I'm writing this having just woken up from a much needed nap. I am wrapped up in a blanket, drinking a cup of coffee to gently guide me back to the real world before I go to teach my evening lesson. Gentle jazz is playing in the background. Am I at home? No, but I may as well be, Japanese Internet Cafes, or (ネットカフェ netto cafe) make you feel that comfortable.
In the UK, internet cafes were already uncool in 2005. I remember going to my local one as a preteen for the very lame reason that my parents were uncool enough to actually restrict my internet browsing and I wanted to read fanfiction. I brought the average age of the internet cafe down by about 25 years.
Japanese internet cafes are a whole different kettle of fish. Instead of sitting on a hard chair in a drafty room to use an antiquated PC, I have my own gently lit booth with a comfy chair, slippers, cushions and blankets. As well as internet use, most internet cafes also are manga libraries where you can borrow manga and magazines – this is why the terms netto cafe and mangakissa (manga coffee shop) have become interchangeable. But you’re not just renting manga and internet at Japanese internet cafes - the individual booths enable you to rent privacy. This is something I feel we could do with in the UK. We live such hectic lives, going from appointment to appointment. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, but I’ve often found the need for a private space away from home where I can recharge before moving to my next engagement. Of course, we have regular cafes in the UK but people give you strange looks if you get out a blanket and try to nap in Starbucks.
Of course, you may have heard the stories of what happens when internet cafes get too comfortable. Shio Fukada’s film Net Cafe Refugees follows the growing phenomenon of people who are living in internet cafes. Many of these individuals are unemployed or only employed part time and so, with prices around 2000 yen a night, internet cafes can be far cheaper than renting an apartment in an expensive city like Tokyo. The ‘net cafe refugee’ phenomenon is disturbing and not something I condone, however, if you need a cheap place to stay for one night on short notice internet cafes are ideal. Planned to pull an all-nighter clubbing but find yourself flagging at 3am, by which time the last train is long gone? An internet cafe is your saviour. If you’re in Tokyo there should be one within 15 minutes walk, stroll in and be greeted by a warm blanket and as much water and coffee as you need. Want to take a weekend trip but can’t afford a hotel or left it too late to book? It might not be the most comfortable night’s sleep of your life but internet cafes are there for you, and you’ll most likely be in a central location to start your morning sight-seeing. Are you a knackered English teacher stranded between a hard day at school and a harder evening teaching business English? Have a nap at an internet cafe and you’ll be able to get your genki on for your final class of the day.
Whether deservedly or not, some late internet cafes have reputations as 'dodgy' places for women to go alone but I have never felt uncomfortable there. Regardless, many internet cafes are trying to attract female customers by offering a women's only floor. Although there's often a bit too much pink for my taste, they are undoubtedly very comfortable, with extra mirrors in the bathrooms and free tampons included. You also do feel safer using the shower (yes, many internet cafes have showers) when you know there are no men nearby. If the safety of your valuables is a concern while you catch a few zzzs, many internet cafes provide safes, although chances are theft is a smaller problem in Japan than in your own country.
So whether you want to plan your next sightseeing session, charge your phone and your energy reserves after a long day at work or hole yourself up somewhere safe and comfortable because you missed the last train, Japanese internet cafes are there for you. Grab yourself a coffee, a manga and a blanket and get comfy.