The era of the Geisha for the most part has ended, but the cultural tradition of larger than life females remains very much alive. Outside traditional areas in cities like Kyoto, there are very few Geisha to be found in Japan these days, but in their place are virtually endless varieties of “Fantasy Girls.” Samurai used to pay elaborately dressed Geisha to sing, dance, and generally make them feel good about themselves after a long day working for their lord. In modern times, “shain” 社員 (company men) can choose their own “Fantasy Girl” to perform the same function. In many cases, the purpose of their service goes beyond simple physical attractiveness to provide an avenue of escapism through individual attention, fantastic scenarios, and over-the-top service. People come from around the world to participate in the many fantastic worlds created by Japan’s “Fantasy Girls,” and this post should serve as an introduction to what all the fuss is about by presenting a few well known groups of women (sometimes men) who set the stage for fantasy: キャバクラ (Kyabakura), ホステスクラブ／ホストクラブ (Host/Hostess Club), スナックバー (Snack Bar), and メイドカフェ (Maid Cafes).
キャバクラ – Kyabakura
キャバクラ “Kyabakura” (referred to by some as hostess or host bars), ホステスクラブ “Hostess Clubs,” and スナックバー “Snack Bars” are all very similar in that they involve beautiful women and men who are dressed almost comically elegantly and are supposed to make you feel like a big shot…as long as you have cash.
The word キャバクラ (kyabakura) is made from a combination of the words cabaret and club. I guess it’s kind of like a Las Vegas cabaret show that comes to you! This type of establishment also has the same kind of bad reputation as Las Vegas has: full of organized crime, substance abuse, prostitution, illegal immigrant workers, and exploitation of women (and men). While this negative stereotype has a lot of traction, and has even attracted some action from the Japanese government, キャバクラ are so widespread throughout Japan that the moral standing of the establishment varies from location to location.
In Kyabakura, The Experience Should Be Like This:
A man or women dressed as if he or she is about to go to the Academy Awards will approach you from outside the establishment and tell you about all the beautiful women (or men) inside the kyabakura and should you decide to go inside the clock immediately starts on your service charge (warning: this is how a lot of foreigners lose all their money very quickly). Once inside, either a girl (or boy) will be chosen for you or you can pick from a menu. From that point, you are seated with the partner you chose who dotes on you hand and foot, flirts with you, animatedly listens to stories about your boring life, and constantly praises you. All this is done over very expensive drinks, and typically one is encouraged to buy an entire bottle of liquor for use on multiple occasions, i.e. they really want you to come back. Depending on the location, once the night is over you will get a little kiss and then a flurry of text messages telling you how amazing you are and to come back as soon as possible. If you develop a relationship with a particular hostess or host, sometimes paid dates, called “douhan” 「同伴」 outside the club are permitted to encourage loyalty to the particular kyabakura. This practice is morally gray to say the least, but in theory these dates are limited to casual flirting only. Once you leave the kyabakura you will feel like a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders…or wallet…I forget which one comes first.
This Japanese news report is kind of like an insiders guide to the girls inside kyabakura (a relatively un-sketchy one).
ホステスクラブ – Hostess Club
Take the concept of kyabakura, multiply the price and staff physical attractiveness factor by at least 10, add incredibly wealthy people, subtract most of the illegal activities, and you have a hostess club!
There will be no one begging you to come inside this establishment. These types of clubs are highly exclusive, often the meeting place for very high ranking members of society, and located in high class areas of big cities like the Ginza district in Tokyo. If you want in, there is typically no fee per hour, but in the best ones you need to shell out over $100K to get access (yes, in US DOLLARS… not that US dollars are worth that much anymore, though). The workers here are generally taken care of very well by a former hostess called Mama-san, and often have successful modeling careers during and after their time as employees. Sometimes they get married to celebrities or high ranking officials who frequent the club. The women are highly trained in the skills of making you feel good about yourself and are on the forefront of fashion trends. Definitely not unlike Geisha right?! This type of celebrity like status is what allures a lot of young women into the business, but a high quality place like this is usually not were they end up.
ホストクラブ – Host Club
One interesting difference between the “Age of the Geisha” and now is the inclusion of men as servers in Japan’s night time industry. Host Clubs work almost exactly the same way as Hostess Clubs, but are typically not as high class and include a rainbow of gender preferences: female or male customers who like males, female or male customers who like very feminine males or cross dressing males, female or male customers who like females dressed as males, and the list goes on and on. No matter what type of male they are, you can be assured that they are very confident, cool, fashionable, and oozing with money.
