I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe

Maid Cafes are a tradition in Tokyo's otaku-centric Akihabara neighborhood. People say they're a romantic version of strip clubs: Instead of lapdances, you buy innocent displays of affection. How does it feel to pay for puppy love? I found out.

I had been reading for years about Maid Cafes, places where lonely otaku (geeks) pay to drink and talk with fancifully-dressed girls about anime. They're often dismissed in the Western press as just one of those "weird things" you can see in Tokyo – or, at worst, as an incomprehensible aspect of Japanese perversion akin to tentacle porn, Nishimura Yoshihiro's movies, and The Rape Man comedy series. But when I visited a Maid Cafe in Akihabara (Akiba) earlier this month, I stepped into a fantasy that felt as familiar as home.

I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe

Find your Maid

When you exit the Akiba train station, you'll notice the Maids immediately among the swirling crowds of students, gadget hounds, and salarymen. In Mary Janes, striped tights, and petticoats, their hair adorned with tiny hats or giant bows, they smile and hand out fliers advertising the Maid Cafes where they work. Theirs is a distinctive form of cosplay that merges Western "french maid," anime heroine, and the flouncy girl-woman protagonist of Alice in Wonderland. Deliciously cute, but not sexy. You won't see plunging necklines or tiny skirts.

Maids are there to be seen, but if you try to take their pictures, they'll turn away and frown. As I found out later, one of the services you can buy in the cafes is a picture with your Maid of choice. Taking their pictures close-up on the street is a way of ripping them off.

I was with two Western friends, one of whom is fluent in Japanese. After shopping around for weird Android devices in the tech markets, and collecting several fliers, we met a Maid dressed entirely in pink. She seemed even younger and more shy than most, and gave us a timid smile. When I realized she had braces, something about her awkward cuteness won my heart. I nodded and pointed at her flier, and she led us down an alley to the elevator that took us to Pinky Cafe.

I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe

Welcome to Planet Ribbon, whose chief export is cheerfulness

Every Maid Cafe has some kind of theme, and we discovered ours when we arrived in a small, pink room decorated with Hello Kitty dolls, games, and a randomly festive "Happy Birthday!" banner. A sign near the entrance explained that Pinky Cafe was populated by aliens from Planet Ribbon, who came to Earth to "deliver lots of smile." Our awkward Maid was sent back down to the street, and woman whose Maid name was "Alice" (pronounced Ali-su) took us into her pink, ruffled, alien care.

Alice gave us a bilingual introduction to the Maid Cafe rules: We would each pay by the hour to sit in the cafe (a pink digital timer started the moment we sat down), and we had to order one thing off the menu each hour too. We could order anything from mixed drinks to dinner and dessert. But the main attraction was Maid services: For a price, you could play a game with your Maid, get her picture, have her draw cute kitten faces on your dessert with a squirt bottle of chocolate syrup, add a few hundred extra Yen to your meal for her to stir it for you, feed it to you, or simply to squeak in a cute way while squishing your hamburger bun onto your hamburger ("That one is really popular," Alice noted).

I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe

We decided to order a giant, crazy, expensive dessert that was basically a mixture of all the other desserts on the menu, with whipped cream and marshmallows on top. When it arrived, the Maids turned on a disco ball, splashing the walls with colorful light, and did a little dance. Alice held up a toy microphone and amp.

"How does this dessert make you feel?" she asked. The other Maids giggled.

I used one of the few Japanese words I know: "Ka-waii!" I cried. Cute!

My Japanese-speaking friend made a pun. "Ko-wai," he answered. Scary.

I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe

The women who dote on you

The Maids took our pictures posing with the dessert and the maids, and before we ate we had to learn the Pinky chant. Say it with us! Whirl your fingers in the air and sing: "Make this delicious!" Then curl your fingers into a heart shape and chanting: "Lubbu-lubbu Pinkyyyyyyyy!" For the full effect, finish by squeaking, "Yaaaaay!" while bouncing and clapping. Every time they brought us something – drinks, some noodles, a coffee – we had to do the chant again. Complete with bouncing and clapping.

One part of this chant summed up the entire experience. Lubbu-lubbu, or "love love," is a Japanese idiom that means "puppy love." And that's the feeling you pay for when you go to a Maid Cafe. Because who else would feed you and clap and play games with you but a girl who was completely smitten?

Even though I knew the whole thing was a performance for money, I couldn't help but get sucked in. I wanted the Maids to like me - I wanted to feel for an hour like I lived in a universe entirely devoted to gleeful silliness. When Alice opened up to us a little bit and told us that she'd learned English growing up in Seattle, and had just graduated from college in Japan, it felt like we were becoming friends. Especially when she laughed at our stupid jokes and confessed that she didn't really like anime.

I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe

As the minutes on the pink digital timer flicked by, I was reminded more and more of what I've felt before in strip clubs in America. When you enter a strip club, it's like you've arrived on another planet where women are there to make you feel sexy. There's a dizzying moment of excitement when you get over your last vestiges of shame and realize that any girl in the club will come wiggle in your lap, for a price – the prettiest, the sparkliest, the shiniest, whatever turns you on. All it takes is about 30 bucks. The price of two IMAX movie tickets. And there she is in your lap, warm and real, smelling like baby powder.

In the Maid Cafe, there is no touching and nothing erotic like lap dances. But there is the same feeling of emotional safety. You can get any cute girl's attention. As long as you've got money to spend, you don't need good looks or social skills or even bravery really. Because you're on Planet Ribbon, where the girls just want to make you happy. Plus, they're aliens, so they have no idea how humans are supposed to act anyway. When you're in the Maid Cafe, everybody is worthy of love and affection.

If you've ever felt socially awkward or shy, you can understand the Maid Cafe's allure. Nobody will ever reject you there, or question why you want to spend all your time reading comic books. These women, the Maids, love you no matter how geeky you are.

I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe

Is it exploitation?

My enchantment with the Maids began to wear off roughly around the time when we all realized that our food was being brought out so slowly that we wouldn't be able to finish it in under an hour. We'd have to pay for another hour, and each buy something else during that time. So we paid dutifully, buying some photos and a game of Jenga with Alice.

We chatted and licked dessert off our spoons while the Jenga stack trembled at the center of the table. More customers began to trickle in, sitting at the bar and leafing through manga or playing on their smart phones while Maids blessed their drinks (Lubbu-lubbu Pinkyyyyyyyy!).

I kept wondering whether being a Maid would be more or less difficult than being a stripper. I don't mean categorically – there are plenty of happy strippers who love what they do, and I'm sure the Maids enjoy their work too. By difficult, I mean when there's a creepy customer that the Maid doesn't like, but she has to feed him and giggle and draw on his food. To give him lubbu-lubbu even though he's cruel or repulsive to her. Which is worse? To lap dance for a creep during a single song, or to have puppy love with a creep for an hour? I couldn't decide.

I also couldn't decide whether men open themselves up to more potential exploitation at strip clubs or at Maid Cafes. The former sucks money from a man's wallet via his libido. The latter via his heart. It seemed tragic that people came to this tiny pink room to pay for puppy love. And yet the ritual of pay-for-cute also reminded me of going to a Coldstone Creamery store in the U.S., where the staff have to sing silly songs and ring bells when you order your ice cream. Is the lubbu-lubbu chant at a Maid Cafe so different?

Ultimately the question is whether there's really something wrong with wanting to feel loved once in a while, even if you have to shell out ten thousand Yen to do it.

I paid a woman to be my friend at a Tokyo Maid Cafe