Me again, returning to my roots with a fresh TTS post! The rest can be found here, for those of you playing along at home. It’s true, I have actually written for HD before, back in the cretaceous period. This is how I’ve managed to sneak into Shingo’s web site without him being around.

Speaking of not being Shingo, I want to make it clear up front that unlike some people I could mention, I am not in Japan. I have been, in the past, and will be in the future, but for the moment I remain in exile. Previously in Boston, I just very recently migrated west and found myself in San Francisco. As much as I loved being in Boston (Cambridge, anyway, and if you’re in the area please do show some love to the Tokyo Kid) I absolutely love being in San Francisco. The food is good, the weather is actually quite pleasant (which is to say NOT shoving sunshine and triple-digit temperatures in my face all the time) and the “Japan Town” is nothing short of glorious.

Tokyo Teleport Station Banner

Now, the Boston area has the Porter Exchange as its “Japan Town”, which is fairly nice. Unfortunately, ever since Sasuga stopped being a store and turned into some kind of reclusive warehouse, it’s a lot less of an otaku district and more of a restaurant-and-kimono-shop type of area. It’s not a bad place to eat (I recommend the Ittyo) and you can stock up on pocky and UCC at the Kotobukiya, which also rents/sells bootleg DVDs of Japanese variety shows. These, mixed with beer, are an excellent way to spend an evening. Still, it’s not exactly a Grand Otaku Empire.

San Francisco’s Japan Town, on the other hand, is a Grand Otaku Empire. At least by US standards. The food is excellent (I haven’t yet found noodles that are quite Ittyo-quality, but I doubt if I’ve tried even half the places yet, so that means nothing), the beer is far more plentiful, there are stores that sells actual DVDs (some of them legitimate) and the Kinokuniya is easily six times the size of Sasuga, in addition to actually being, you know, open. Plus, on the weekends, you can sometimes spot Patrick Macias in his natural environment.

Oh, and there’s a manga cafe.

Manga Cafe History

For those of you who have been living in total isolation for the last five years, manga cafes (“manga kissa”, from here on, because I feel like it) are quite the phenomenon in the Other Country. Also, congratulations on your hikikomori skills, you’ve come to the right place. In essence, a manga kissa is a space somewhere that is filled with countless volumes of manga, old and new, along with some other toys. You, the customer, pay by the hour to sit inside and read. Most are open 24/7 and since the business model is based around keeping you there for as long as possible, the proprietors will go to great lengths to make you as comfortable as possible.

Some places may take this a bit far.

Nicer manga kissa, in addition to stocking multiple copies of basically every manga ever published anywhere ever, will also offer you things like Internet access on a high-end gaming PC, satellite TV, food and drink (modestly priced, or sometimes just complimentary), gaming consoles (complete with games), extremely comfortable couches and chairs and/or private “booth” areas, and some even go so far as to have showers that you can use, along with cheap toiletries. They’re basically as awesome as you could ever want them to be. Sleeping in the cafe is not the least bit discouraged, and they’ve gotten so comfortable of late that supposedly there are now over 5,000 people who just live there full time. This is aided by the fact that many cafes offer “overnight specials” allowing you to stay all night at a discount rate. I have to say, there have been times when that actually looked quite appealing. If I’m stuck somewhere overnight, given the choice between a capsule hotel and a manga kissa…well…

Given the numerous amenities available, I suspect that quite a few people will habitually go to a manga kissa and never actually read any manga. Nonetheless, “manga kissa” is clearly the name that stuck.

The Good

Now, San Francisco’s manga kissa, the “Manga Cafe MIKA” (I approve of the name, but not the web site) is not quite that nice, but it is pretty swanky. Boasting that it’s one of only three manga kissa in the United States (I’m surprised there are that many) it claims to have more than 23,000 volumes of manga, and I believe them. The selection is quite impressive, old and new, all genres, there’s really something for everyone, and you can easily spend half an hour or more just browsing all the different titles available. Of course, those are the untranslated volumes. The English selection is a bit more…limited. By no means small, it’s somewhere on the order of 1,000 volumes, but it is so dwarfed by the Japanese selection that it does look a bit pitiful. Still, they have complete collections of quite a few solid titles, and if you can’t find something you’re interested in, there’s probably no pleasing you anyway.

