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Essay

Character cafes

By Patrick St. Michel

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Usually, when you make a reservation at a restaurant more than a month in advance, you expect something really fancy. You imagine a great-tasting menu with a dozen fancy dishes to enjoy.

What you might not expect is an omelet with a rough sketch of a cat drawn on in ketchup that tastes like something you could get at any family restaurant. Yet I booked a table at a new restaurant well in advance for just this kind of meal. But really, this isn't a place you go to for food.

I visited the Nekopenbiyori Cafe in Harajuku on its opening night, the latest "character cafe" to pop up in Tokyo. These spots revolve around specific characters — ranging from adorable Sanrio mascots (Hello Kitty, Gudetama the lazy egg) to popular anime (Your Name., Osomatsu-san). The one I visited is for a pair of characters (a cat and a penguin) who became popular on Line and Twitter. You know they've truly made it because they have their own character cafe.

This sort of eatery started appearing about three years ago in Shibuya's Parco department store. A pop-up would take up temporary residence, devoted to a specific character, like Doraemon or Miffy the rabbit. The walls would be covered in appropriately cute decorations, and the food would often resemble the characters themselves. Customers lined up for hours to enjoy the atmosphere of these limited-run shops. And soon the idea spread across the nation.

The actual taste of the food is beside the point. Character cafes show how important the appearance of a meal and the cafe's ambience are to customers today. These special spots have been designed for people who love social media, and restaurants themed around Sailor Moon and Rilakkuma actively encourage visitors to share photos on sites such as Instagram. The food itself is nothing exciting — and a little pricier than it should be — but nobody seems to mind.

And that's fine, and I'm clearly on board with it as I dropped over yen2,000 on an omelet and milkshake vaguely resembling a cat and penguin, respectively. Most folks know they aren't going to have a Michelin-star meal at a character cafe, and they are fine with that. They want the chance to eat in an interesting spot, and to take lots of photos they can then share online. It reflects the social media-soaked world we live in, and it's a pretty fun development.

Still, there might be a touch too many character cafes now. On the way back to the station from my egg dinner, I saw three other spaces — for Sanrio's Pompompurin; a seal character; and an anime show I didn't recognize. I think Nekopen was more than enough for me this summer.

キャラクターカフェ

数年前から、東京に人気キャラクターをモチーフにしたカフェが続々登場している。筆者も先日原宿にオープンしたばかりのキャラクターカフェに行ってきた。

The Japan Times ST: August 11, 2017

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2017年11月24日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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