スナックバー – Snack Bar
A snack bar is like the smaller cousin to kyabakura. These places typically are not the epicenter of modern fashion, but are more like hangouts for everyday salary men that would rather hang out with younger, probably foreign girls, than go home to their wife. These places often have a variety of options for activities to do together like billiards, karaoke, darts, drinking, and eating. It’s like going to a bar with a hot young girlfriend who does nothing but praise your every action and encourage you to drink as much as you want! Definitely a fantasy world, and you’ll end up paying for it when the bill comes. Unlike kyabakura, snack bars are a little bit more on the “honor system” in that if you really like the service you should leave a substantial tip. Snack Bars are also not as hardcore as kyabakura about getting you to come back over and over again through financial and emotional pressure, so it’s typically a good option for foreign visitors.
This set up is pretty normal. It’s pretty much just a bar where the female bartenders and staff are extra nice, so you tip them accordingly.
メイドカフェー – Maid Cafe
We have just left the Salary Man’s escape and have moved on to Otaku-land: 秋葉原 AKIHABARA!! Of course it is very easy to find numerous salary men (Japanese term for someone working 9-5 at a large company) who also lead dual lives as serious Otaku (basically “nerd” in Japanese). Akihabara is a section of Tokyo where the Otaku culture is at its peak, and chances are as soon as you step off the JR train, you’ll be greeted by a very cute Japanese girl dressed up like a French maid who will pose in pictures with you and invite you to her cafe.
“WELCOME TO AKIHABARA MASTER!!”
The predominant maid cafe style is where the maids treat you as though you are royalty and they are lowly, but very cute servants and dote on you hand and foot (see a pattern here at all?). They will compliment you, tell you that you are handsome, put ketchup on your omelet in heart shapes while sitting on their knees at your table, make cute noises like a cat, blow kisses, make heart shapes with their hands, and encourage you to act cutely as well. At many locations, they also play eating and drinking games with various prizes.
One example is that a maid will fix a huge stack of pancakes for you and a tiny pancake for herself and the bet is that if you can eat your pancakes faster than she can, you will get a kiss on the cheek, but if you lose she will slap you in the face in front of the entire restaurant. All of this is done while they speak in an overly cute style called Mo-e “萌え” which in English I suppose would be the equivalent of baby-talk. That sounds like it would get real annoying real fast, but people LOVE it, especially Otaku who don’t ever get attention from pretty girls (funny thing is, a lot of American otaku who learn Japanese on their own, probably using anime, often sound kind of like this… “funny” because it’s funny to listen to them talk like a baby girl). It unfortunately leads to a lot of stalking, but in comparison, maid cafes are free from a lot of the other problems associated with kyabakura. Almost everything you do at the cafe will cost money, from taking pictures to eating contests, and the food is of course at a premium cost, but for people who love Japanese girls dressed and acting like your personal French-maid servant, it is well worth the cost.
The wild thing about maid cafes though is that there are SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS! There are some that are the exact opposite of the description above, and basically involve the maid treating you like a piece of crap and verbally abusing you the entire time you are in the restaurant. Others are for women who like called Butler Cafes, some of which are entirely comprised of European men, who will even carry you around for a fee.
Here’s a link to a video to give you an idea of what exactly happens at a few different types of maid cafes. The first that is shown is the typical style, the second is tsundere “つんでれ” which is basically where they make you think they hate you but in the end they show they really like you, and lastly is like samurai adventure where they do mock battles while you eat epically named food. Tofugu even wrote about a pretty creepy maid cafe a while ago: Mom Cafes.
Disneyland – but far more creepy
One new style of maid cafe that’s real real weird is called “kigurumi” 着ぐるみ which is basically some one wearing a head to toe costume like in Disneyland, but in this case it’s much more otaku adult themed…
This place is just like a regular maid cafe except the people dressed in anime costumes do not talk, but write on whiteboards to communicate with you. This sounds like a bad horror movie! To each his/her own I guess…
Japan’s Fantasy Girls – Past and Present
There are of course many many differences between Geisha in the past and the present form of fantasy girls in Japan, but the connection is clear: women (and men) in this industry provide a service that goes beyond the physical excitement present in similar services originating in the West like strip clubs, Hooters, etc. The people performing all of these services in Japan are of course physically attractive, but more so they are experts in creating atmosphere where the customer feels removed from the world they live in and receive special individual attention. In the West, people pay two separate groups: one to listen to their problems like counselors, and one that is unrealistically physically appealing like strip dancers. In Japan however, they have a tradition of combining those roles that arguably has roots during the time of the Geisha.
This post was written by Nick W., who has traveled throughout many regions of Japan in search of unique cultural gems. He is currently earning his MBA and has researched topics like folk music in WWII Japan and Ainu cultural revival through music. His favorite Japanese musician is the late Nujabes. He has experienced great amounts of culture shock when unknowingly encountering kyabakura hostesses. In hindsight it was hilarious.