Quirkiest Themed Cafes in Asia

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A themed café, as its name suggests, is a café that provides a unique environment with a specific theme. These themes can vary from anything between a Harry Potter theme to something more specific like a cat theme. Although the trend of themed cafes originates from the West, it has slowly gained popularity in the Asian region where you can now find numerous themed cafes around Asia. While the concept is still relatively unusual in many Western countries, Asia has taken to the eccentric eatery idea wholeheartedly, giving us a long list of weird and wonderful establishments you’d never find anywhere else. This report explores the reasons for the rise in popularity of quirky themed cafes using the example of the Harry Potter café in Singapore and the Pokémon café in Japan. This report will also consider and present various implications the rise in popularity of themed cafes on society today which will be linked to the greater consumption of anime and manga in recent years. The history of themed cafes in Asia can be traced back to Taiwan where the very first themed café was established, named the ‘Alice Is Coming Café’ which was Alice in Wonderland themed. Due to Taiwan’s similar cultural background and past history of being colonized by the Japanese, Taiwan has always been a popular tourist destination for Japanese tourists and for its close proximity to Japan, this resulted in its close ties and frequent cultural exchanges. It is Japan’s vast variety of unique themed cafes that serve to be an influence on the rise in popularity of quirky themed cafes in Asia today. These themed cafes in Japan often tie in with anime, manga, and video games culture which is a big part of Japan’s modern popular culture. Due to the recent rise in greater consumption of anime and manga around the world and the fondness many people have for these Japanese pop cultures, it has resulted in various entrepreneurs from different Asian countries taking the initiative to create their own or open a franchise of a themed café, in hopes of promoting and bringing a taste of Japan’s anime and manga culture to a larger demographic of people around the world.

History of themed cafes in Asia

The history of themed cafes dates back to the 1990s in Taipei, Taiwan, where the first themed café to surface was the Modern Toilet Café. This popular restaurant is based on a toilet concept, where food and drinks are served in miniature toilet bowls and urinals. The food is served on a glass tabletop with a piece of paper that appears to be a piece of a newspaper. The chairs are actual toilet seats and the décor features plunger door handles and showerheads. The chain has become so popular that there are now twelve restaurants in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 2004, the concept theme expanded to include selling ice cream in the shape of feces in the original restaurant. This theme has since created a spin-off in Korea and is set to expand to Malaysia. One of the most successful themed cafés from its time until now is the idea of having animal petting zoos in a café setting. This idea originated in Korea by The Raccoon Café and has now become a popular venue to de-stress and relax from busy city life. Unfortunately, many patrons in Asia do not have the capacity to take care of animals at home due to space limitations, costs, or contractual agreements with landlords. This therefore attracted animal-lovers, university students and children, as many families usually cannot have pets due to building regulations. Business persons also found these animals therapeutic, allowing an increase in en and marketed these venues as a place for pet owners to bring their animals to mingle with other pets. This became problematic when health and safety laws were enforced, leading to a complete ban in 2014 to prevent chance of infection or a fight breaking out between animals on the premises.

Rise in popularity of quirky themes

In recent years, there has been a shift in demand for themed cafes to incorporate slightly more unusual and quirky themes. According to Takami Akiyoshi, whose firm FRONTEO, Inc. specializes in data analysis and the extraction of consumer preferences – particularly in the female consumer bracket in their teens to 20s – various themed cafes have recently seen a dip in interest, resulting in a desire to re-ignite consumer demand through the employment of “quirkier” themes. An example of this is the increase in animal-themed cafes such as owl or rabbit cafes. These animals are known to harbor certain cultural or mythical significance to their audience, or the animal is considered rare and exotic, and hence the chance to witness these creatures is an opportunity that some wouldn’t want to pass up. Due to the rise in demand for cat cafes, it goes without saying that the internet is a key factor in a café’s popularity, and it is often the initialization of a trend which spurs the creation of themed cafes in the attempt to capitalize off of said trend. In this case, the cat video boom that occurred on the internet in 2015 was thought to have caused the massive spike in popularity of cat cafes. Further supporting Akiyoshi’s statement is the concept of “limited period cafes” – which are themed cafes that only exist for a certain period of time – a concept which is now on the rise due to the urgent need to satisfy consumer desires through an endeavor to try something new.