The rates are quite reasonable, as well. They charge $5.00 for the first hour, then $1.25 for every 15 minutes thereafter. By my thiking, this is a pretty awesome deal. English manga retails for about $10 a volume (plus tax, which hurts like rape in California). Assume for the moment that after buying manga, I will read it once and then throw it on a shelf, never to look at it again. This is not always true, but it averages out to be fairly true. Now, further assuming that I don’t know anyone else that will hold still long enough for me to apply the Clockwork Orange eye spreaders is interested in reading it of their own free will, and I never intend to sell it for…I dunno, sentimental reasons, then the value I get for my $10 is equal to the value of reading that volume once.  On a good day, if I’m more or less uninterrupted, I can pretty much finish two volumes of English manga in an hour. Logically, this means that MIKA is offering manga at a 75% discount.

They also offer free drinks, and I think they sell ramen noodles in a can, Akiba oden style, but I’m not 100% sure, they might just be decorative. There are also about four PCs and free wi-fi, but I’ve never used either so I can’t vouch for them.

The Less Good

As for what they do not have…

They do not offer private booths (really not enough space for them). There’s only one TV, and so far as I can tell the only thing it does is play four episodes of Di Gi Charat over and over and over again. This also means no TV-game consoles. The seats recline, and are quite comfortably, but I’m not sure what the policy is on sleeping. It would be a bit silly, at any rate, since the cafe is only open noon to eight. Most distressingly, there is no bathroom inside. They’ll gladly let you go out and use a bathroom somewhere else in the building if you leave them a credit card or ID, but it’s not exactly convenient. Perhaps I’m holding it to an unreasonable standard by comparing it to its counterparts in the Other Country, but honestly, indoor plumbing is pretty well established technology.

And to be honest, the selection of English manga really could be better. I’m never at a loss for things to read, but the selection is weighted very heavily towards new titles, and VERY heavily towards Viz’s Shounen Jump line. It’d be great if you were a hardcore Naruto fan, but it just doesn’t feel right that the selection doesn’t match up to the Borders down the street.

The Sad

One thing that becomes painfully clear as you spend time at MIKA is that they really have their work cut out for them trying to run a manga cafe in this country. I spent about four hours ther elast weekend, and while I was reading, I overheard:

  • 6 people come in who thought MIKA was a bookstore
  • 4 people come in who thought MIKA was a video store (WTF?)
  • 2 people come in asking about the figures in the window (which are for sale, so this could be worse)
  • 1 older couple come in looking for someone “asian looking” to help them read some kanji they written down, for reasons that were not entirely clear

The whole time I was there, I never saw more than one other person actually there to read manga.

This is pretty typical of my experience thus far. I have now visited MIKA seven times (according to my stamp card) and every time I’ve been there, the place is absolutely dead. It’s nice, in a way. I’d rather not hang out somewhere too crowded. But at the same time I cannot help but be concerned about how long the cafe can sustain itself.

Let’s say that MIKA only occupies about 300 square feet (it doesn’t, but let’s say it does), and that the owners can get retail space in San Francisco for about $4 per square foot per month (they can’t, but we’ll say they can). This puts rent at around $1200 every month, obviously a conservative estimate. Now, assuming that the two staff members I always see are, in fact, independently wealthy, and volunteer their time out of the goodness of their hearts, and further assuming that utilities, like DSL and electricity, have negligible costs, and that all of the manga on hand just fell out of the sky, costing nothing (in reality, the English section alone should retail for somewhere on the order of $10,000) and that incidental things like the drinks don’t really add up to much, let’s cap their non-rent monthly costs at the absurdly low figure of $100. This would put the total cost of operating somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,300 US dollars every month. Taking that, and saying that there’s 30 days in each month (and ignoring the fact that MIKA is not open on Mondays) this comes to just shy of $45 per day, which would require 9 “person hours” worth of income to offset. So, in short, if all of these things are true, then doing just slightly better than one paying customer in the store for each of the 8 hours they are open would be enough to break even.

Of course, if any of these things is not true, they’re losing money.

It’s really too bad. I really want MIKA to do well, largely out of self interest, since having it blossom into a place like Gera Gera down the street for me to waste time in would be just short of paradise. I really can’t point to anything that they’ve done wrong, I get the impression that the people behind MIKA really have the right idea and are doing their absolute best, they’re just not getting the kind of results that they should be. And if an American manga kissa that’s doing everything right can’t do well in the middle of the San Francisco Japan Center, then there’s really no hope of having one succeed anywhere else.

Which is a real shame.

Seiya is an anime fan who used to live in Boston. He now lives in the hope that Shingo will return someday.