Yes friends, I went to a butler cafe, the male version of a maid cafe, only a world different.
I’m just going to dive right in with the description. Before you stands a convenience store, a building away is a chain store called K-Books. Ikebukuro is said to be the haven for female Otaku (anime/manga nerds), and I think the reason is said chain. I had always heard that Ikebukuro was the female equivalent of Akihabara (the male otaku’s paradise), and never quite understood why, as it always seemed to me to be a trendy area for young people, overflowing with karaoke boxes and eating places (not to mention the Sanrio Hello Kitty store, or Ikebukuro’s famous ‘Sunshine City’ complex). But as I learned, the reason female nerds flock to Ikebukuro is because of a stretch of sidewalk, aka a street, dubbed Otome road. Otome literally means young lady or maiden, and is a term used in certain games, manga, etc. to describe a certain fantastic, female-oriented anime sort of thing (at least as I understand it). For instance, Otome games are a sort of role play computer/Nintendo DS/etc. came where you are a girl (usually a high school girl) thrown into some random situation where you happen to be surrounded by a group of handsome young boys/guys who all, predictably fall in love with you. Your character, of course, is naïve of their affection, but through ‘choose your own adventure’ game play you shape what happens (however loosely in the story). To give an example, I played a game (one of the more famous, beloved ones) called Starry Sky something (some season). In it, I was the only girl in an the high school’s archery club and there was the responsible, smart and overly gentle club president, the gruff, awkward, but manly vice prez, and then the youthful, trickster that was like, a new recruit or something. So you’d go along and then you’d be presented with a prompt like, ‘It’s late and the guys don’t want you walking home alone. Who will you ask to walk you to your house?’ You get the point. We won’t discuss the outcome of my game (load of crap/what a let down). So that’s an otome game. Otome stuff also, evidently, encompasses yaoi and boys love (BL), which I’m not into, and if you don’t know what it is, you probably don’t want to. So, long story short, in Ikebukuro, on a street dubbed ‘Otome Road,’ there are stores (most numerous and well known being the K-Books chain), which sell used manga, anime, otome games, merchandise, voice actor magazines, boys idols magazines and doujinshi (which I believe are self-published manga).
So, what could be more fitting than having a Butler café where you walk in and take on the role of a princess, right there on the road?
I’m standing on the corner of an alley, the neon lights of the Family Mart convenience store staring me in the face. Turning to my left, almost hidden in the shadow of a staircase leading to the second floor of the towering building over the Family Mart, is a staircase leading down. I step closer to see that before me, at the mouth of the staircase is a brick wall covered in ivy, with a navy blue sign reading ‘Swallowtail,’ nestled in the greenery, dim Christmas lights hidden in the small leaves. Standing out more prominently to the left of the oval sign is a large sign, high as my waist, in a case with all the time slots (starting around 10am and going til 9pm) available, ‘booked’ or ‘opening’ written beside them. I wait until my reserved time (you can’t get in without a reservation), then proceed down the brick-lined staircase (the walls covered with ivy all the way down), to a set of double doors, thrown wide, and a man, maybe late 20s/early 30s, black hair slicked back, glasses which made him look studious, crisp white gloves and tails. In his hands he holds a clipboard, standing before a stretching wall of ivy-covered brick, directly behind his head is a framed monitor reading “Welcome Ojousama” (ojousama meaning, sorta like an heiress/young mistress of a noble household).
The butler/doorman looks up, effecting a visage of no emotion, and says “Okaerinasaimase” (Welcome home, in the most formal Japanese you can get). From the greeting, you might have already ascertained that at the Butler Café Swallowtail, you are meant to believe that you are a young heiress coming home to your mansion for tea, dessert or a meal, and your butlers, every one, is there to serve you.
I stammer out that I have a reservation, and give the chap my name, after which he confirms my reservation and shows me to a seat there at the door to wait until my table is ready for me, pinching the small microphone cord that hangs from his ear (they’ve all gone one, like the secret service), to announce my arrival to the people within. (And just so you know, you have the option of an English or Japanese menu). I might also briefly mention that when you make the reservation, you choose what you want them to call you (I think the options are ‘Madam,’ ‘Ojousama/mistress’ and there were a few others), as well as what message you want them to say to signal your departure (‘It’s time to be going to the opera,’ ‘It’s time for the ball,’ ‘It’s time for your riding lessons,’).