Unique Themes in Asian Cafes

And of course, the common interest of all these animal cafes is that people can de-stress from work by interacting with animals, and thus the clientele that such cafes attract are usually tired office workers and animal lovers. It is not an experience that can be found in many places in the world, so for tourists, it is definitely worth giving a try.

A very surreal reptile cafe in Yokohama. A rare event on the left.

The numerous theme cafes of different animals surprisingly are not a zoo in disguise, but a lot of thought and effort has been put into the architecture and interior. The rabbit cafes have rooms with the bunny’s play area sectioned off with glass so people can see which bunny they want to pick up and pet. The owl cafes dim the lights and have calming music, and the reptile cafe will really make you feel like you’re in a rainforest!

“Animal” cafes in Asia can be commonly found, with the staple being cat cafes, but the less common ones are just as interesting. Dog cafes have been on the rise in Korea and Japan, and some places let you bring your own dog for playtime with other dogs and interaction with people. There are also specific breeds of dogs on showcase in their own cafes, with the popular Shiba Inu breed having a few cafes in Japan! Other animal cafes include rabbit cafes, bird cafes, and even a goat cafe in Utsunomiya! Japan is definitely doing more than its share of animal amusement.

Theme cafes of different kinds are found in many parts of Asia. Tokyo boasts numerous of these, many of which are conveniently located a few steps away from a train station or an anime/manga shopping center. There are also a lot of cat cafes, reptile cafes, and bunny cafes crammed in corners of one district, and most are sometimes unknown to the non-otaku tourist. Korea, on the other hand, likes to have a unique edge with their theme cafes that range from Hello Kitty to beauty and cafe in one. Other parts of Asia also have a variety of interesting theme cafes, which can be quite the one-time experience for tourists.

Animal-themed cafes

Starting with one of the most common themed cafes in Tokyo, the animal-themed cafe has become a popular trend in Asia. Owning a pet like a cat or dog in a crowded city like Tokyo can be difficult due to space and financial reasons. This is the reasoning behind the animal cafe. Japanese animal lovers can now spend time with their beloved furry friends without the stress of ownership. There are many animal cafes in Tokyo, with the most common being the cat cafe. Here, customers pay an hourly rate to spend time and play with cats. The cafe is fitted out with shelves, scratching posts, cat toys, and a typical drink bar where customers can relax and enjoy some refreshments. Cat cafes are also popular in Taiwan and Korea. Japan also has dog cafes, where animal enthusiasts can spend time with man’s best friend, take them for a walk, and in some cases even give the dog a bath. Other unique animal cafes in Japan include bird cafes, reptile cafes, and there is even a goat cafe in the yoga room. But the oddest animal cafe in Japan would have to be the penguin bar in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district. Here, customers can enjoy a cold beverage while watching live penguins.

Fantasy and fairytale-themed cafes

Other thematic cafes which touch on darker interpretations of classic fairy tales can be found, such as the Snow White café in Korea. This has a more gothic edge to it and offers a less child-friendly, more adult-oriented experience, with its eerie décor and designs modeled on the villainous characters from the story.

Besides the Disney Ottawa is a café in Tokyo which is inspired from Alice In Wonderland. Often referred to as the “Alice in a Labyrinth,” this cafe offers an ambiance to feel as though customers are sitting down for a tea party with Alice herself, amidst the mystical surroundings of the Wonderland.

Perhaps most popular in Asia’s fairy-tale cafes is the maid and butler styles where staff are dressed in outfits reminiscent of characters from fantasy and childhood stories. This is particularly popular in Korea and can be experienced in several cafe locations. There are also many other Disney inspired or generic fairy-tale themed cafes in Asia such as the Fantasy Tale café in Seoul. This café has some unique design features such as having a Cinderella pumpkin carriage booth, table settings with unicorn and fairytale characters, and a menu featuring dishes from various well-known children’s stories.

Many people will fondly remember Disney classics or perhaps are keen readers of the Brothers Grimm, or any other variety of popular folklore and fairy tales. If Disney and fairy tales are your thing, then you’ll take pleasure in what Asia has in store. You will find many cafes inspired by these fantasy worlds with designed decoration and thematic menus.

