My experience at Mickey House, Tokyo’s most famous Language Exchange Café

· 7 min read >

One of the cornerstones of my slow travel through Asia is to live as much as possible immersed in the culture of the country, seeking the relationship with the inhabitants in order to have cultural exchanges, shared life experiences and open and constructive dialogue. Being an extrovert and extremely curious person, I like being around people and talking to them, asking questions, being interested in their experience. When I decided to start my journey, I was looking for places like this and thank God I found it. The experience at Mickey House as a volunteer was beautiful and I want to dedicate an article to tell you about it.

I found the Mickey House Café on one of those sites to look for work in exchange for food and lodging around the world. Then I joined Workaway, which is one of the most famous, and I contacted the owner, Yuta. Being his place very busy Yuta didn’t reply to me. So I insisted until he finally answered accepting my request. I was particularly keen to make this experience that fits perfectly with what I was looking for. So, once I arrived in Tokyo, I immediately started working in the café, housed in one of Yuta’s apartments, which are for those who work as volunteers. Usually, the “mandate” lasts a month, but there are different exceptions depending on the needs. But let’s get into the details.

Mickey House

Mickey House Café: history

“You can enjoy conversations with people from a variety of countries!!”

The slogan on the website

Birth

I don’t know much about the founder of Mickey House, nor in what year it was opened exactly. News about it on the official site or in others are not found. What is certain is that the café has existed for at least 35 years and is one of the oldest of its kind in Tokyo, if not the first. This allows the café to have a fair reputation and to “live off” without having to strive for looking for customers and investing in advertising. The website is fairly dated in format, although updated, and has the typical appearance of Japanese sites.

Mickey House today

The café has a very active Facebook page, so the Twitter and Instagram profiles. The current owner, Yuta, was an active frequenter of the café as a university student and when the previous owner offered to buy it, he did not hesitate to accept, as he already thought of opening something similar, being so enthusiastic about the format. Thus, in 2011, Yuta becomes the new owner. The café is located in Takadanobaba, a district of Shinjuku (Tokyo) near several metro stations: the Tozai line, the Yamanote line and the Seibu Shinjuku line.

Mickey House
Mickey House
Mickey House

The management of Yuta

Yuta has always been attracted by European culture, starting to attend foreigners since university, so much so that he got married to a Frenchwoman and set up a bilingual family. The spirit of the café, in fact, is to create an environment with a typical atmosphere of European meeting places, where people talk about all topics without any kind of cultural restriction, from the most serious ones like politics to those more deep as the feelings, passing through hot topics like sex to lighter ones like cooking, nature and not to miss anything, jokes and laughter are a constant.

In Japan the society is very rigid, closed and judgmental: most people do not talk about topics like politics, sex, feelings except with close friends. There is always the fear of feeling judged and labelled (see my article on average Japanese). Mickey House is a “Gaijin territory” in the heart of Tokyo, where people feel free to express themselves.

Language exchange café: what is

Definition

A language exchange café is primarily a place for socializing. It is not a language school, there are no grammar lessons, there is not a teacher who explains and students who listen in silence. It is a place where the conversation is practised and this improves listening, vocabulary, speaking and the ability to express oneself. Beginners are welcome and there are tables dedicated to them. While talking, you drink coffee, tea or even alcohol, as you prefer. The presence of those who speak the language as a native or at least fluently, not Japanese clearly, is fundamental. There are usually more languages, not just English, although it is the most popular.

The Mickey House Language Exchange Café

I’m not an expert on these realities, indeed, the one at Mickey House was the first experience for me. Hearing those who attend other language exchange cafes the situation of Mickey House is unique. First of all, thanks to the large influx of people, it has competitive prices. In addition, it offers a significant amount of languages: English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, Indonesian and even Japanese. The staff is made of fixed people, who work as bartenders or speak one of the aforementioned languages, or by volunteers who usually turn at shifts. These are travellers of various kinds who, in exchange for a few hours of work talking in the café, get accommodation in downtown Tokyo: a fair exchange! This great mobility of people means that the staff is always fresh and varied, but there are some fixed people that, living in Tokyo, work at the café on a regular basis.

Freedom of expression

What characterizes Mickey House, however, is not the prices, languages, or staff, but the incredible atmosphere that reigns. For those who are a little familiar with Japanese culture, they will know how limited the expressive possibilities within society are, especially in terms of relationships. Working environments are usually very hierarchical, cold and full of behavioural rules to follow. Families are not less, with spouses who rarely meet and children, once adolescents, left to themselves. 

The average Japanese is often afraid to say what he/she thinks for fear of the judgment of others, the sense of competition is often very high and more and more people end up closing in the house without going out anymore. This phenomenon is called hikikomori and is extremely widespread in Japan. In this café, thanks to the high percentage of foreigners and the open-mindedness of Yuta, the conversations that are made are at the same level as those of European socialization sites. To us, it seems obvious to meet with friends, perhaps even with strangers found at a party, and end up talking about politics, the big problems, ecology, sex and so on and so forth. Not so for the average Japanese, as I described in my article.

