[Note: this post will be fairly text-heavy, as photography is prohibited inside Swallowtail Cafe. I have included photos and videos from other sources where possible.]
Our final day in Tokyo was so eventful that, in order to do it full justice, I will have to split it into parts. This first post will cover what was quite possibly the single most ridiculous thing I have ever been a part of: a visit to Swallowtail Butler Cafe. This all began when, a couple of days previously, Sari had received a message from a friend who used to live in Japan, jokingly asking if we would be visiting a ‘butler’ cafe during our time in Tokyo. When we heard this, we weren’t entirely sure what on earth a ‘butler’ cafe even was. We knew about the famous maid cafes, of course – the establishments that line the streets of districts like Akihabara, and provide their usually male patrons with an extravagant cafe experience, complete with waitresses who sing and perform for you, dressed in elaborate, often fairly skimpy maid outfits.
So what on earth could a butler cafe be? Well, exactly that, only for girls, really – except less singing and skimpy clothing, and more suits and waiting on you hand and foot. Actual butlering, if you will. Less than a minute of skim reading Google search results had me convinced that we absolutely had to visit such a place, even if it was the only other thing we did in Tokyo. However, while maid cafes are very common and easy to come by, there are, by contrast, only two butler cafes in Tokyo – one with a mix of Japanese and foreign ‘butlers’, a newer edition to Tokyo’s landscape, and the original Swallowtail Cafe, featuring only Japanese butlers. Now we weren’t about to half-ass this; we wanted the full, lifted straight from a manga experience, so of course we chose Swallowtail.
Strictly reservation-only, I had to enlist the help of a couple of Japanese-speaking friends and Google Translate to get through the form, which includes the title you would like to be addressed as (more on that later), special dessert orders, and more. After struggling through the form, and somehow managing to cancel successful reservations multiple times, we were finally all set to visit at lunchtime on Monday.
The cafe is located a little out of the way in Ikebukuro, and having seen that a few people had had trouble finding it, we left ourselves plenty of time to get there. From Ikebukuro Station it was about a ten minute walk, and although the outside is rather inconspicuous – nothing but a small sign indicates that you’ve found the right place – we had no trouble locating it, and arrived nice and early. There’s a rather more obvious gift shop located across the road, so it might be better to look for that, if you’re struggling. We spent a short, timid while waiting outside the cafe, not quite able to believe that we were about to spend the next eighty minutes being waited on by Japanese butlers.
Eventually, we bit the bullet and descended into the dimly-lit entrance, located in the basement. After a short while, a tall, impeccably dressed figure emerged from the shadows and seemed to glide forward like a vampire. I could already feel laughter bubbling up inside of me, but I bit my tongue as he asked whether we had a reservation, his smooth voice juxtaposing the broken English. I gave my name, and he proceeded to spell it out in English in a slow, calm manner. I couldn’t imagine there were many Japanese customers who would make a booking under the name ‘Olivia’, but I politely waited until he had finished before confirming that yes, that was me. He asked us to take a seat, and disappeared back into the shadows from whence he came. We exchanged glances that screamed, ‘what the heck is this place?’
After a couple of minutes, he returned, and before continuing, first apologised that he didn’t speak much English. Of course we didn’t mind – we should instead have been apologising for our lack of Japanese proficiency. He spent time carefully choosing his words before he spoke, wanting to make sure that we fully understood the information he was giving us. He explained a bit about the cafe and how it would work, i.e. that we must let the butlers carry our bags, for example, and that photography was forbidden, before asking how we wished to be addressed. We had chosen the Japanese for ‘princess’ on our reservation form – duh – and after running through a few titles and their English equivalents, he agreed with a gentle laugh that ‘princess’ would probably be best, given our age. This got me wondering about Swallowtail’s clientele; I had blindly assumed that its customers would largely be people of around our age or younger, even, but perhaps older women patronised it too. After a minute or two of pondering this, we were led inside.