Retro and nostalgic-themed cafes

“Deja vu” is a living museum where visitors can immerse themselves in the atmosphere reminiscent of the carefree days of Showa. Post-war jazz and old Japanese songs gently set the mood as patrons leaf through the cafe’s collection of comics and novels from the 50s and 60s. The menu is just as retro – classic dishes and desserts such as hayashi rice and anmitsu are delicately prepared following the style of cookery of that era. While sipping on a kohi smoothly blended with kissaten coffee beans, a visit to the “Deja vu” will have you pondering over the countless changes in social trends and lifestyles of Japan.

Nestled in the districts of Harajuku and Kichijoji, the “Deja vu” Cafe offers more than just a trip down memory lane. Adorned with relics from the Showa era, the decor captures the essence of post-war Japan. A vast collection of treasures on display range from vintage posters to old model toys and household items. Cafe owner, Okano Hideyuki’s fascination with the good old days led him to amass these knick-knacks over the past three decades.

Technology and futuristic-themed cafes

In particular, the café is known for its use of RFID (radio frequency identification) technology in the café to give each customer a unique complimentary item during their stay, which might be anything from a collectible card to a poster, by having the customer touch their unique RFID card onto a reader located in various places in the café to receive them. The system tracks where each customer has been in the café, how long they stayed, and can put together a list of recommended foods and goods for the customer. With this, the maids will then use this information to interact with the customer, to do things like ask if they enjoyed the dessert they had or talk about the collectible item they received, to help form a stronger connection with the customer and make their experience a more memorable one. This type of meticulous use of technology is what is allowing Japan to be the leader in themed cafés and is not something seen in any other themed cafe anywhere else in the world.

A growing trend in Japan and South Korea is the opening of cafés centered on cutting-edge technology or futuristic themes. What got me started on this topic is one called “@home café” in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. An @home café is a waiter (i.e., waitress) café with an otaku (i.e., nerd) culture and a flavor of the Akihabara atmosphere. The maids are popular for their cute maid uniforms, their use of the personal pronoun “Goshujinsama” (Master) (or “Ojousama” (Mistress) for females) and Kansai-ben (Kyoto-Osakan dialect). They also act as if they are the masters and mistresses of the customers while serving them. The café considers itself to be a place to take a break from the reality of the day and relax in a laid-back environment and uses the latest technology and ingenuity to provide an atmosphere that gives the illusion of a different reality from the outside world.

Unusual Experiences and Features

Special menu items and drinks Another way themed cafes differentiate themselves from regular cafes is in their sales of special menu items and drinks. A menu item may be considered special if it is presented in a way that reflects the theme of the café or if it is a type of food or drink that is not commonly found elsewhere. A simple example would be in a cat café having items such as rice balls molded to look like cat faces, or cookies shaped like fish. Sometimes the food and drinks take on a less conventional form, such as in maid cafes where ordering an omelette can result in the maid drawing a picture or writing a message on it in ketchup or sauce. Depending on the theme, there can be a lot of creativity that goes into the design and names of the menu items. In some cases, a themed café may employ a professional chef to create high quality gourmet dishes, putting a unique twist on the concept of a “café” with its food.

Interactive elements in themed cafes Customers feel that their purchases are justified when there are extra amenities within a cafe to keep them entertained. In maid cafes and animal cafes, customers pay not only for food and drinks, but also for interaction with the employees or animals within the establishment. Failure to interact with the animals in an animal cafe can result in a seating charge for not bringing an animal to your table. In maid cafes, the interactive elements come in the form of performances and activities with the maids that are included with the price of food and drinks. Not only does this create a uniqueness in the experience, but it also gives customers much more incentive to visit these cafes as opposed to normal eateries. In addition, there have been several “themed” or pop-up cafes that go further to host a variety of games or activities related to the theme of the cafe. For example, the Detective Conan Café which has a variety of mystery-solving mini games and puzzles for the customers to play. This can create a very memorable and fulfilling experience for the customers.

