Sashaying through the lobby of At-home Café’s newest and largest outpost in Akiba Culture Zone seems like the only appropriate way of moving through the space. It’s rare that I would feel underdressed at a maid café in Akihabara, but my cheeks are slightly blushing. The interior is a mix of fluffy pink carpet, elegant padded doors and rococo-inspired furniture. I seem to have stepped inside a life-sized version of Barbie’s mansion.

“We want a space that is warm and welcoming for our customers, even before they come inside the café,” says Hideto Oguri, the head of marketing of At-home Café. “This is why we have a comfortable waiting area. No one needs to be standing out in the cold. Not even our maids are allowed to promote the café on the street, we want to set an example amongst maid cafés in Akihabara.”

The waiting area also has as a merchandise store where you can take a gander at the displays. This includes everything from limited edition At-home Café curry to the all-important cheki (Polaroid photographs signed by the café’s maids).

The café is split into two distinct sections: To the left is a quieter area where guests can read and work and to the right is a theater section with rows of seats and some group tables in the very back.

I was seated in the lively part of the café. The first maid I spoke to was Rin Rin, who calls me ‘princess,’ the affectionate term for female customers. Only minutes into our chat, it’s clear that Rin Rin is a conversationalist beyond her years.

She tells me about her upbringing, being born and raised in Asia. Prior to becoming a maid, she had never really dressed up, tried makeup or taken selfies. Coming to Japan, she had a chance to reinvent herself, try new things and meet new people. When she tells me she loves being a maid, it comes across as very genuine.

“It’s safe to work here,” says. “People are easy to talk to and I can learn so much through having conversations with my masters and princesses.”

Looking around the café, the place is surprisingly busy. Despite the hospitality industry taking a big hit in the last two years, the maid cafe chain At-home Café was largely unaffected during the pandemic.

“To be honest, business never went away,” says Oguri. “There were some moments of hardship and we are thankful that we were able to receive some government support. But we made sure to follow the rules and innovate our services with features such as online zoom meets, where customers from all over the country and the world could maintain contact with their favorite maids. We called this our ‘virtual at-home café.'”

The clientele of At-home Café is not what you might first think. Their customers are near to a 50-50 ratio between men and women. Sitting a table away from us are two girls, one of which I’m told is a regular. They both enthusiastically chant “Moe Moe Kyun♡” alongside the maids to “add magic” to their drinks.

For younger girls, especially those who have moved to Tokyo from rural towns, these maids are seen as sisterly figures who can give them advice about city life. Shortly after, two older women come in with small suitcases. These customers, Oguri tells me, are hairstylists who patron Tokyo’s maid cafés to observe popular hairstyles.

As we savor iced coffee and an adorably decorated plate of omurice, Kitsune comes to greet us. She is a maid of European descent with fox-like ascents on her hairband. She tells me about one of her fondest memories at At-home Café. It was a proposal between a ‘master’ and a ‘princess.’ Both were regulars but had been introduced to one another by the maids that waited on them. It wasn’t long before they began dating and the master thought it was fitting to ask for her hand in the place that they had met, amongst the people who brought them together.

The climax of the afternoon peaks when I finally have the honor of taking a cheki with Chimu, a super-premium maid, one of the highest positions at the café. Needless to say, Chimu was very busy. For popular and high-ranking maids, customers will often flock in as soon as they see the maid’s schedule on Twitter.

When asked how she achieved her coveted role, she modestly tells me that there’s no specific checklist of things to do in becoming a super-premium maid. It comes down to the staff who watch over the maids and their interaction with customers. The goal is simply to provide as much happiness as possible to the guests, and to keep improving oneself and how one serves.

As my time finishes, I realize that my shyness has all but faded. At-home Café has more in common with Disneyland. ‘Masters’ and ‘princesses’ of all walks of life come here for unique reasons that go beyond just receiving a service. The maids are actors in their own right, always in character, but have firm boundaries. Regulars keep other customers in check too, ensuring the rules and these boundaries are followed and respected. The place is clean, well-lit and pumps out a surprisingly fresh coffee.

It might be cheesy to say, but when we social distance beyond the already Japanese-sanctioned sense of distance, it doesn’t surprise me that people patron At-home Café simply to reconnect. And for whatever ‘dirt’ or hardship you might have piled up in your life, it’s the maid’s goal to help you sweep it away with a little escapism and magic.