They are not your average train ticket inspectors. Picture a bevy of young ladies dressed in flouncy blue and white dresses, accessorised with over-the-knee socks, pretty hair bows and undimmable million-watt smiles.
Welcome to Japan’s latest eyebrow-raising innovation – a “maid café” train where passengers are “served” by a clutch of pretty all-singing, all-dancing and all-adoring female train staff.
The popularity of Japanese maid cafés has been well documented over the past decade: primarily located in Tokyo’s subculture hubs such as Akihabara and Ikebukuro, they involve young women in maid outfits (often dubbed modern day geisha) innocently serving tea and cakes to manga and anime loving customers.
Last weekend, the Seibu Railway Group installed a “maid café” on board its limited express Red Arrow train operating between Ikebukuro and Chichibu, a stretch of track renowned as home to a number of high-profile animation companies.
Nine maids recruited from Akihabara’s maid café district will tend to passengers on board by serving drinks, playing games and taking turns to make tannnoy announcements.
The cartoon-like selection of maids on board include Shoko Suzumiya, who says she has “increased motivation whenever she puts on a maid uniform”. Then there is Kira Hoshino, who derives pleasure in “soothing and instilling vigor in people”, not to mention Chuchu Amakusa, who likes to “give people nice warm feelings”.
And their ages? All maids are forever 17, says a spokesman for Seibu, seemingly with a straight face. Describing the reason behind the launch, he adds: “This train is a sort of theme park inspired by the world of anime and games.”
Never mind maid lovers, its arrival is also likely to be welcomed by the government, which is increasingly keen to tap into the growing popularity of Japanese subculture trends overseas and boost export of domestic anime, manga and gaming.
It seems likely that the new train will open up the world of maid cafés to a wider audience, not least because it combines two of Japan’s biggest “otaku” geek obsessions – trains and maids.
“It’s important to note that it runs on a route that has become increasingly obscure and disused in recent years and its operators are naturally desperate to attract riders to the line,” says Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica and visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo.
“But the convergence of trains and maid cafés makes a lot of sense as [a way of] attracting a sizeable population of ‘otaku’, or obsessive fans.”
Whatever the reason, ticket inspectors in many cities around the world could well learn a thing or two from the ever-smiling and friendly demeanour of their Japanese maid counterparts.
But the flouncy maid outfits? They can perhaps stay in Japan.