Twelve men sit in silence at a new cafe in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district as three women dressed in Russian attire start serving a sour-looking plate of borscht.
The men have each paid ¥15,000 to attend this soft opening of ItaCafe, which bills itself as the city’s first Russian maid cafe.
The general chit-chat you might expect to hear at a comparable Akihabara venue isn’t present at the soft opening on Oct. 16. Instead, it’s replaced by operatic background music and the shuffling of feet that comes courtesy of the press in attendance, who move around the diners to get a closer look at the chilled beet soup on the table in front of them.
One of the founders of the cafe, Anastasia Reznikova — a cosplayer better known as “Nastyan” — says later that she hopes this experience won’t reflect what a typical day in ItaCafe will be like. Nevertheless, the press preview keeps her and her fellow employees, Alena Potapova and Ekaterina Kuchevskaia, on their toes as they respond to queries and prepare meals.
But, Reznikova says, they’ve already managed to achieve one of the cafe’s stated goals: prompt Japanese customers to try Russian cuisine.
“Oh, it’s cold,” says one diner, uncrossing his arms after trying the borscht for the first time. He places a few more spoonfuls of the soup into his mouth.
The diner’s interest in the dish reflects a stereotype that is prevalent in domestic television portrayals of Russia, Reznikova says, adding that Japanese cartoons typically mention borscht when the country comes up.
Reznikova has long loved Japanese anime and manga, and became known online in Japan thanks to her detailed cosplay, most notably based on characters from military-themed anime, which she posts online to Twitter and other sites. (At the ItaCafe event, she sports a green outfit reminiscent of a Russian general — one who likes wearing hot pants).
Reznikova’s big chance came two years ago, when promoter Takuya Omori went to Moscow to find Russian cosplay models. Omori met Reznikova after scouting Russian talent, and he brought her to Japan for an anime event.
“We talked about Nastyan’s future after coming to Japan. I understood she wanted to stay in Japan longer,” he says. “We thought that a working visa would be best for that and so we decided to try opening a maid cafe.”
They used domestic crowdfunding site Campfire to raise more than ¥3.2 million in order to open the cafe, far more than the initial target of ¥200,000. Those in attendance at the soft opening contributed to the total.
But why a maid cafe?
“It’s fun, isn’t it?” Reznikova says, adding that it was a natural fit given her love of anime. It helps that Russia and Russian characters — Russian women, in particular — have appeared in a number of animations over the years. One of this season’s most popular anime, “Yuri On Ice,” even features a Russian figure skater as a main character.
“Our cafe is a new style,” Omori says. “There are no similar cafes — it isn’t Akihabara-style.”
Although the three Russian servers at the cafe will make small talk in Japanese (Omori notes that they will also sing and dance on special occasions), they won’t cast spells on the food in an attempt to make it tastier or refer to customers as “goshujin-sama” (“master”) — common touches at Japanese establishments of this type.
That said, the traditional Russian menu is the most prominent feature setting ItaCafe apart.
Reznikova says the items on the menu are standard “family kitchen dishes.” She highlights the borscht, meat-filled fried buns called pirozhki and Russian vinegret salad.
The items on the menu are also among the simpler Russian dishes to cook. Omori says the trio hasn’t had any previous professional experience in a kitchen, but will be required to make everything on the menu. As a result, several items have received a creative makeover, including a Russian cheese spread that is smeared over what appears to be a slice of supermarket-procured ham and folded.
This might be the dimension of ItaCafe most in line with a typical maid cafe experience in Akihabara: food isn’t necessarily the biggest draw.
The owners of ItaCafe also aim to challenge Japanese perceptions of Russia.
“Everyone thinks Russia is very cold, everyone drinks vodka, there are bears everywhere,” Reznikova says. “There is a broken image of Russia (in Japan): that it is only cold, there is no fun, something like that. It’s not true.”
Despite its boast of being the “first Russian maid cafe in Tokyo,” ItaCafe rarely reinforces stereotypes. Save for Reznikova’s Soviet-style attire and a single Vladimir Putin-themed calendar, the interior is straightforward and free from Russian ephemera.
“I hope this place will become like a second family, a second home,” says Reznikova. “We want it to be a place where you can talk about anime, games, manga — almost everything is OK! But it’s (primarily) about friends.”
Later in the evening, she breaks out the booze: shots of vodka with pickle chasers (some stereotypes are indulged, it seems) and Baltika-brand beer. After a few toasts, everyone is more talkative and the awkward air lifts a little.
One man approaches Reznikova to show her a detailed model of a T-34/85 Soviet-era tank, inspired by the “Girls und Panzer” cartoon, which follows high school girls as they fight with armored tanks.
“Amazing,” she says.
After a serious start to the evening, everyone in attendance has begun to open up and bond over a shared love of Russian culture — or the anime version of it, at least.
For more information, visit www.itacafe.com.