What do Christians, ninjas and cats have in common?
Christians, ninjas, and cats. These are just a selection of the inspirations behind the various themed cafes that can be found all over Japan. While themed cafes exist across the globe, Japan seems to have a particular love for these venues. New ones pop up on an almost weekly basis, some temporarily, while others become a permanent fixture. In Japan, it seems anything and everything is worthy of a whole cafe dedicated to celebrating its existence, as long as someone has the vision and determination to make it happen.
As fun as it is to get caught up in the weirdness of strange and specific cafes (and I assure you, we will do that), one does wonder about the broader trend of themed cafes in Japan and what their ubiquity can be attributed to.
One contributing factor could be ‘otaku’ culture. You may have heard this word before, as it has managed to creep into the periphery of the English language. It is commonly used in anime (animations) and manga (graphic novels) subcultures to describe someone with a passion for these forms of Japanese media. But in the original Japanese context, an otaku could be compared to a super fan, specifically someone with an all-consuming fixation on a particular interest.
The realms of otaku hobbies are not restricted to anime, manga or even similar types of entertainment. It can be train-spotting, or a compulsion to memorise every fact about a favourite historical period. A beer otaku may be committed to travelling the world to try every country’s specialty beverage. The only prerequisite for being an otaku is that your love for this particular hobby takes over a significant portion of your life, possibly to the detriment of your bank balance, social life, career, or all of the above.
The word derives from ‘o-taku’ – a respectful way to refer to someone else’s home or family. The use of the word by anime and manga enthusiasts to jokingly refer to each other may have started as far back as the 1970s. Although this extreme fan culture conjures up negative stereotypes in Japan, and many are quick to distance themselves from the otaku label, there’s no doubt that otaku culture is thriving. Even among the group’s detractors, there’s a begrudging respect in the famously overworked Japan for those who dedicate their free time to something they truly love.
With scores of otaku who will attend any event that the name of their favourite pastime or current media obsession is attached to, themed cafes are sure to be a successful endeavour for any business. Temporary cafes based on particularly popular animations, such as the iconic Sailor Moon series, can get fully booked up almost as soon as reservations open, or compel fans to line up for hours just to taste a burger that looks like an anime cat’s head.
Speaking of the food, the menus are often filled with elaborate fare, ingeniously crafted to mimic various motifs and perfectly fit the cafe’s theme. For example, the famous ‘Harajuku Kawaii Monster Cafe’ liberally used food colouring to create dishes that resemble psychedelic unicorn vomit, perfectly encompassing the cute, eccentric, and kind of creepy Harajuku fashion that inspired the eatery (although it sadly closed down recently).
Along with concept-appropriate food, drinks, and cafe interior, for a fully immersive culinary experience the staff have got to get in on the act too. One themed eatery, where the staff almost stubbornly remain in character, is the ninja restaurant which can be found in Akasaka, Tokyo. Guests are welcomed by a fully disguised ninja jumping out of a trick wall. They are then guided through a gruelling ‘ninja training course’ before being seated at their table in ‘Ninja Village’.
Perhaps a ninja cafe in Japan isn’t all that surprising, and it’s definitely a popular tourist spot, but more unexpected niches are filled by the plethora of themed cafes. The ‘Christon Cafe’ in Tokyo is a ‘Christian church’ themed restaurant with a surreal mix of Catholic iconography and modern-day goth aesthetics. The interior is populated with statues of Jesus and The Virgin Mary, and diners can order light-up cocktails while admiring the stained glass windows and several chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
But back to the cute side of things, the Japanese are also often credited with popularising a type of cafe which has made its way over to the UK. As controversial as animal cafes might be, cat cafes have exploded in popularity across Japan. In 2005, there were just 3 locations nationwide, but the number rose to a hundred times that in just ten years. One theory to explain the demand for these cafes is the fact that many apartments in Japan don’t allow pets, and animal lovers have jumped at the chance to enjoy a hot beverage and relax while surrounded by feline friends.
While many people go to themed cafes for fun, or out of curiosity, those who visit out of a genuine love for the represented theme can feel at home surrounded by their fellow otaku. So if you’re planning a trip to Japan, and happen to be a particular fan of something… anything… it might be worth researching the themed cafe scene in advance. Perhaps your obsession is also represented in the myriad of strange and wonderful themed cafes the country has to offer.
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