As we walked through the softly-lit hallway, butlers materialised from left, right and centre to bow low and greet us as princesses. It was all rather overwhelming, and I couldn’t help but stifle another laugh. It was busy, with most tables full, and handsome men in striking attire wove their way through the quiet chaos elegantly. One butler insisted on carrying our bags as we were shown to our table in the centre of the quietly grand room – one that wouldn’t have looked out of place as a high-end, if slightly dated, afternoon tea establishment back home. The space was not enormous, but neither was it small, and the delicate light afforded the illusion of intimacy. To one side lay booths for smaller groups, shrouded in silk and lace curtains, and I couldn’t tell if perhaps these were reserved for regulars.
As we had our chairs pulled out for us, napkins placed gently and modestly on our laps, and our bags stored away in a box beneath the table and covered over with a pristine white cloth, I allowed myself a quick glance around at the other customers. To our right were the only other foreigners, who had just ordered their food and didn’t seem to be finding this the slightest bit bizarre or amusing; to our left were some calm, quiet Japanese businesswomen, a couple looking as though they were actually having meetings, and others alone, seemingly just enjoying their (extravagant) lunch break; the rest were an interesting mix of mothers and their grown-up daughters, groups of younger girls – some complete with full Lolita dress – and women of various ages, alone or with a friend. Unsurprisingly, there was not a male customer in sight.
A very tall, faultlessly dressed butler came over to us and, speaking very little English, basically flashed us an apologetic yet charming smile and handed us menus. We instantly recognised him from our Google searches – he was one of the most famous members of staff, regularly appearing in their music videos and on their CDs. (Yep, that’s a thing they do. A lot.) He did his best to talk to us, and we felt incredibly bad for not understanding Japanese. Just as we were going to ask, on the off-chance, whether he perhaps spoke any Korean, another butler appeared and began speaking to us in English. Like the man at the door, he too seemed to choose his words with much caution, though this was unnecessary, because he actually spoke English very well.
He proceeded to explain how everything would work. We had eighty minutes to enjoy the cafe and our meal, after which we must leave; there would be multiple courses, including a fancy tea; and, among a few other things, we weren’t to lift a finger, but rather to ring a bell whenever we needed anything. After he had finished, he left us to browse through the menu and select our food, and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing – silently, mind you, but to the point where tears were streaming down my face. I was painfully desperate not to appear rude or insulting, but something in me just couldn’t quite grasp the situation in which I found myself. The room was unexpectedly quiet, with chatter being kept to a low murmur by other customers and maintained by the butlers, who spoke in soft, clear tones. I regained my composure somewhat, and in hushed voices, we discussed our surroundings and how odd it felt to be waited upon in this manner, before realising that, given our time limit, we should probably choose our food.
(skip to 5:27 in the above video, past the song, and you will see something of a promotional video for the cafe, including a tour of the interior)
As I usually have to, I selected the dish I felt could most easily be made vegetarian, which was a lemon and chicken pasta. Elena chose the same, while Sari opted for a different pasta dish. They all came with a salad as a starter, and then a choice of dessert. Asha, meanwhile, decided to have afternoon tea, which came with a dessert platter in addition to the sandwiches, scones, and so on. When our butler returned (following a quick ring of the bell), we asked if I could have the pasta without meat. Eager to please, as is his job, he rushed to check with the chef. Indeed it could, and after we had all ordered our food, we also had to choose a tea from the extravagant list – pages and pages, split into multiple sections. I plumped for a coconut-infused blend from the list named after Greek gods and goddesses.
The tea was the first thing to arrive, with each individual type paired with a particular cup and saucer, all of which our butler diligently described to us as he poured. Though they were easily distinguishable from one another, they were all pretty and floral, save for Elena’s choice, which came with one of the more extravagant sets of china I’ve seen in my time, complete with a gold tea strainer. Naturally, she was delighted. We were warned not to pour our own tea – ‘it is far too hot’ – but rather to call him whenever our drinks needed replenishing.
As we waited for our food, Elena dropped her napkin a couple of times, and having been very politely but rather firmly told not to lift a finger, we were unsure whether she should even pick it up herself. Eventually she did, though I later saw another girl drop hers, then give one of the butlers a rather pointed look in order that he might retrieve it for her. It was clear that many of the customers had absolutely no problem being waited upon, and rather relished it. I, however, though attempting to enjoy the novelty, was rather awkward and British throughout the entire meal, not wanting to inconvenience anyone, and felt rather guilty every time I had my tea poured for me. At one point, a little food fell on the table as another butler cleared away my plate, and I instantly wiped it away with some tissue. However, he came back moments later with a cloth, looked genuinely perplexed as to why I had already cleaned the table, and proceeded to wipe it again anyway.
