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Thursday, March 2, 2000

Harajuku tea shop kicks that Seattle habit


Serene and calm, Saikolee Tsukamoto's piano project, "Museum of Plate," is music to kick back and relax to. With a dollop of Erik Satie and a hint of ambient electronica of the gentlest kind, her latest album "Saon (Music for Tea)" is, as the name implies, inspired by tea drinking. Listen to the record and imagine sitting in a groovy cafe with your favorite book or your best friend, and a cup of aromatic tea.

Tsukamoto has produced just the spot to enjoy this sort of moment in her other venture: the Dessert Company. Inspired by her wandering through Hong Kong's tea shops, this Harajuku cafe features a menu of Asian treats and specialty teas for those tired of the milky coffee confections that have taken over in the wake of Starbucks.

While most cafes give tea only cursory attention, the Dessert Company presents connoisseurs with everything from more usual varieties like Darjeeling to more obscure choices from hidden corners of India, China and Sri Lanka. Huge canisters of fluffy black, green and brown tea leaves crowd the counter of the sparkly silver interior infused with the warm scent of jasmine.

The dessert menu too is refreshing. Most people still think of desserts in the Western sense: sticky sweet confections of chocolate or cream. Asian cuisine presents a welcome alternative. The overblown taste of pure sugar is replaced by coconut, tropical fruit or the subtleties of ginger purin. A tasteful selection of curries and pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, round off the Asian-inspired offerings.

The unique menu isn't the only thing that makes the Dessert Company special. On weekend nights, the upstairs lounge might play host to an acoustic set by an up-and-coming band or the works of a video-maker, while downstairs the walls are regularly festooned by cutting-edge visual art and manga.

In providing a venue for new creators of every stripe, the Dessert Company harkens back to the days when cafes were for more than just a cup of coffee. Though cafes (as opposed to kissaten) have recently proliferated in Tokyo, most people connect them with cafe latte, pain au chocolat and a place to rest after a long day of shopping.

"Cafe society," however, at one time denoted so much more. Compared to the intellectual and creative ferment of Les Deux Magots or a fin de siecle Viennese Kaffee-Konditorei, Tokyo cafes are tepid affairs. The Dessert Company is a notable exception.

The cafe's next featured artist personifies the Dessert Company's eclectic mix. Tamie Hirokawa is a dancer, drummer and a stunning painter. Eschewing the preoccupation with street cool that haunts many young Japanese artists, Hirokawa's works are unabashedly sensual, washed in a bold palette of deep yellows, blues and greens like an electrified Matisse.

Though Hirokawa produces both abstract and figurative works (she studied in the atelier of Paris-based abstract painter Koji Nishimi), it is her portraits that are most striking. Her figures seem taken from a Cambodian or Mayan ruin, the bodies full and rounded, the faces linear and strong.

"I've painted people from lots of different countries," she explains. "I am interested in the idea of different types of people and wanted to explore this in my art."

Her unconventional perspective might have some connection with her own special heritage. Although she was born and raised in Japan, Hirokawa's mother is French of Jewish Polish heritage.

Her father, a Japanese journalist, worked extensively with Palestinian refugee children, and is still active in children's charities, helping to sponsor a sanitarium for young Chernobyl victims in the Ukraine.

Hirokawa also has an attraction to warmer climes. She has spent a considerable amount of time studying flamenco in Spain, and even supported herself as a Cuban dancer before turning full-time to painting.

A flair for the theatrical continues to manifest itself in her painting and in her activities as a musician and performance artist. She has done several art/music performances with musician Takuji Aoyagi of Little Creatures and currently plays congas in the ethnic-inflected ensemble Double Famous.

Her exhibition at the Dessert Company, titled "Young Taxi," will feature some collaborative work with designer Paco; the duo have already done several pieces for the Idee furniture catalog.

Paco too has a distinctly international air with a tendency to use Asian motifs in her work. "Young Taxi" should provide a chance to catch newer, distinctly cosmopolitan artists at work -- and have a nice cup of tea.

The Dessert Company, 4-3-13 Jingumae; (03) 3403-2205. Open Monday-Thursday 12 p.m.-2 a.m.; Friday-Saturday 12 p.m.-5 a.m.; Sunday 12 p.m.-12 a.m. "Young Taxi," recent work by Tamie Hirokawa till March 5. Double Famous will play live at Cay in the basement of Spiral Hall in Aoyama on April 2. For more information, contact Cay at (03) 3498-5790.


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