The New Year’s Eve was intense for me and my friends, 9 young adults struggling to move or do anything the morning after. Some didn’t even make it out until sunset.
But in Japan it’s more traditional to go to a temple in the morning or afternoon of January the 1st – to make prayers and celebrate the way we did at midnight. This is called hatsumode, and I found out just how many people follow it by visiting Senso-ji temple that day.
I’m a Londoner, and yet the crowd was still a total shock. In a very Japanese way, police officers directed the crowd through crossings and passageways, creating currents of people. It was just Matt and I who made it all the way to see the temple, and we queued for a very long time to get to it. (Ha! British queuing is nowhere near as extreme as Japanese queuing!) Senso-ji is worth it though. It’s arguably the most important temple in Tokyo, famous for several reasons. For example, as you approach it, you come across a huge entrance gate called Kaminarimon, with a giant paper lantern suspended from it. More importantly, Senso-ji is an ancient temple, originally founded in 645 AD, though it has since been bombed and rebuilt. Once we finally made it to the temple grounds, Matt went to buy himself a new goshuincho: a book with plain pages, used for collecting stamps and calligraphy when visiting a temple or shrine. These books cost around £10, and each stamp is an extra £2.50. It’s a wonderful idea and a memorable souvenir, so I enjoy looking through Matt’s collection (he’s almost finished his second book now!); though I decided that it was a bit pricey for me personally.
Senso-ji is located in Asakusa, which is an area of Tokyo that has for centuries provided entertainment, and is dotted with shrines. Today it is a very touristic place, full of restaurants and exciting shops that sell stuff from vintage toys to real katana swords. It was probably my favourite part of Tokyo.
In contrast to our visit to the temple, Matt and I headed off to the very modern area of Tokyo called Akihabara, to meet up with the rest of our friends. One thing let to another, and it was spontaneously decided that we would go to one of those famous maid cafes! Akihabara is the perfect place for this purpose, as its many shops are aimed at male fans of pop culture, whereas Ikebukuro caters more to a female audience, and offers butler cafes instead. (Unfortunately, LGBT+ is hardly recognised in Japan even today, so it’s almost exclusively hetero culture that makes it into pop media).
All I can say is… it was the cutest nightmare ever. We went to a cafe called “@home”, and queued for a little while. Most of the other patrons were middle-aged men who came alone, specifically to chat with the cute young maids. This surprised me, as I expected the maid cafe concept to be more of a tourist attraction, rather than a real cultural phenomenon. The food and drink was unsurprisingly expensive, but each of us got a set that consisted of a drink, a dessert, and a picture with one of the maids, which turned out to be a reasonable price (I think it was around £15-20). Not everyone in our group spoke Japanese, and the cafe offered good service in English. All of the women were dressed up in cute and quirky maid outfits, the kind you’d find in a Halloween shop. The women also spoke in high-pitched voices, acted over the top, and were noticeable trained in making it seem that they are interested in you. The guys were addressed as “master” and us girls were addressed as “princess”. The most awkward bit was probably when we had to make a “spell” to charge up our drinks with “moe power” (which is an anime-related term for having feelings for a fictional character, so the relevance was lost on me). To be honest, I felt weird and uncomfortable during the whole thing, and bad for the women working in the cafe. These women also have to take part in many photoshoots which are then sold to the primarily male customers. I could go on a much longer rant about why this whole maid/butler cafe concept is not very healthy, but instead all I will say is this: it was a wonderfully weird experience and I would definitely recommend it, even if simply for the feeling of utter bewilderment it offers.
This was just my second day in Tokyo, and yet I was already overwhelmed with how different it is from the Kansai-region cities I’ve been to. 2017 sure started with exciting stuff.