The first day the Gundam Café opened up on the side of the (in)famous Electric Town Exit of Akihabara Station, there was a true carnivale spirit in the air. Fans lined up out the door, couples in full cosplay gear from all eras, and there was even a Char cosplayer occasionally shouting out “Seig Zeon!” from the bridge of the UDX building overlooking it. In a neighborhood fueled by gimmicks, the Gundam Café seemed to out-gimmick them all. AKB48 would be jealous.
However, your humble writer isn’t one for riding an hour to Akihabara station followed by two hours standing in line to go to a café. No. Rather, your humble writer is one for crashing semi-sober outside of Akihabara station after a wild night of moshing at a punk-rock DJ event in Shinjuku, then going to a café at four in the morning, conking out ‘til the shutters opened at half-past eight. Now, that’s how cool people roll.
With the weeks of anticipation leading up to the opening, expectations were high to say the least. Of course, there were (and still are) many unofficial establishments catering to those who want a place to mix their drinks and machines. The Gundam Café’s claim to fame was that it would have the full blessing of Bandai, with no legal muck ruining anyone’s fun. While it lacked the sheer, in-your-face cool full-scale Gundam statue that brought over a million flocking to Odaiba, a café must have been deemed the best fit for Akihabara for what should be obvious reasons.
Despite being there a week after the spectacle of its grand opening, when the doors finally opened, it was clear that the hype wasn’t quite over: a healthy line had formed, just shy of the stoplight at the street corner and Fuji TV had a newsvan parked in front. A full-blown crew came out armed with their gear, asking those in lines how long they’ve been waiting for, conveniently skipping over the odd foreigner in line. I call shenanigans.
Once inside, the menu is so standard it barely merits a paragraph. Coffee in both hot and cold varieties and some simple sandwiches are the order of the day. There’s also “Gunplayaki,” which is just a take on the classic Japanese sweet taiyaki – red bean paste sandwiched in a crispy bread crust. A decent selection of liquors on the counter suggests that there’s more than one way to put the beam in your saber.
Other than that though, the Gundam experience is surprisingly lacking. It’s embarrassing to say that the most immersive experience is the bathroom, where the john is thematically colored. To add extra punch, there’s a button on the wall which dims the lights and sounds a flurry of klaxons and crunching cartoon gear noises. Once your business is done though, it’s back to the dreary world of your bitter Haro Latte. At least the big-screen TV provides some clever videos, including an ad for the café’s “Jaburo Blend” brand coffee, a faux space-port (complete with the lights of distant battles) and a video presentation of how they produce those ubiquitous Gundam models.
Perhaps I’m just not the target audience for this type of joint. Perhaps the pastel world of magical chants on coffee is more my speed. But, as addressed in my previous column, a big appeal of these places is the social aspect or at least the simulation thereof. There wasn’t much of that here compared to one of the aforementioned unofficial bars: the late, great Bar Zeon, which provided a place for the faithful to gather and showed Gundam anime through the years on a big-screen projector. The Café, by contrast, feels like a cleaned-up, corporatized version of that experience. It’s fun and all but is it really worth lining up for two hours in the increasingly hot and humid weather?
Maybe it all just goes to show what we know. If Bandai knows how to do anything well, it’s milk that cash cow for all she’s worth. Bar Zeon, for all its aspirations, died a quiet death earlier this year while this place seems on its way to making back double its investment by next Tuesday. Being next to the trendy, sexy-sleek UDX building, it’s obvious that the powers that be are seeking more of a crossover than some shady establishment on the edge of town like Bar Zeon was.
And perhaps there’s a chance that I just don’t get it. A particular moment in my visit that comes to mind was of two middle-aged ladies. They were just sipping away their coffee while talking about a small display by mecha designer Kunio Okawara and discussing his designs over the years the way one would on how Picasso’s style changed through the course of his life.
A more dramatic example was of a gentlemen who looked like he stepped right out of Revenge of the Nerds. Clad in a black tux with red bowtie, he eyed the display of Gundam models through the ages on the wall. In particular, he stared in wide-eyed astonishment at the original 1980 1/144 RX-78 model kit. As his eyes welled up in tears and his hands pressed against the Plexiglas in a nostalgic trance, all he could stammer out was “I used to own that one! I used to own it!” Sometimes, it’s not about which company makes what or how much they charge for a latte with a goofy face on it. Sometimes, it’s the people.
Fernando Ramos lives in the Saitama area and has yet to regret it. His website, such as it is, can be found at www.mroutside.com.