any of those girls would like to try their hand at the maid thing, usually the exclusive domain of the dainty, Shangrila has come along to answer their prayers.
I should point out that Shangrila hasn’t actually opened yet, and are currently operating afternoons-only out of another cafe called New Type, next to the Animax Cafe. As such the feeling that the whole project has yet to find its feet is almost completely unavoidable. Having gained considerable steam on news sites and social media, Shangrila had promised me so much. Perhaps you’ve heard it’s supposed to have the best pizza in Akihabara, thanks to an Italian chef using a wood burning oven. Perhaps you’ve heard some of its staff are semi-celebrities. Unfortunately, sharing a room with New Type (a cross-dressing maid cafe with a much more gothic tone), means that Shangrila just isn’t currently in a position to offer any of these things. What it can, and does, offer, is a strong case for its concept; that plump maids can be just as cute as their slimmer counterparts.
When I arrived, I was greeted with a mix of enthusiasm, surprise and terror – the normal reaction from Japanese staff who see a foreigner coming and assume they might have to speak English – but after a bit of Japanese conversation, two of the three maids calmed down and settled back into their characters. The third did not, turns out it was her first day working there and she spent every second avoiding eye contact with me and smiling meekly when she occasionally failed.
The first maid, named Histuji (or lamb-chop, as she wished to be called), seemed like she’d been doing it for years. She was adorable, chirpy, friendly, and generally just seemed to be having a great time. I spent most of my hour their talking to the second maid, Nagisamii, about anime, Disney characters, her travels to Europe (which were extensive) and how strange French people can be. Our conversation was interrupted when another customer (a young lady) asked for a photo with all three maids because they were all so cute and she couldn’t possibly choose just one. Everyone laughed, the maids themselves thought it was hilarious, the whole atmosphere was very relaxed and enjoyable. Almost enough to make me forget the rather bizarre question I was asked just moments earlier.
While Hitsuji was clearly running the show, her experience wasn’t the only thing that set her apart from the others. Hitsuji was, by anyones standards, not plump. She was a perfectly normal healthy attractive woman. Not that the others weren’t those things, but let’s remember this is a cafe that sells itself on plus-size staff, and plus-size she certainly wasn’t. Once she’d trotted off to the kitchen with my order, Nagisamii asked me if I liked Marshmallow Girls. When I said yes, she asked me what size girl I liked.
Now, my Japanese is at the point where I frequently mishear things, and so sure was I that I had misunderstood, that I asked her to repeat no less than three times, which lead her to pointing to the individual maids and saying, literally, “S (small), M (medium), or L (large)”. When I finally realized that I wasn’t losing my mind, I didn’t know what to say and just responded with ‘anything is okay’, which in retrospect may have been somewhat insensitive.
Maybe this isn’t a big deal, but to me, it undermined the supposed empowerment many in the west had applauded Shangrila on social media. I’m personally of the belief that there’s a lot more to maid cafe’s than rampant objectification, but if that’s not a belief you share, it doesn’t seem like Shangrila‘s girls are fighting that system, but rather opening the doors to allow the bigger girls in. On the one hand, it’s great to see heavier girls represented in a culture that has for so long derided them, but let’s not pretend this isn’t fetishistic in the same way all the others are. Possibly even more so.
Considering that most maid cafe food is questionable at best, the promise of better food (and a more fitting decor) at it’s permanent location next year is almost enough to guarantee Shangrila will become one of the more interesting maid hangouts in Akiba. Only time will tell if it’s concept will be a hit, but I enjoyed my time there quite a lot, and the others in the room seemed to share my opinion. Next time, I might even fork out the cash for a photo with the girls, they really were that cute.