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Manga Cafe Culture

Tuesday 24th April 2012

Daniel Robson on the fan's home away from home

Manga Cafe CultureI’ve got my own little booth. The floor is padded, like one big mattress, and decked in leather. There’s a desk built into the unit, upon which sits a PC with a large combination TV-monitor and a keyboard. The padding continues under the desk, so that I can lay my entire frame diagonally and stretch my legs. Above the desk, another ledge houses a PlayStation 2 and a powerful desk lamp. On one wall is a hook to hang my jacket and a bag for my other personal possessions; on another hangs a large pair of headphones. A small legless chair helps me sit upright to read. My shoes are outside the booth, in a tidy little container. And piled up on the desk are the latest issues of my favourite manga, omnibus collections and magazines.

For any hardened pulp aficionado, a decent Tokyo manga cafe is nirvana. With thousands of volumes of manga available to read in a hushed and comfortable setting, they offer the ultimate way to kill an hour or two, be it day or night. Don’t fancy reading? You can surf the net, watch a movie or play an MMORPG. Or just lie back and take a nap (blankets provided). An unlimited supply of soft drinks is supplied at no extra charge, and sometimes ice cream, too. Hot and cold food is usually on the menu. Want to crash overnight? There may well be a shower.

Manga Cafe CultureManga date? Grab a double booth with a mini-sofa. Movie date? Some manga cafes even have a big-screen “theatre” room. Updating your CV? Get a room with a reclining chair and print to your heart’s content.

My relationship with Tokyo’s manga cafes (or manga kissa, short for kissaten, which means “cafe”) goes right back to my first trip, when a friend took me to crash at one overnight after we missed the last train home. Next, whilst waiting a month for my internet connection to be plumbed at my very first Tokyo apartment, the local manga cafe was pretty much my office. This small, daytime-only establishment was much less well equipped – with no private cubicles, customers had to read their books on shared sofas, while the computer set-up resembled your average internet cafe. But even here, people laid out to sleep on the sofas, the drinks were free, and a hot menu was always available.

These days, I use them as a place to retreat between meetings or before gigs, to finish off a little work or, more likely, to nap. Once you have a favourite spot (mine’s the Gran Cyber Cafe above Forever 21 in Shibuya, as pictured), it starts to feel like home.

Gran Cyber Cafe is part of the B@gus chain – unlike restaurants or other businesses, chain manga kissa are usually better than small independent ones, because they offer lavish space and resources. Other chains include Manboo and Gera Gera. But at Gran Cyber Cafe, I can help myself to all the soft-serve ice cream I care to eat, safe in the knowledge that the smoking section is far enough removed as to not pollute my booth, and all within the bargain price of 200 yen (£1.50) per half hour or 1,600 yen (£12) overnight.

However, for some Japanese, kissaten actually are home. Better equipped than capsules and cheaper than hotels, manga cafes provide shelter for 5,400 homeless people around Japan, according to government statistics. Some of these so-called Net Cafe Refugees even use the cafe’s address for their post and on job applications, with some businesses offering a discounted price on their booths if paid monthly in advance, just like a cheap apartment.

Of course, this is an extreme and tragic case. While manga kissa cubicles are often comfy, the rest of us would have to be pretty mad about manga to actually want to live in one, since there’s not much in the way of privacy. The walls between booths are wafer thin, and not built all the way to the ceiling – it’s a bit like being in an open-plan office, allowing you to see into the next cubicle.

But if you’re in Japan and you want to catch up on your reading without loading down your luggage (and if you can read kanji, since the books are rarely, if ever, in English), or to take the load off your feet during a day of exploration, look out for the nearest manga cafe. And if you hear me snoring in one of the booths, remember: Ssssshhhhhhhhhh.


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