Customers

When customers enter Mickey House for the first time, they are always a little nervous, as always when a Japanese does something for the first time. But after a few hours of dialogue, they let themselves go and slowly, with attendance, they manage to talk about everything, expressing themselves about topics that they usually don’t address. Not a few are those who have a high level of English, even those who teach it at school, but actively attend the café because of this particular openness and freedom of expression. Among the customers, we find people of all types: students aged 16 and over, housewives, office workers, freelancers, programmers, doctors, researchers, pensioners, coaches and so on.

In the café, age doesn’t matter and the tables are mixed, everyone talks to everyone regardless of age, gender or social status. The reasons why they come are among the most diverse: because they are studying a language at the university and they want to practice it, because their boss at work told them to learn English for business-related issues, out of pure personal passion, because they are about to embark on a journey and want to learn something of the culture they are going to dive in or simply refresh their English to communicate. There are also those who go there with the hope of getting to know a foreigner to start a relationship, why not? It would not be the first case of a couple formed after they met at the café.

Mickey House
Mickey House
Mickey House
Mickey House

Mickey House: how it works

Organizations

Space is divided into two fairly large rooms (by Japanese standards), one of which has a beautiful window with a view of the centre of Takadanobaba. The café is open every day from 13 to 23. There are two exchange sessions according to the following schedule:
Mon – Fri: 13-17 and 18-23
Sat: 13-18 and 13-23
Sun: 13-18
Prices are as follows: 2000 yen per session for Japanese, 1600 yen for students, 500 yen (no time limit) for foreigners. Within the price, in addition to the freedom to move around all the tables with various languages, there is unlimited tea and coffee. There are also a great variety of bundles that allow you to save on individual needs. English is present at all hours in all sessions, other languages follow the calendar visible on the site and always updated. Italian is Tuesday and Saturday, both days in the evening session. On Sundays, a sweet and nice lady always brings something to eat made by her.

Mickey House
Mickey House
Mickey House

Party

Friday is a special day because, from 18 to 22 (even if there are still people until 23), there is a party. In this case, there are no conversation tables (in fact some languages are there, such as German and French in the other room, but those who participate in the exchange do not participate in the party). The party fee is 3100 yen for men, 2600 yen for women and 2000 yen for foreigners. The all-you-can-drink service is included with the entrance fee (there is a limited but ample choice of cocktails and drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks) and food such as pizzas, tacos, guacamole, chips, cheeses and so on is served. There are always many participants and the room almost filled up, but the atmosphere is beautiful and is full of interesting people. Usually, the night continues somewhere around Tokyo. Friendships, couples and unique relationships were born in those evenings!

Mickey House

Staff

As I said above, the staff is mainly composed of foreigners (but not only). There are some permanent members, besides Yuta, who take care of the bar, foreigners who speak Japanese fluently and Japanese people who speak English very well. In addition to being bartenders, they also keep social media profiles up-to-date, taking photos, posting events, etc. Someone also deals with administrative matters. Then there are the volunteers who are hosted by Yuta in his apartments in exchange for a few hours of work at the café. Usually, they are 4 hours a day for 5 days, then each situation can be adapted according to personal needs. These are Europeans, Americans (north, central and south), Australians, Asians of various nationalities and so on. No matter whether they are native English speakers, it is not a school in fact, but that they know English fluently (plus their native language of course).

The apartments in which they live are fairly basic and the spaces are all shared (rooms, kitchen, bathrooms, etc.) so you need a good spirit of adaptation. Mostly used by travellers, students who are in Japan for a temporary course, working holiday visa holders who are doing experience in Japan. Finally, there are foreigners living in Japan who do not need accommodation and who are paid to work at the café a few hours in that case. The pay is 1000 yen per hour plus a reimbursement for transport that reaches a maximum of 500 yen. Given the nature of the place, there are also foreigners who come as clients to meet Japanese and have a cultural exchange and get to know Japanese reality more closely.

Mickey House
Mickey House
Mickey House
Mickey House

Conclusions

An extraordinary adventure that I recommend to all those who want to experience life in a country instead of crossing it only scratching the surface. It is the best way to learn about the culture of the place, meet people and exchange experiences. How many times have we visited a country limiting ourselves to seeing the monuments, archaeological sites, nature but having very little interaction with its inhabitants, often also because of the language barrier? These realities are great ways to overcome these limitations and dive into unique experiences (you just need to know a little English). There are many other language cafes around the world and in Asia, they are very popular as the level of English is generally low despite its importance in terms of work and culture. So for the next holidays, think of such an alternative!

I remind you that it is always possible to finance my trip and therefore my articles! Thanks!


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