Warren-like interiors hide endless goodies at Mandarake, Shibuya: Credit Andrew Goldie
I started my investigation at Mandarake, a secondhand store for anime, manga, toys, cosplay, and assorted subculture merch. The entrance is hard to miss. Bronze steampunk pipes twist around a giant clock with a shattered face, the hands pointing not to hours but to years past.
I've been walking past it for years assuming it was a disco, but this time I descended the grey stairs, strobing lights illuminating posters for cosplayer meet-and-greets and collectibles with eye-watering prices (60,000 yen, $780, for a worn rubber kaiju monster?!).
The other shoppers this afternoon are mostly students, plus a handful of besuited businessmen and one sharply dressed middle-aged woman meandering through towers of Bandai Mecha toys, ancient Shōnen Jump magazines, and autographed photos from teen idols. The narrow aisles, chartreuse floor lighting and cabinets of creepy articulated dolls make me feel slightly claustrophobic, but it also feels like I might stumble on buried treasure at any moment.
On the endless shelves of manga, it's easy to spot stereotype-confirming examples with hard-bitten male heroes, busty ladies, and techno-futuristic sci-fi, but there's also a lot of diversity.
A large section is given over to yaoi or boys' love (BL), homoerotic romances that are paradoxically popular with women. I eye Bitter Porn Chocolatier, in which a spy steals award-winning dessert recipes using his wiles. Then there’s books that are all innocent cuteness, like Shirokuma Cafe, in which anthropomorphic animals eat cake and make bad puns. There is literally something for everyone.
Inside Shibuya’s Maidreamin
My next stop is another classic otaku haunt: the maid cafe.
Maidreamin is one of Asia’s largest chains of maid cafes, where the adorable maids have distinct characters, wear frilly pinafores, and perform chirpy dance numbers.
I'm welcomed by a petite maid who introduces herself as Usagi-chan (Miss Rabbit) and announces the arrival of “Princess Jessica” to the room. With wide, earnest eyes, she explains the system (500 yen an hour in addition to a food or drink order) before hopping off to fetch me a pair of fuzzy rabbit ears.