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Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008
BUTLERS AND BELLES
Savor the sensation of being a 'princess'
Special to The Japan Times
My handsome butler, resplendent in his smart black waistcoat and bow tie, greets me at the door. "Hello princess," he softly intones as he manfully leads me to a rose-strewn alcove.
Romantic music swells and I sit down and thumb through the menu, feeling more nervous than I hope is apparent. What's it to be? Sipping champagne while adorned with a tiara as this blue-eyed Adonis waits on me hand and foot?
Perhaps we should draw the lacy curtains for privacy and enjoy an intimate te^te-a-te^te together? Or better yet, I could have my photo taken as he lifts me up in his big strong arms. The options are enough to bring a flush to the cheeks of even this worldly maiden.
The only one of its kind, Butlers cafe, in Tokyo's trend-center that is Shibuya, employs only young, handsome Western men to wait on a growing clientele of Japanese women.
But even though it is partly inspired by the recent trend for "butler cafes" — where customers are also called princesses and are served by handsome waiters — there are important differences here.
As well as the standard cake and coffee normally served, a wide range of alcoholic drinks are also available. Hold on, you may think — handsome men treating me sweetly in a romantic atmosphere, with rather pricey drinks (both soft and alcoholic kick off around ¥900) — aren't we getting into host club territory?
Owner Yuki Hirohata is adamant that her establishment doesn't fall into this category: "Some think Butlers cafe is a foreigner host club, but it's not. We only have two rules: Don't exchange personal information with the customer, and don't touch the customer. Except of course for the Lift Me Up Photo — then we have to touch!"
Costing just ¥1,000, the Lift Me Up Photo is a particular favorite with Hirohata's clientele. Other services available are Cinderella Time (¥2,000), where the customer receives some bubbly, sweets, a candle, a tiara and a silver bell on a silver platter; and Study English, where, for ¥4,000, budding female linguists receive a notebook in which they can exchange comments with their chosen butler each time they visit.
So, what qualities make for a good butler?
"First impact is everything for me," Hirohata says with a twinkle in her eye. "Even if he is good looking, if he doesn't have any charisma I don't hire him. I look for inner beauty, brightness and honesty."
I met three of Hirohata's butlers — all of them handsome — yet each has his own particular appeal.
Brendan Lee, from America, with his elaborate anime-inspired hairstyle and baby-blue eyes, has a sensitive, pretty-boy charm.
Then there's Crispin Deverill — with his seductive gaze and lustrous long hair swept back in a ponytail — who fits the role of the passionate Mediterranean lover to a tee, despite actually being from London; while Australian Renato Antolovich, muscular with bright eyes and neat spiky hair, oozed natural charisma.
Sometimes scared to chat
"All the butlers have their own fans. You can't really say what kind of men Japanese women like. Some of our princesses don't really look twice at me," says Lee modestly.
Before she started her company, Hirohata did some research, asking women how they felt about foreign men. "They said that foreign guys have the ability to treat women well, and their compliments sound nice. But on the other hand they are often too casual and too friendly, so sometimes women are scared to chat with them."
As a result, she decided to create a comfortable environment in which Japanese women could interact with foreign men without feeling any stress. In order to do this, she teaches her butlers Japanese culture and the local lingo. While she eschews the role of mama-san (a woman who manages a hostess bar or host cafe), I found it rather telling that she referred to her coterie of hunks as "boys," although all were well into their 20s.
Lee, who is clearly her most successful protege, enthuses, "I'm learning social skills. How do you approach a group of strangers and start a conversation, or how do you entertain a woman? Yuki's taught me more of a Japanese perspective."
Antolovich admits that he can get a little flirtatious in order to keep customers interested. "If they show interest in where I'm from, I say, 'If you come to Melbourne, I'll show you around.' But I've never really said anything that can be followed up. It's important to keep the customer coming so you're never too explicit."
The Butlers motto is "Be selfish, enjoy life." For the most part the clientele are young, single female Japanese office workers, and on a good day the cafe, which seats 32, can have up to 75 customers.
Hirohata explains, "Before I started this cafe, I was working really hard and I wanted to go to a place where I could feel like a princess. I often didn't feel like a female because I was too busy. Of course there are host clubs, beauty salons, hot springs and massage parlors — but they are expensive, so you have to make a lot of money to be able to go there. That's why I started this cafe."
And do the women who frequent Butlers ever overstep the boundaries of the princess-butler relationship?
"Once, when the elevator doors closed, a girl shouted out that she loved me," says Antolovich. "There wasn't much I could do. I couldn't reply."
Lee is more secretive. "What happens at the Butler cafe stays at the Butler cafe. We do have a guest book that gets kinda personal though," he says, producing a huge tome filled with love messages adorned with hearts and flowers.
The weirdest thing for Lee, though, was when a female artist visited the cafe and wrote a yaoi cartoon about the butlers. "Yaoi is about homosexual love, but it's written for a female audience. Just as there's lesbian porn for straight men, this is porn for straight women. If you understand where it's coming from it's not really that strange. I'm afraid I can't really tell my parents about it," he said.
Warped world view
It's easy to see why some customers might develop a rather warped world view. Butlers is rather how I imagine Barbara Cartland's private boudoir to be: the predominant color is pink, the lighting is soft and forgiving and the air is heady with the scent of romance.
As I leave, the three butlers stand to attention and wave goodbye to me, and I half expect a whirlwind of rose petals to swirl around them. Almost swooning under the weight of their combined charm, I suddenly jolt back to reality with a thump as I return to my anonymity among Shibuya's teeming legions.
But beware, ladies, before that sudden return to reality there's a glass door your glazed-over eyes may not spot!