So, when they’re good and ready, you are motioned down the left mini-hallway buy the butler who greeted you, and are confronted with a step and a large, shiny wooden door with ornate glasswork just clear enough to let you see the form of a man in uniform inside. If, for some reason, there isn’t a man awaiting you inside, there is a bell you can ring beside the door. But, of course, as I was expected, the door swung wide to accept me just as I cleared the step, and the doorman and another younger man to the right, both dressed to the nines, bowed me in. At first I thought I was at the crossroads of two impressive hallways, one to the left, one to the right, but upon later inspection, the left was only a deception, a wall-sized mirror, the bottom of which was concealed by overflowing pots of fresh flowers.
I came to a standstill as both men arose from their bows, the man who opened the door, his tails longer, his appearance somewhat older, and his stature denoted by gloves, taking a step forward. He announced that he would introduce them both, first introducing himself and his position (ie where he fell in the hierarchy, and yes, they have a hierarchy there). Next, the younger, softer looking man to my left bowed and introduced himself and his own position, greeting me with a youthful smile that the more staid fellow at the door could not match. Having made the proper introductions, and having said I was now ready to proceed to the dining hall, the doorman took my umbrella, asking leave to keep in in the foyer, while my own personal butler, the younger man, took my purse in his own arms, turning to face me, and walked me through the brick, homely hallway, over the plush red carpet, careful to always caution me to every step along the way.
As we came into the dining room, I was surprised by what I saw. The place was much larger and much, much more elegant than I’d expected. Standing, looking out at it, my back to four expensive china cabinets housing nearly priceless imported china from the world over, I was dazzled. There were two massive crystal chandeliers crawling out of the ceiling, spraying wide cross the expanse like fountains at Versailles. The floor turned to wood, and all the pillars and walls within were covered halfway up with ornate wood, sculpted in places. The right side of the dining room consisted of small alcoves where five or six curved booth/sofas and tables were hidden away by loosely hanging red velvet curtains (tables for parties of 3-4). There were tables in the middle of the room for parties of 2-3, all made of high quality wood with upholstered wood chairs the likes of which you might see in a high class hotel. And along the left wall, for those in parties of 1 (like myself), a stretching seat like to a booth, only upholstered, with fancy, designer pillows, and lacy curtains hanging down to separate every guest from her neighbor. At the far end of the room was a stone fireplace, a grandfather clock, and on the mantlepiece, a luxurious golden clock you’d expect to have come from Amsterdam. The artwork looked the that of renaissance painters, each in gold gilt frames.
I was shown to my seat and, after obtaining permission (I’ll omit this from now on, but he asked permission before doing EVERYTHING), he set my bag beside me, taking out a hankerchief and covering over it, tucking it in around the straps to make it seem unobtrusive (I suppose). Next he laid a navy blue napkin on my lap (bearing the Swallowtail butterfly logo), and took out two menus, handing me one. The menus were leather, aged and made to look like some old leather tome from who knows when, with silver lettering reading ‘Swallowtail’ on the front. The pages within were of a fancy script and held in only by a silver, tassled cord that wound from top to bottom of the menu (I might mention that most of their menu changes monthly).
First he showed me the policies printed in the front (use of the bell, payment, rules, etc), then briefly explained the different choices. I should pause here and say that eating at Swallowtail, even if only getting dessert, is wildly expensive, the food vastly overpriced. Dinner had two choices: Catherine and Catherine II (both of which were swordfish with various other trimmings, and cost roughly $46. The desert plates alone were $25 each. Once he finished explaining the menu and engaged me in a smattering of chit-chat, he said he would go for 5 min. and then return for my order, but if I should wish to order before that, or need anything for any reason, I was to ring my little bell which sat before me on the white linen tablecloth, adorned with a small blue ribbon.
I might mention that I had the handsomest butler by far. Not that that’s what the butlers are about. After all, this isn’t a host club. Most of the butlers were clean, crisp looking sorts of fellows, with their black hair slicked back, some having thin-rimmed glasses, others not. Mine, in contrast, had brown hair that feathered out in a youthful style. He had a perfectly white smile, a very pleasant, warm sort of smile, and kind eyes. And look, I sound like I’m half in love with him, when really, I promise I’m not. I will say though that he looked like a cross between Vaness Wu and that other kid from the drama Mei-Chan's Butler.
