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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

High tea and cocktails


The ghosts of Tokyo past may still haunt the inner recesses of Kagurazaka, but increasingly they are being hemmed in by the encroaching architecture of the brash modern city. As with Sakura Sakura, though, a small but growing number of the surviving prewar low-rise, timber houses are being given a new lease of life.

A wonderful example of this defiance is the friendly teashop-cum-gallery called Mugimaru 2. Squatting on an alley that runs along the very foot of the high-rise towering above the historic neighborhood, the structure itself is old but unremarkable. What distinguishes it is the loving way in which it's been refurbished and decorated.

The old two-story merchant's shop has been stripped back to its basic shell of beams and timbers, then decorated in an objets trouves aesthetic, as if the building itself were a living work of art. Here, owner Sanae Iwasaki dispenses coffee and tea along with a remarkable range of homemade manju buns, which she makes in creative flavors such as black tea, mugwort, cinnamon, chocolate and ginger. These are also available to take home from the open window in her cluttered little kitchen.

Also thumbing its nose at the property developers, albeit in a much sleeker vein, is Chika, a sophisticated late-night bar named after its owner who (rumor has it) was once a geisha.

It's one of those places you'd never even know was there, let alone stumble upon unaided. Hidden at the end of a cul-de-sac well away from the lights of busy Honda-dori, its gateway looks like the entrance to a private house. But inside you find yourself in a gleaming bar that would not look out of place in Aoyama.

Apart from a tatami room at one end, there are few clues as to what it looked like before its conversion. The original superstructure has been augmented with struts and colored perspex. Vocal jazz emits from high-end speakers. Champagne and cocktails are the drinks of choice for the well-heeled and well-shod set who linger here through the wee hours.

Mugimaru 2, 5-20 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 5228-6393; www.mugimaru2.com. Open noon-9 p.m.; closed Wednesday. Chika; tel: (03) 3260-6353 -- call (in Japanese) for directions. Open 8 p.m.-2 a.m.; closed Sunday and holidays.


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