Interactive elements in themed cafes

Located in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Hokkaido, “maid cafes” are incredibly popular in Japan. These cafes are an explicit example of how ‘serve’ is being noticeably differentiated from ‘please kindly serve’, and it is done so by incorporating the master-slave style relationship from Akihabara’s Otaku culture. What customers will enjoy is the interactive and elaborate, genuine delights of having just been honored in a master-servant relationship. All the meals and drinks are available at a fixed price and are supplemented with services that are not possible within other cafes and restaurants. For example, having the meals decorated with a drawing by one of the maids or having the customer play rock-paper-scissors, card games or video games with the maids with the displays and presents being dependent on the game outcome. It is a frilly and deluxe service, drawing customers in by its momentarily luxurious escape from reality. Another unusual interactive themed cafe is one located in Kabukicho, Tokyo. Unlike the cafes mentioned above which will involve more direct and light-hearted interaction, the Lock Up is much more intense, there has been questioning as to whether or not it should even be considered a cafe! The Lock Up is a gaol (jail) and horror themed dining experience. Customers first place their order at the food and drink counter; then ushered into a very dimly lit, prison cell where they can already hear the cries of other customers and eerie music. Before too long, the doors will close and they will be locked in with both food and drink brought to them by ‘prison guards’. At completely random times, there will be pretend emergency earthquake evacuations and blackouts where the staff will be dressed up in whacky horror style clothing, crawling on the floor and proceeding to scare the customers to extreme. It is advised that the staff will definitely not hold back on any customer that has a birthday on that day so be prepared. The cafe later offers a colorful selection of merchandise and a dedicated photo and stamp album corner to remind customers of their horrifying dining experience.

Special menu items and drinks

Theme cafes are not just about the decor and design. They offer special menus to fit the theme or dishes named with a pun. The fun atmosphere embodies the spirit of the cafe and The Lock Up in Tokyo does just that. The prison/horror theme is executed perfectly with cells for dining rooms and mad scientists as waiters. The food is a unique blend of prison and mad scientist grub. A variety of pasta and omelettes are served in small lockable prison cells and come in a variety of flavors. The most popular item is the God Hand Omelette in which a disembodied hand holds the omelette. A few of the mad scientist experiments include a brain-shaped tofu dish and various drinks with syringes. Other notable menu themes include Vampire Cafe in Tokyo and Osaka and Alice in a Labyrinth. Character goods featuring the cute vampire mascot and souvenir blood bags are available for purchase. The food follows a strict vampire theme with demonic pasta and occult rice dishes. The best dish is the steaming Iron Plate of The Legendary Creatures Muscle. It consists of garlic fried in olive oil and topped off with a chunk of rare steak in the shape of Satan and comes with a mini steak of the legendary creature and the vampire’s essence. Desserts come in the form of ghoulish parfaits topped with a skull. The Alice in a Labyrinth cafe offers food and drink in the form of grotesque edible pets and animals and various themed sweet drinks usually based on characters from the book.

Live performances and entertainment

Live performances are commonplace at most of these quirky spots. There are regular gigs at Dog in Town in Bangkok and the owner’s other establishment, Music Square. The bands all perform in the first-floor cafe and participate in Dog Nights. Dog Nights are aimed at involving bands from around the world to play at the cafe, so many of the musicians are touring through Asia and are looking for venues to play. The name Dog Nights comes from the cafe’s mascot and, as well as a real living dog, a golden retriever. Just over the border from Thailand in Cambodia, the restaurant and cafe Sorya 13 has regular arts events. The art is displayed around the entire restaurant, but also once a month there is an Art Night with different themes each time. At these events, the artists present their work, whether it be paintings or photography, and the nights also feature live music and food and drink specials. The art nights have grown to be very popular, and the casual setting and mingling between artists and cafe customers have created a comfortable social environment. Another way that themed cafes are incorporating live music is by putting on in-house shows. This means that the bands actually play gigs in the cafe’s building. Usually, in-house shows are held after closing times, and the only people there are members of the band, cafe staff, and friends of the band. For the bands, it is sometimes difficult to book gigs, and having in-house shows is an easy and comfortable way to keep playing music. The bands themselves are also customers of the cafe and often return to play more shows at the same location.

Photogenic and Instagram-worthy settings

Pompompurin Café in Osaka is ideal for fans of Sanrio characters. The café features various Pompompurin decorations and has a separate merchandise store. However, the most adorable part of the café is the menu items that are shaped to look like the golden retriever character, particularly the main courses and desserts. These are of course limited time offers, but some great memories in photo form can be taken. There are also events at the café where visitors can make their own character themed crafts.

