“If you will please follow the large red tongue, you’ll find a cup of coffee waiting for you inside the monster’s belly.” We’re surrounded by more neon colours and excited girls than at a Little Mix concert, and despite my guide’s translation, I’m confused.
But it’s safe to say that having a latte in Tokyo is a lot more fun than in Australia, where the best you can hope for is a laugh from a Starbucks employee shouting out a fake name which sounds a bit like a rude word.
Although you’ll find the world’s busiest and most profitable Starbucks in Shibuya, where there are just a few coffee options and they won’t write your name on the cups (instead there are messages like “Try hard with your job!”), Tokyo’s cafe culture delivers much more than the green mermaid.
Aimed at 'salarymen' looking for a quick caffeine fix on the way to work, coffee shops took off here in the Seventies. Since then the scene has evolved, with each cafe owner vying to create the most unusual and original destination, complete with perfectly ordered queues of people waiting for an experience with their espresso.
An import from Taiwan, 'cat cafes' – with resident felines wandering among the tables – first appeared in Japan in 2004, and the concept has since spread to the UK.
Now you don’t have to look far in Tokyo to find one, but if you’re bored with cats then there are also owl, goat, penguin and rabbit cafes (one of which makes you wear bunny ears while queuing to get in).
I climb to the fourth floor of a nondescript building in Akihabara to visit Cat Cafe Nyanny, where after popping on some slippers and washing my hands I part with 1,000 yen (A$12) to play with some moggies for an hour.
It’s a distinctly odd experience, akin to being in a cat-obsessed stranger’s flat, but is pleasantly relaxed compared to the hectic city outside. Downstairs there’s enough wood panelling on the walls to rival a sauna, while upstairs it’s all about sofas and scratching posts.
It’s filled with locals who don’t have the time or space for a pet of their own – they pick up toys from the boxes by the counter in an effort to get the attention of the 30 cats. Regulars come back again and again to see the one they’re most fond of.
I’m shown very little interest until I buy a coffee; as soon as the milk carton comes out I’m king of the cats.
For outsiders, it can be hard to keep up with the latest and greatest new additions to Tokyo’s cafe scene. So I meet up with Inside Japan Tours’ American guide Tyler, who decides my next stop needs to be the Kawaii Monster Cafe.
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Heading Down The Monster's Tongue
After a short walk from Harajuku station we arrive just before opening and take our position in the huge queue behind hordes of excited youngsters – always a good, if slightly disheartening, sign.
Twenty minutes later we reach the tongue of the monster, “Mr Ten Thousand Chopsticks”, or Choppy if you want to be informal, where we have to decide which part of the café to sit in: Mushroom Disco, Milk Stand, Bar Experiment or Mel-Tea Room.
We pick the last and head down the monster’s tongue, into his belly. The doors open and a sensory overload hits. The idea is that Choppy has swallowed all of Harajuku, and the effect is a room that’s like someone has drunk every bright colour of paint possible and then vomited it everywhere — but with a nicer smell.
In front of us is a giant pink cake merry-go-round. Harajuku girls dressed as one of five monster mascots escort us to our table in the middle of a neon pink and purple waltzer car booth, under the head of a giant purple bunny rabbit that’s sucking from a baby bottle via an LED light strip. So far so normal then.
My Instagram hearts go through the roof as I photograph this totally Tokyo experience; colourful, crazy, and cute (Kawaii meaning cute in Japanese); it’s as if I’ve stepped into a kids’ comic book.
No expense is spared (the interior is made by the people who designed Tokyo Disney), and the childish excitement is intensified when I order and the E-numbers kick in.
The menu appears on a giant iPad inside a plastic cake, and we order a few sugary drinks. Some light up, some require you to pour various vials of liquid in to create your own potion, others have floating balls of deliciousness in them.
The food plays tricks on you: the pasta coloured red, blue, yellow and green at first appears to be made by one of those Play-Doh pasta machines but is actually garlic-butter-flavoured, and comes with brightly coloured dips to sauce it up.
Kawaii Monster Cafe
Elsewhere in Tokyo you’ll find everything from the slightly creepy 'maid cafes' of Akihabara, to a pop-up My Little Pony Cafe. We make a final quick stop at the Lock Up Cafe in Harajuku, where we’re led by a 'policewoman' to a cell, to order our caffeine fix.
We may be behind bars, but like Tokyo’s other themed coffee shops and restaurants, this is a form of escapism from a highly structured society, reckons Tyler. These are places where you can let loose and imagine you’re elsewhere – even if that elsewhere is prison. Or the belly of the beast.
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This article was written by Chris Cox from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.