It was to be my first time in Japan. I was excited. It was a country that had long seemed strange and unique in my imagination. The purpose of my trip was for a Korean work visa, which for some reason had to be acquired outside of Korea. Osaka, suitably huge and bewildering, was my choice. In on Thursday morning, out on Saturday evening, visa-stamped passport in hand. If a little fun could be had along the way, all the better.
As a westerner, ignorant of the subtleties of different Asian cultures, it was easy for me to assume that Japan would be just like Korea. Wrong. Many things are substantially different -- and immediately and obviously so.
For a start, Osaka, despite its size, is not as manic and bustling as Seoul. People in Osaka ride bicycles everywhere. In Seoul, you only ride a bike in one of two scenarios:
1) As a convoluted and protracted attempt at suicide.
2) For leisure, along the the Han River on a specially designated cycle path.
Not only that, in Osaka trees line the streets. Traffic is quieter. The air smells less of sewage and other noxious odours and more like, well, air.
As aforementioned, the fashion is, at times, nothing short of bonkers -- especially when held against the simple, but classy, attire of most Koreans. I don't think a single girl in Japan has her natural hair colour. Red-brown and dirty blond mops were everywhere -- as were, to a lesser extent, multi-coloured, rainbow-like styles seemingly taken from the sickly fluorescent world of the Teletubbies.
Another girl I saw appeared to be dressed as Little Bo Peep -- sheep not included.
The men weren't much less conservative. Many looked very "pretty", or simply very strange.
Japan is also very expensive. Horribly so. In fact, it is quite probably more expensive than Ireland. My money dwindled faster than a septuagenarian's hair in a blizzard during my (not quite) three days there.
But by far and away my most memorable, and truly bizarre, experience of Japan was my trip to a "maid cafe". What's this? Well, something approaching a nerdy Japanese teenager's wet dream. Having read about this phenomena before, and noticing the sign emblazoned with a cutesy manga girl minutes from my hostel, my curiosity was piqued.
So in I went. The first thing that made me aware I wasn't just in Starbucks was that all the waitresses (and they were all waitresses) were wearing pink French-maid outfits and bows in their hair. They were also generally strikingly pretty and worryingly young -- the youngest in this place was 16. There was no manager or older person anywhere in sight.
I sat down and ordered a coffee. The clientèle were mainly bespectacled Japanese youths. In the corner, one guy was belting out karaoke in earnest to a Power Ranger video, mimicking the fight moves on screen with gusto. With difficulty I repressed a laugh. This was hilarious.
Then the coffee came. A frighteningly young-looking waitress with a cute factor somewhere between that of Bambi and Hello Kitty, brought the cup, sugar and milk. She set them down, knelt before the table and starting pouring the milk and sugar, asking me to say "when".
In a maid cafe, you don't pour your own milk and sugar, oh no: the customer is king -- so much so, in fact, that waitresses refer to their customers as "master" in Japanese. Most bizarrely of all, you can actually pay to be spoon-fed. Yes, spoon-fed. By a waitress. Like a child.
Stick-in-the-mud that I am, I didn't give it a try. I'm immature enough already. As it is, it is only a few tenuous societal taboos keeping me from reverting to a helpless infantile state, where wearing nappies, blowing my own spit and dribbling down my chin is par for the course.
But this cafe. It also had a menu with, from what I could make out, different points levels. I asked a guy with, just about, functional English what it was all about. Apparently the more you spent the more points you collected. The first level entitled you to a photo of one of the girls on your phone.
The last? A day spent (in platonic fashion, I gathered) with one of the girls. To get enough points for this apparent play date one needed to spend about €2,500. That's a lot of fecking coffee.
I was so gob-smacked by the whole thing that I wanted to get one of the girl's impression of things. Did she enjoy working here? Didn't it seem weird? Wasn't it uncomfortable?
"It is cute. It is funny," she said, cocking her head in ridiculously affected fashion. She might not have fully understood what I asked. Though she seemed genuine enough and unperturbed. But I couldn't be sure.
It was kind of hard to concentrate with her batting her eyelashes at me and some guy in the corner screaming into a microphone.