A visit to the Dominique Ansel Bakery in Tokyo is a must for anyone with a sweet tooth. This place is famous for being the birthplace of the cronut, a delicious pastry that is a hybrid of a croissant and donut. While the food and drink here is quality, it’s the surrounding architecture of the area that steals the show. The bakery is located in a pair of historic Tokyo buildings, one of which resembles a New York brownstone. Both buildings are surrounded by cherry blossoms during the spring, and are close to many other Instagrammable spots in the Omotesando and Harajuku area.

There are also some cafes that are designed with the intention of giving their customers a chance to take as many photos as possible. Whether it’s due to the astonishing interior, the novelty of the food and drinks on offer, or just the overall quirky atmosphere, these are the most photogenic cafes in Asia. Many of these items are also only available for a limited time – some of these dishes listed may not be available at the time of your visit.

Merchandise and souvenirs

The articles on themed cafes may whet the appetites of existing fans, as well as travelers intending to visit these cafes. For existing fans, the merchandise is another form of content using the same characters they have already grown attached to. Seeing the characters displayed in a way that is consistent with their original design can provide fans with new content on the characters. As merchandise can usually be mass-produced, access to the merchandise is easier for fans in comparison to, say, visiting the actual cafe. It can be used as a tool to introduce non-fans or casual watchers. Due to limited or non-existent overseas shipping for cafe goods, the only way to acquire these items is to visit the cafe location.

In some cases, cafe merchandise can be a status symbol for fans. Certain merchandise can only be bought from the cafe’s online site or by traveling to the actual cafe location, which generally increases the value of the merchandise. In Asia, limited edition merchandise can become highly sought-after collector’s items, fetching many times their original retail value.

Merchandise and souvenirs are an integral part of the themed cafe industry, as they present an opportunity for diners to bring a lasting physical reminder of their experience at the cafe. This is especially true for tourists. Nothing beats wearing your favorite character’s badge or using your favorite cafe’s mug for your morning coffee. Taking photos of the cafe and keeping them in an album is something of the past, but bringing home a mug or T-shirt allows the customer to reliably remember their experience from the cafe every time they use that item.

Impact and Future of Quirky Themed Cafes in Asia

The impact of quirky themed cafes in Asia has been nothing short of phenomenal. Despite being a relatively new ‘phenomenon’ starting in the mid-2000s, the presence of over 100 uniquely themed cafes in Tokyo (Vogel, 2016) shows that it is fast becoming the norm rather than an alternative. In cities such as Tokyo, Taipei, and Seoul, quirky themed cafes are becoming a mainstay of local cafe culture, particularly amongst the youths and young adults. This is especially so in cities where living spaces can be cramped, limited, and/or expensive. The appeal for themed cafes lies in the experience and/or escapism it offers from the outside world, but as some apartments can be small, sometimes it’s just nice to be in a place that is spacious and comfortable. For example, the ambiance of the Moomin Cafe in Tokyo is one of warmth and coziness, a stark contrast from the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo CBD. Quirky themed cafes are also proving to be highly lucrative in terms of drawing in tourists. Taiwan, which 10 years ago had less than 20 cafes, has become a themed cafe haven with over 300 of them at present, many foreigners included them as part of their travel itineraries to visit specific ones of interest. Dogs, cats, owls, maids, and cosplay are probably some of the most common reasons tourists chose to visit Japan’s cafes, owing to the fact that some of these things can be rare or uncommon in their own countries. An example is the popularity of the ‘fukuro cafes’ where various owl species can be interacted with and/or touched, these have proven popular with travelers from western countries whilst owl cafes are still relatively uncommon in the west.