Asha’s impressive afternoon tea arrived with our starters, and soon enough, our mains followed. I wasn’t expecting a great deal from the food, assuming that we were paying for the service more than anything else, but my pasta was – and this is not an overstatement – one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. In place of the chicken, which the dish was supposed to come with, were a variety of perfectly cooked, undeniably fancy vegetables. I could tell that this had been prepared for me specially, because Elena’s dish (the original chicken) hadn’t come with any of these additional vegetables. Anyone that knows me will also know that I have a tendency to simply inhale my food rather quickly, especially when hungry, but this was so delicious that I forced myself to eat slowly and savour everything. Plus, you know, dainty mouthfuls seemed more appropriate, given where we were.
At some point during the meal, our butler wheeled over a tray covered in flowers, and none of us knew what was coming. He lifted up the cover to reveal a beautiful, delicate chocolate cake upon a golden platter, surrounded by roses. Um, what? It turned out that the cake we had thought was obligatory to order on the reservation form was, in fact, for special occasions, and now we would have to pay extra for it. Oops. Oh well; with only a couple of weeks left until my birthday, we decided with a laugh that this could be an early celebration. Meanwhile our butler, with all sincerity, expressed his concern about the hot weather outside, and gently suggested that we take our cake away in a cool bag for a little more money. It seemed sensible enough, and we’d come this far, so sure, what’s another couple of hundred yen? He smiled and smoothly replaced the cover on our ridiculous, accidentally purchased cake, and with the utmost care, took it away to package it up for us.
After our second course, Sari and I decided to brave a trip to the bathroom. It was pretty embarrassing having to ring our little bell and ask our handsome butler to escort us, but you do what you have to do. He retrieved our bags from beneath their snow-white cover and instructed us to follow him through the mysterious door a few feet away. As he walked, I noted the contrast between this man, who was effortless and graceful in all that he did, and myself, the clumsiest person I know. Through the door was a small room, on the other side of which lay the doors to the bathrooms. He gently handed us our bags and told us that, when we were done, we were to return to the main room and, ‘even though your table is close, you must allow me to escort you back.’ I had earlier mocked a girl for waiting several minutes for a free butler to take her back to her table, which was literally one foot away, but I suppose she was just doing as she had been instructed. (Although if your seat was right there, wouldn’t you just sit down?)
I enjoy a fancy bathroom, and given where we were, I was expecting a fancy bathroom – but alas, they were fairly plain. Sari and I had a quick conversation about the bizarre nature of this entire experience, but did so quietly, joking that perhaps the butlers had a listening device hooked up and could hear us. We returned to the dining room and, though our table was perhaps only ten feet away, had to wait patiently until a free butler could take us back. I began to sit down, forgetting that I was supposed to allow someone to pull out my chair for me, and the butler look flustered. I smiled apologetically and made a mental note that I probably shouldn’t ever marry into royalty.
Now it was time for dessert, and while Sari, Elena and I each received one small cake that we had ordered, Asha was presented with an almost too impressive platter with three or four desserts, decorated with hearts. It was so beautifully presented that it seemed a shame to ruin it by tucking in, and it was certainly unfortunate to have been unable to take a picture. We spent a few minutes admiring it, and eventually she could no longer resist. I certainly don’t blame her; I stared at my one little slice of cake a bit despondently, though this too was very pretty.
We were now nearing the end of our allotted time, and I’ll be honest, by this point, we were all, unsurprisingly, completely smitten with our butler. He was now also serving another customer, a woman a few years older than us who had come alone and appeared to be something of a regular, and every time he went over to her table, which was in full view of ours, we acted offended – mainly as a joke, but also kind of a little bit serious. As soon as he walked away, she began to write furiously in her notebook, and I couldn’t help but feel curious about just what it was she was writing.
A little while before our time finished, we were asked to settle the bill. We had read online that it could get a little pricey, and we were kind of worried about how much we would need to spend. However, even with the stupid, presented-to-us-on-a-golden-platter-of-roses cake, we only spent around ¥3000 (£~22) each. We began to wonder how much an equivalent establishment might charge in London, were it to exist, and couldn’t believe how little we’d paid not just for the butler experience, but for such a delicious, three-course meal as well.
