|

A Thrush perches between two worlds

by David Chester

One foot in the past, one foot in the present.

It’s hard to exist in two time zones, but Thrush//Cafe has managed to pull it off quite well. Part of Happo-en, one of Tokyo’s oldest and most venerable places for banquets, meetings and weddings, Thrush//Cafe provides guests with an innovative European-Asian atmosphere and all the “current” coffees, teas and freshly made desserts necessary to properly appreciate Happo-en’s legendary centerpiece: an exquisite 400-year-old Japanese garden.

Thrush//Cafe has gone from idle space to vibrant meeting place at Tokyo’s Happo-en.

Two years ago, Thrush// Cafe was just some free space in the expansive lobby inside Happo-en’s impressive main building. In the midst of several renovations, Happo-en’s management realized the space would make a perfect spot for prospective marriage partners, as well as the general public, to enjoy light meals and delicious desserts with the picturesque garden as a dramatic backdrop. Indeed, the view from the cafe’s veranda takes one’s breath away, ensuring Happo-en lives up to its meaning: “beautiful from every angle.”

Happo-en has quite a rich history (parts of the garden are said to have belonged to Okubo Hikozaemon, a fabled samurai of the Edo Period). As such, the name “Thrush// Cafe” was chosen specifically to add a contemporary feeling to offset Happo-en’s traditional appeal.

According to publicity director Karen Makino, the cafe was designed so that one side would resemble a huge, beautifully crafted wooden bird cage. The opposite side completely opens onto the veranda overlooking the garden, so the “thrush” (a type of songbird) could leave its “cage” as it pleased, free to enjoy one of Tokyo’s most scenic spots.

Happo-en PR director Karen Makino (left) and planning staff member Kanako Kobayashi.

Yet the name is also a play on words. In katakana, thrush becomes surasshu, which also refers to “slash” or “slash marks.” Makino says this amusing combination gives a sense of both “nature” and “an up-to-date, Internet image.”

Tadayuki Miyokawa designed the interior with touches of both the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and a stately New Orleans mansion. The mix of rattan chairs, the beautiful dark wood “bird cage” and artfully placed palms and ivy has a strangely dreamy effect (especially on quiet weekday afternoons). To accentuate the up-to-date image, there are four video screens which (when not promoting different honeymoon hot spots provided by corporate sponsors, such as Thai Airways) show scenes of landscapes to complete the sense of “nature.”

Thrush has an award-winning chef who prepares excellent light lunches (from 1,500 yen), but for those just interested in nursing a cappuccino while spending a few hours taking in the scenery, ample choices are available and affordable (500 yen-700 yen). Coffees include espressos, lattes and cafe coretto (coffee, milk and rum). Teas include herbal, Ceylon Vintage Uva and chai (spiced milk tea). Dessert sets start from 1,000 yen; fresh orange tarts or caraway seed chiffon cake are the most popular choices.

The veranda should definitely be taken advantage of. As long as the weather is good, it’s the best place for a close-up view of the garden, and also an occasional glimpse of wedding parties lining up for photos. When the chill sets in, the blankets and stoves are brought out so people can still sit outside and watch the leaves turn color.

Just as Miyokawa planned, you can go out into the garden. There is no extra charge to enjoy the stone lanterns, 13-tier pagoda, koi ponds and ancient bonsai trees.

As you marvel at nature’s beauty, you will certainly encounter the small but intriguing Muan, a tea ceremony house originally built by Yokohama silk trader Tanaka Heihachi. While Muan has a limited menu (for 600 yen a waitress in kimono serves green tea and wagashi), it offers one a chance to relax near the plum and cherry trees and imagine a not-so-distant past.

Happo-en is a world within itself and something tourists and natives alike should see. Saunter, stroll and take plenty of photos. When the mood strikes you, stop in at Thrush//Cafe. Whether you spend your time nesting inside the “bird cage” or perched on the veranda, Thrush//Cafe is sure to give you something to sing about.