Influence on the local cafe culture

Over the years, cafe culture in Asia has changed significantly due to the emergence of quirky themed concept cafes. These quirky themed cafes have been noted as the possible forefronters in helping local cafe culture develop further. Before the emergence of theme cafes, the cafe scene in Asia was only frequented by an older crowd or families with mothers and children. Young adults and teenagers would shy away from cafes as they would often feel out of place in a cafe environment. With the emergence of themed cafes, local youths now have a place where their age group is the targeted demographic and they are able to feel comfortable being served at a cafe without feeling out of place. Following the targeting of a younger demographic, traditional cafes in Asia have also tried to change their image to become more appealing to a younger crowd to compete with the popular quirky themed cafes. Local cafes have also realized that in order though they may still be able to target the traditional family demographic, the younger generation is a key to future business. This led to most traditional cafes in Asia undergoing a radical change in decor and some even changing their café concept entirely to something that is more modern and current. This shift of trying to emulate what theme cafes have succeeded with is apparent throughout various locations in Asia. The emergence of themed cafes to the local café culture helped in breaking the traditional idea that cafes are places for quiet relaxation. Often themed cafes in Asia are places of high energy and are usually quite loud. This has begun to relate to the younger generation in Asia and what they perceive as a fun social environment. The creativity and uniqueness that themed cafes exude is beginning to set higher standards for the local café cultures. An example of this is found in the recent opening of a maid café in Singapore, which is aiming to set the benchmark for a new kind of dining and social experience, a factor which the younger generation in Asia is now accustomed to at themed cafes.

Tourism and economic benefits

The economic benefits tied in with café tourism can also help with regional economy, where cafes are often utilised as a tool to support local products and activities through the increase in sales of tourist souvenirs. This also opens up the possibility of new themed cafes to be established in regional areas, providing new job opportunities and revitalising local communities.

The rise in tourists directly impacts the revenue of the cafes and the surrounding retailers. Interviewing the patrons at some of these cafes have shown that quite a few were travellers who learned of the cafe through online research. Based on a rough estimation, these tourists spent on average around 1000 yen to 3000 yen per visit. Subsequently there are tourists who were influenced to visit the country after learning about the existence of these quirky cafes. With travelers spending an average of 3-4 days looking to visit several of these cafes, the increase in cafe tourism is an important factor to consider in looking at the impact of these cafes. A lot of these themed cafes are also located at destinations tourists typically travel to, in Kyoto for example, the popular Mameshiba Cafe sees around 50% of their visitors being international tourists.

Showcasing the positive spin-offs of quirky cafes, a major outcome is placed onto the country’s tourism aspect. Countries which have a more developed quirky cafe culture scene such as Japan and Korea will see an increase in incoming tourists that are looking to experience something different. This can be reflected by the increase in coverage of these cafes by online writers and bloggers, most of which reside overseas or typically have a large following from international readers. Favourable reviews and photos that are shared through social media can also reach out to potential tourists, these often generate a level of interest and a higher probability of them deciding to go ahead with a visit.

Evolution of themes and customer expectations

In the last 20 years, it is apparent that themed cafes have taken on a whole new approach in designing the interior and exterior of their cafes as the industry has become more competitive. Harley (2006) states that in order for themed cafes to survive in the fast-paced environment, theme development must seek to attain the highest level of differentiation while maintaining uniqueness. An example of this would be a ninja village themed cafe in Akasaku, Tokyo, known as the ‘Christon Café’, which from first glance appears to be a traditional European chapel, but inside is a network of dimly lit, stone-walled, cavernous dining areas and an upper floor that evokes a medieval guild hall, where ninjas stalk and silently serve patrons (Japan Travel n.d). Some of the wackier themes that have been developed in Japan cannot be found anywhere else in the world and franchises such as maid cafes have been so successful that they have now extended from Tokyo to countries such as Taiwan and South Korea. As the themes change in these cafes, customer expectations also change. Benko-Iseppon et al. (2010) suggests younger customers at a manga kissa (manga cafe) do not expect the cafe to have a traditional theme of the manga due to the sometimes risqué content of the comics and want an internet cafe-style environment. This seems to be blurring the line between a themed café and another sort of establishment. Maid cafes have also started to move towards the development of host clubs and a direct comparison in the marketability of maids who serve to the largely male customer base of housewives in the 80s (Macias & Machiyama 2007). This shows that while themed cafes have gained popularity, the original assertion of Sotamaa (2003) that the unique experience does not need reinforcement, but only exposure and access to the market is not entirely true. Although maid cafes were proof of a new genre of entertainment where the ‘Moe’ substitute understands and sometimes sympathizes with the customer, the popularity led to an imitation by other businesses resulting in the loss of the original image and idea.