(the above video is more recent, and has English subtitles available)
We finished the last of our tea, and then another butler came over to inform us that our time was up. Upon arriving earlier on, an older butler had greeted us with delight, his joy infectious, and it was he who now distributed our bags, and when he handed me mine, which was watermelon-shaped, he thought hard and then looked at me and proudly declared, ‘watermelon!’ in English. A small man, probably in his sixties, he was easily the oldest member of staff; there appeared to be quite an age gap between him and the next-oldest butler. There was an undeniable warmth and kindness to him, and he had a great sense of humour. Despite speaking very little English, the love he clearly felt for his job was reflected in his every move, and we couldn’t help but grin again as he bid us farewell.
Our dear butler, however, who had been diligently serving us for the past eighty minutes, was nowhere to be seen. As we were guided towards the exit, we all felt a pang at the thought of being unable to say goodbye, and half-joked that we hoped he wasn’t busy with his new customer. Thankfully, he soon appeared, as if from nowhere – I began to wonder if there were a series of secret doors hidden in the walls – and handed me our silly cake in a cool bag subtly emblazoned with the word Swallowtail in gothic font. He then carefully presented us each with a card and recommended that we bring them on our next visit. We laughed to ourselves, wondering if we could get ten stamps and then a free eighty minutes of butlering. As it turned out, it did actually seem to be some kind of way to become a member or regular, though we were unable to decipher all of the information it required. Not that it really mattered; a return in the near future seemed, sadly, rather unlikely for any of us.
Before reaching the exit, the butlers escorting us out paused and gestured towards a full-length gold mirror in the corner, and quite apparently it was mandatory for us to check that we were looking our best before exiting the cafe, which was another amusing touch to round off the whole experience. We sheepishly obliged, and once we had satisfactorily readjusted our hair, our butler opened the door, warned us to be careful because ‘the sun is so strong outside’, and bid us farewell, bowing deeply. Outside, the striking, vampire-like butler was still manning the front desk, as it were, and he smiled politely and said goodbye.
It was quite strange returning to the real world outside, particularly after all falling in love with and then having to say goodbye to our butler in such a short period of time, and we stood for a minute or two, unsure of what to do. Eventually we decided it would have been rude not to pay a visit to the gift shop across the road, and were surprised to be greeted by three similarly mild-mannered, impeccably dressed butlers upon entering. There were CDs and DVDs of Swallowtail’s musical endeavours, as well as various postcards and sets of photos of several members of staff; we searched for a postcard of our butler, all planning to buy one as a memento of the day, but sadly they only seemed to have pictures of those who were involved in the music, like the tall butler who had served us initially. We thanked the staff in the politest Japanese we could muster, and then exited.
We spent the walk back to the subway (and, in fact, much of the rest of the day) dissecting the experience. In a country where loneliness abounds and “rent-a-friend” companies boom, it isn’t hard to see why somewhere like Swallowtail is so popular that it requires reservations. Throughout the meal, our butler had sincerely asked us questions, never in a pushy way and always at just the right time, in order that he might learn a bit about our lives. He seemed particularly interested when we explained that we lived and studied in Korea, and such careful but succinct inquisitiveness helped us to form a bond with him, which I suppose is the whole point of the experience.
The service feels personal and intimate in a way that other places cannot provide, and as such, though we were never able to fully get past the layer of this is surreal and rather ridiculous, we didn’t have much difficulty allowing ourselves to indulge to the extent of swooning over the kind, handsome staff, and accepting our temporary princess roles. For us, it was a novelty, but while we were struggling to take it all seriously, it was clear that for at least some of the other customers, Swallowtail was compensating for something that was missing in their lives.
Reservations are recommended; you can show up and hope there has been a cancellation, but for an experience like this, you’ll want to make sure you can go. Reservations can only be made online. There are some English instructions, though it is worth noting that there are some sections of the reservation form that they do not cover. Once you have successfully made a reservation, you will receive a confirmation email in both Japanese and English. Cancellation fees apply – but why on earth would you cancel? If you get the opportunity to go here, please seize it. You won’t be disappointed.