“Wait a second. I’m a little lost,” Beacon Akiba boss Kusunoki-san says as we walk through Akihabara on a rainy January evening (it always seems to rain when I’m in Akiba). Even though Akihabara isn’t quite as maze-like as some other neighborhoods in Tokyo, it’s got its share of twists and turns. This is by no means a bad thing. Akiba seems to slowly reveal itself over repeat expeditions, rewarding pilgrims who make it here more than once.
But right now it’s raining.
Thankfully, we soon get back on track and find the subject of our quest: a maid cafe called Little TGV.
The first time I ever went to a maid cafe was about five years ago (in Akihabara, in fact). Like most first-timers, a friend and I simply followed the first maid we found on the street back to her cafe. Most of the cafes near the station are branches of Tokyo-wide (or even nationwide) chains, and all seem to follow the same basic aesthetic, with squeeky-voiced girls in French maid costumes calling customers “master” and serving overpriced coffee and omelettes.
Not knocking the model: it’s obviously been very successful, and it’s what a lot of folks are looking for. But the excessive cuteness of those places has always had me running for the door after about 20 minutes.
But with maid cafes (or concept cafes, as they’re more commonly referred to these days), as with many things in Akihabara, get a little off the beaten path and things get a whole lot more interesting.
Actually, it might be more accurate to say things get a lot more niche. Cafes, bars and shops over this way target a much more specific (but no doubt more fanatical) audience. This brings us back to the topic at hand: Little TGV, which is a concept cafe devoted to trains.
It’s actually not a huge surprise this exists: there are plenty of train-obsessed humans around in Japan. Stick around a major train station long enough and you’ll be sure to spot them, standing on platforms, cameras in hand, waiting for new or rare trains to come rolling in.
As Kusunoki-san and I enter the cafe we’re handed tickets representing our table charge that look exactly like the paper tickets used to board trains in Tokyo.
The attention to train detail continues throughout the Little TGV experience. The maids (I guess “attendants” might be more accurate) ape the language used on trains and in stations, throwing out lines like “your drink is now arriving at its destination” with dead earnestly. It’s kind of wonderful.
In one corner of the cafe there’s a model train set like the one your dad built in the basement when you were a kid (well, mine did, anyway).
My favorite touch was probably the cocktail menu. The myriad drinks are all named after Tokyo train lines, and are colored to correspond. I’m usually a beer man, but since we’d come all the way here, I went with the orange cocktail based on my train line, the Chuo Line.
(This menu is available in English, by the way. The food menu’s only in Japanese, but it’s got pictures.)
But as with any place like this, while the concept may have been the initial reason for coming, it’s probably not the reason so many regulars end up sticking around Little TGV.
“It’s just a nice place,” says one such regular at the table next to ours sipping sake out of a masu. He’s usually there about three times a week. Another friendly guy asks me where I’m from, and tells me he’d love to go to America and ride Amtrak. I don’t have the heart to tell him how bad it is.
As for Kusunoki-san and I, our attendant is a Taiwanese exchange student fluent in Japanese and English, and we three end up in a discussion about the complex political relationship between our respective countries. Definitely not a conversation I thought I’d be having in an Akihabara concept cafe on a rainy January night.
Akiba is truly vast and infinite.
Matt Schley is an editor and writer at Otaku USA, a magazine devoted to Japanese pop culture, and a contributor to several Japan-related publications. He loves the Yakult Swallows and makes a mean Denver omelette.