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Wednesday, Dec. 8, 1999


Tokyo's chic Azabu: That was then, this is now

In the hierarchy of Tokyo addresses, Azabu is at the uppermost tip of the triangle, the star on the Christmas tree. Sure you can boast about the charms of Denenchofu or Seijo but here, metropolitan status symbol meshes perfectly with quiet, residential chic. Walk two minutes off any of the main strips abuzz with hip and suddenly birdsong fills the air. You're looking at stately elm trees, climbing cobbled slopes, passing exotic embassies. You pause to smile at incredibly blonde kids out for a walk with their Filipino nannies.

Azabu had been the high school prom queen-slash-honor student, who also carries the name of an old and respected local family. Just as few people would dare speak lightly to such an exalted personage, Azabu was irreproachable, unnavigable, hopelessly unavailable. To get around, one needed a car, provided one was willing to subject one's poor beat-up Nissan Sunny to compete alongside sleek, customized German makes (and to Azabu habitues a BMW is a "bay-em-vay"). But very often the Sunny got lost in the labyrinth of one-way streets and dead-end slopes.

At night, the scenery rapidly resembled an old European film -- i.e., it was too dark to read the signposts and one can only crawl back to the main road and end up in Shinjuku.

Stories always oozed from Azabu, like someone knew someone who went to an obscure basement bar and suddenly discovered he was sitting next to Charlotte Gainsbourg sipping a martini. Or two bouncers at a reggae bar beat up a salaryman because he was wearing a cheap tie and white socks. And everyone knew that when Ryuichi Sakamoto wasn't in his N.Y. home, he was lurking somewhere in Azabu, the only place in Tokyo he could stand to be.

This was 10 years ago. Now, as prom queens are likely to do, Azabu has grown up and changed a little. Subways are penetrating the once inaccessible town, high rises are going up courtesy of major real-estate developers, in the face of vehement local protest. Here and there are repossessed houses, their shutters defiled by court notices and the gardens overrun by weeds. Clubs and discos have gone bankrupt.

Every hundred meters or so are gaping, vacant lots like cavities that, for some reason, remain ignored. A different crowd often walks the streets, the type with bad suits and fake patent-leather shoes, who bark into their cell phones: "Are you bullshitting me? I told you I need 6 million by 4 p.m.!"

OK, so the company is now a little mixed. Could it be mere coincidence that Yohji Yamamoto, who had lived in Azabu since the beginning of his career, recently moved to Paris? His house was one of the landmarks here, distinguished by a quaint chimney which indicated among other things, that he had a real fireplace.

His wasn't the only one -- many Azabu houses are marked by two architectural feats unseen anywhere else in Tokyo: the working chimney, and a wrought-iron gate that is actually some distance from the house. One almost expects to see a butler emerging from the interior to say in a frosty voice that the master is not at home. And it was to serve these houses that the only firewood shop in the city had operated here. Yamamoto once said that it was because of this little shop that he couldn't leave Azabu. "Where would I be without my fireplace?" were his words. He probably realized that Paris is a lot more amenable when it comes to crackling logs.

But the news is not all bad. Many say that Azabu is merely regrouping, redefining itself. That remains to be seen but the current signs point to Gastronomie Central. Every kind of cuisine is available in Azabu, and they all seem to be run by chefs who were trained in three-star overseas establishments. But then Azabu had always been serious about food.

The famed Juban strip -- one of the homiest, most attractive small retailers' districts in the city -- is also a magnet for gourmands. The fare is nothing pretentious: ramen noodles, soba, gyoza dumplings, grilled fish. But it's something to note that a criminal, on the run for a fraud rap, was caught stuffing his face in one of Juban's Korean barbecue joints.

If your taste runs upscale, there's Queen Alice, the Tokyo femme's French restaurant of choice. Queen Alice is tucked away down a side street among old, old houses. There's a wrought-iron gate between a rustic pathway and the entrance. Inside, the decor features tres moderne sculptures that could be the works of some stoned art student. In other words, it's the perfect combination of avant-garde and old guard.

Nowadays, it's become the height of chic for ladies to hold their class reunions in Queen Alice, and on weekends it's thronged with dressed-up women wearing corsages. Around the area are other equally alluring venues, all staffed by smiling young garcons in impeccable uniforms.

Personally though, it's a little sad that the prom queen had to mature at all. I remember the days when it was sacrilege to park in Azabu in anything less than an Infiniti (color white, please) and women made sure they were dressed like Elle McPherson before gliding noiselessly into some chic little bar where the piano player had an absolute thing for John Lennon.

Democracy is great but, hey, some things are sacred.

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