Ikebukuro back street. Somewhere near the entrance to the Sunshine City shopping complex, formerly the site of fearsome Sugamo prison. There’s a ramen shop, another ramen shop, a yakitori stand, and then a storefront window framed by black lace curtains and violet drapes.
The sign outside reads B:Lily-rose. A tall and elegant young man in a pin stripe suit welcomes us and takes our coats. It takes a second to settle in: Dude, that dude isn’t a dude, dude. Neither is anyone else working inside.
B:Lily-rose is a cafe staffed by women who cross dress as men. Not just as any old Tom, Dick, or Harry, but beautiful men who represent the very ideal of Boy’s Love, or Yaoi, manga and anime. It is the female version of the maid cafes that cater to male tastes, mostly centered in the nerdy Akihabara district.
There’s also a Butler Cafe named Swallowtail, which was our first choice for late afternoon refreshment, but business there is so popping that they required a reservation in advance. Still, B:Lily-rose, which opened scant three months ago, doesn’t disappoint.
It’s a small concrete bunker, made cozy by fake flowers and careful attention to details. It is full of female otaku customers, fresh from shopping sprees at the nearby “Otome Road” Tokyo’s designated Boy’s Love district, a line of shops selling amateur press dojinshi – thin pamphlets with an illustrated story inside depicting relationships of various levels of intimacy (from mild to wild) between male characters from mainstream anime and manga franchises. Billboards outside depict the wares in the shops: two blond and blue-eyed boys about to kiss, their lips almost touching, but not quite…
Our “Garcon” gives us a choice between a stainless steel table, lined with over-stylized black and red chairs smuggled in from the Mad Hatter’s tea party, perhaps. The other option is a gleaming white counter facing the wall, but a seat there costs an extra 500 yen (US$4.50), which entitles you to the “Conversation System,” an up-close and personal chat with the bartender (in picture perfect vest and bowtie) working the shift.
I count five “hosts” in all running the floor. Everyone is tall, thin, and impeccably dressed. Black trench coats, tailored jackets. Hair is dyed either reddish brown or dirty blond, styled with wax like the latest pop idols. Colored contact lens take us one step further away from reality and closer to some kind of ideal past male or female. Our waiter is wearing a sharp black pinstripe suit. She leans in to ask what we’d like to drink. The voice is velvet androgyny.
A menu lists off alcoholic and soft cocktails with names like Baby Kiss, Cutie Boy, and Sweet Love. I’m American, I’m a man, and I’m way out of my element here. I order a Coke. A tiny bottle is produced, along with a glass. Someone is standing in back of me. A thin hand crosses into my field of vision. The Coke is poured with careful ritual finesse. For the drinks with the girly names, a silver shaker comes out for a scene straight out of Cocktail.
Time to scan the customers. Its mostly young women in their twenties dressed a little punk, a little goth, but nothing too crazy or elaborate. Plaid skirts and designer black T-shirts with skulls on them, probably bought of the rack at Marui Young. Hair is black, straight. A lot of people wearing glasses. All of them, just a little dumpy (which is OK with me, I am too). The girl sitting next to me is drawing something in a sketchbook. Beautiful pencil illustrations of characters from the anime and manga Bleach…who also bare a striking similarity to the staff of B:Lily-rose.
Maybe it’s paranoia, but I imagine the cold eyes of death on me. “What the fuck is this gaijin…this…this…MAN doing in here?” Hard to get too comfortable. I have to keep one eye on the clock. As the menu points out helpfully, “No men allowed after 4pm.”
I’ve got scant minuets to figure it all out before I’m thrown out into the street. Coming here was Makiko Yanagi’s idea. She’s a journalist who has been following the burgeoning female otaku scene in Ikebukuro. What is the appeal of a place like this, I ask her?
“It’s peaceful, elegant, and clean. There’s nothing dirty about this place at all.”
Tom Cruise triumphant: a widescreen television on the wall plays Interview With the Vampire, the scene where a naked woman is sacrificed on stage to a shocked audience. But one in the cafe even blinks an eye at the graphic depiction of sex and violence.
Sands in the hourglass. I’m about to turn into a pumpkin. Better make a run for the door. Our host gathers up our coats and bags. “It’s cold outside,” she (he?) purrs to us. “Please don’t catch a cold. Please come again.” Did she say it to me, or to my female companions?
Then Tokyo reassembles itself and Ikebukuro becomes just another line of ramen stand, ramen stand, yakitori stand...
B:Lily-rose homepage (with address, hours, and dreamy pictures of Garcon)