So, I perused the menu, then spent a greater amount of time perusing the room, at the girls there (most dressed up and out with friends), all smiling under the warm, honey-golden glow of the ever-so-slightly dimmed lights.
When my butler came back, I ordered the Victoria Afternoon Tea set (even though it was 8 pm), which came with a scone of your choosing (I went for Earl Grey), 2 preserves (I went with Darjeeling jelly and clotted cream), finger sandwiches (shrimp w/sweet chili sauce, beef and also cucumber), and then the dessert plate (which was the real draw). This month’s dessert tray (the one I chose at least) was an orange sherbert mousse over a crumb base, a citrusy gelatin over a yogurty mixture, a green tea macaroon (not like American macaroons) with a crème filling, and a red bean/green tea moose in a mochi outside. I also ordered my tea of the night, Victoria Garden. Most of Swallowtail’s teas are original blends, by the way.
So, he went off with my order and came back shortly with my tea in a mini-teapot. Placing a gorgeous cup and saucer before me, he explained where it came from (Nara) and that the design was meant to evoke the image of Cherry Blossoms. Then he poured my tea and covered the pot with one of those tea cozies (bearing the customary butterflies of course). He then said that, should my cup go empty, do not hesitate to ring the bell, for the teapot is hot and one wouldn’t want the young mistress to scorch their fingers on it, so best to have the butler replenish your tea. Fast forward and he brought the food, two plates on a service tray, explained what everything was, chit-chatted more, went off. Same for the dessert tray. You get the idea.
Two tables over, a girl ordered ice cream. Naturally, I foolishly assumed a butler would appear with a dish of ice cream. Oh no. A service caddy was wheeled out by the young butler, and atop it were four things: a whisk, a pitcher of what looked to be milk, a tall, thin silver canister and a large silver bucket sort of thing well over the size of a coffee maker. He proceeded to pour the milk into the large bucket, then uncapped the thin canister as I watched with rapt attention. Smoke started billowing out, a mist like to that of dry ice. He poured the freezing chemical water/dry ice stuff into the large bucket, took up the whisk, and started beating. When the consistency was that of meringue, he paused to show his ladies his progress, then started in again until they approved the ice cream’s perfect solidity. So, I thought that was cool anyways.
About 20 min. before you’re time is up (you’re scheduled for 80 min.), your bill is brought to you. Your butler retrieves your bag, which is sitting right next to you, hands it to you, then takes the money in a black bill holder thing, replaces your back and is off, back in a minute with your receipt (It was at this point that I was given a member card and explained the benefits which are getting to choose what they call you, getting to choose which teacup you want to use, getting a special present on your birthday [we both laughed when I said mine was in October and I‘d be gone by then]). The rest of the time, you are left to your own devices unless you want anything, and you have but to ring your bell. When your time is almost up, your butler comes and asks if you’d like to powder your nose. I said no, but if you do, he will take your bag, escort you to the bathroom and wait for you there, so he can walk you back. And when your time is finally up, your butler says your predestinated excuse (ball/horseriding/etc), takes your purse and leads you back the way you came. I forgot to mention that you are given a key in a crystal tray at the beginning, which the butler takes when you leave to retrieve your coat/umbrella. So, once back at the front door, your butler and the doorman ask you if you’d like to prim a little bit and stand you before the wall-sized mirror. When you’re done, they hand you your things back. My butler took this opportunity to tell the other guy about me being from America and how I was leaving in July and stuff that we’d talked about, and the doorman started rattling off some majorly polite, ingratiating stuff that I really didn’t catch. Then he opened the door, they both said, ‘Have a safe journey,’ and bowed me out the door. The first butler was still standing there in the outlet with his clipboard and he too bowed, wished me a safe journey, and I clopped back up the stairs, back to the real world.
It was such an experience, a whole lot of fun and I would suggest it to anyone. The prices are a bit high and getting a reservation can be a bear, but if you get the chance to go someday, you have to do it. It was a blast and if I’d known about it sooner, I’d probably have been going all along. Well, that’s my adventures for now. More on the way!
PS: Here's the site (fourth link under 'Main Menu' is the food menu). And if you wanna see what it's really like but can't go, I would suggest watching the drama Happy Boys. http://www.butlers-cafe.jp/