My question was how or why was this a thing? Nerds, was Patric's answer
The maid cafes are so cool, you have to go see them' said a French guy I met at my first ever couchsurfing event, my first night in Tokyo. I thought they were only in Akihabara, or Electric City, mecca for tech geeks. I found out afterwards that they are a nation-wide phenomenon. I also found out that the things to see in Akihabara are the cool new technologies being developed in Japan, available before they hit the rest of the world.
Instead of seeing these on my visit, I followed a pretty Japanese girl in a cute maid uniform to a cafe designed to look like a teenager's bedroom – filled with stuffed animals, plastic Japanese anime figures, and a maid making a scrapbook in a corner of the room.
The maid cafes are a pricey operation – you have to pay to be there and you're required to have something (expensive) to drink or eat. If you want to get a picture with the maids or stay there for more than 1 hr, you have to pay more. It was me and one Japanese guy in the cafe, squeezing little plastic pigs to order food. The maids sing songs and clap when they bring the food, which was fun – and even more fun was the overpriced chocolate banana parfait I ordered, made to look like a monkey's head! More yummy!
“Canada – maple syrup!” the maids clapped. “Niagara!”
I discovered in my travels that these and Anne of Green Gables are the three things Japanese people know about Canada, maple syrup ranking as number one.
My parfait looked better than it tasted and I had to wonder – how and why are these places a thing? They're expensive and the bland food is served on Mickey Mouse plates. Plus, while I didn't feel entirely creepy being there, I wouldn't have ranked a visit at the top of my travel list.
My host Patric answered it for me – “Nerds. They don't get to talk to pretty girls, so this is their chance to get some attention from a girl.”
Aha, this was the part I was missing – the maid cafes are for men, primarily nerdy ones without social skills. While it didn't bring me closer to understanding the cultural differences that separate Japan from the West, it was a small window into a different world.
It also brought to light the perils of travelling without a guide book – sometimes word of mouth from nerdy men is not the best bet.