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Appeasing autumn appetites in Nishi-Azabu

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All the walking in the world does not, alas, burn off the binge-fests of food and drink that occur at year-end holidays. Anticipating this, I agree to a free trial lesson at a friend’s gym, which she claims offers a workout that’s fast, effective and comes served on a plate. How bad can that be? I decide to check it out.

Tucked just off a leafy road running through Nishi-Azabu’s Hiroo Garden Hills complex is the Garden Hills Studio branch of Fitness Club Hiroo, where first-time visitors can get a free demonstration of their Power Plate machines, which look like souped-up Segways minus the wheels. Expert trainer and manager Masaaki Kamata, 38, tells me the “whole-body vibration” they induce makes a 30-minute workout as effective as two hours on conventional equipment.

I jump onboard and Kamata sets the jiggling machine to a low growl. The exercises that I’m instructed to do — planks, push-ups, squats, etc. — are familiar, but performing them on a Power Plate is like attempting ballet on the back of a rattling pick-up truck.

“Your muscles contract rapidly to fight for balance,” Kamata explains, “and this makes the workout intense, but safe, even for elderly people. It actually promotes bone density.” Kamata whips out a miniature skeleton to illustrate proper stance and bring home his point. After 25 minutes, followed by five minutes of “massage” on the machine, I’m shaken and stirred. I’m also tingly all over. Thanking Kamata, I skip off to see the rest of the neighborhood.

Below a dense canopy of trees, I feel like the recipient of a post-workout confetti parade as yellow leaves pirouette down through shafts of sunlight. Turning right, I head downhill where a signpost lets me know that this slope, Hotta-zaka, was named for daimyo Masayoshi Hotta (1810-64) whose yashiki (second home) was once located here. Hotta was responsible for negotiating demands made by Townsend Harris for opening trade with Japan. Fearing armed reprisal if Japan refused the treaty, Hotta urged the shogunate, daimyo lords and even the Emperor to support the opening of several ports. It turned out that approaching the Emperor was a tactical error and Hotta lost his post, leaving his successor, Naosuke Ii, to push the agreement through.

As the slope evens out, I muse on how profoundly international trade in Japan has become today. As proof, I spy the chic storefront of Boutique Salon Coco, the showroom of hat-making company Haute Mode Hirata.

Handmade toppers in the jewel tones of fall vegetables and autumnal leaves grace the displays, and I am drawn inside, where I meet 50-year-old head designer and owner, Ohko Ishida. In a voice as soft as the rabbit-fur felt of her chapeaux, and in nearly fluent English, she tells me that she has just taken over the business from her late father, world-renowned designer Akio Hirata (1925-2014), who learned many of his hat-making skills in Paris.

I gaze at the marvelous array of shapes — from pillbox to peacock, fedora to flying saucer — and find the creativity as alluring as the workmanship.

Ishida shows me racks of French vintage iron casting forms and dies used to cut and mold artificial flowers, and as we chat she explains the process of making felt hats. First a structural form is assembled using a stiff “cloth” of thinly planed, woven wood. The wooden fabric is pinned into the desired shape, then sewn together firmly and finally coated in white plaster, which hardens and becomes waterproof. Once dry, a cone-shaped felt blank can then be placed on top, steamed and gently pressed or blocked onto the form by hand.

Ishida kindly agrees to let me see her production rooms. We climb a dizzying circular staircase four flights up, where sunlight streams in and creates a tableau like a painting by a Dutch master of quiet industry and timelessness. One woman heats a ball-ended iron milliner’s tool on an alcohol burner, which she uses to press rose petals into the curvature of bloom, while another carefully shapes the restrained brim on a topper that somehow looks vaguely familiar. When I learn that Haute Mode Hirata makes hats for the Imperial family, my hunch is confirmed. Brimming with this privileged peek into the process, I thank Ishida and her team for their time.

Outside again, I pass the concrete offices and shrine of Shinto Taikyoin. Home to one of Shinto’s 13 sects, Shinto Taikyo was established in 1913 with the objective of centralizing and coordinating the various factions of Shinto religion under one aegis. Initially adamantly nationalistic, the sect changed focus after World War II and now promotes peace, harmony and spiritual awareness through the arts (poetry, calligraphy, etc.).

Continuing north, I slowly realize this street is a dieter’s worst nightmare. First, I find a cake shop with the portentous name Ruelle de Derriere (in French, “backstreet buttocks”) and speed by it, only to find a long stretch of alarmingly attractive high-class restaurants. I take note of a few.

When my ship comes in, perhaps I’ll land at La Terre for a splurge. The formerly Italian, now French, restaurant — with carp pond and gargantuan chandelier — is headed by chef de cuisine Nobuyuki Shinya, who studied in Paris for several years with world-renowned restaurateur Pierre Gagnaire. That’s bound to be good. But then there’s La Cave de Hiramatsu, a sun-drenched mansion with superb wines, several dining floors and a lovely roof garden. Or how about the piscine intimacy of sushi bar Arisugawa, tucked away in a romantic courtyard? In secretive basements, alleys and grottoes endless options appear, each worthy of being the neighborhood standout in its own right.

In an effort to diversify the day, I locate a bespoke bike shop named Diner — oops! Inside, bleach-blonde Tomoharu Atsumi, 28, and Juki Kawamoto, 26, fine-tune one of the fixed-gear rides their shop sells. In addition to selling the pared-down frames of boss-looking Leader Bikes, Diner also designs custom wheels and all the extras that perfectionists want for serious city cruising. As Atsumi snugs down tires, I ask him which of the neighborhood’s restaurants he prefers. “They’re all expensive,” he says. “We go to Hiroo instead,” Kawamoto chimes in. I note that a single three-spoke carbon wheel at Diner runs about ¥90,000 and realize costliness is often relative to desire.

Bidding the bike guys farewell, I’m relieved to locate Fushen, a Chinese restaurant with a Japanese vibe and a reasonable lunch menu. Behind the counter, a chef fusses over sizzling woks.

“We used to serve Japanese cuisine, but we couldn’t compete, so now we’re the cheapest joint on the street,” he says. The strategy worked, it seems; the place is packed. Seated at the counter, I note a line-up of amber-colored tinctures in tall jars. “They’re for health,” the chef says, rattling off their virtues like an apothecary. “Jujube relieves fatigue, black beans are anti-aging, garlic staves off colds, sesame rejuvenates and saffron improves your blood circulation.” Luckily, I’m not in dire need of aid at the moment. Sated, I pay my wee bill and press on.

From here on, the backstreet pours out its cornucopia of unique and luminous eateries. There’s an anomaly or two along the way — a glass and mirror factory, a clothing boutique, a few bars — but on the whole, it’s an astounding gustatory gallery, almost impossible to encapsulate.

Before giving up, I peer into the opulent red interior of Margotto e Baciare. I see the restaurant is open only for dinner, but I spot fancy bicycles parked outside — the sign of health-conscious employees (or diners) — and note a fragrance coming from the kitchen that trumpets serious enterprise. Manager Daisuke Kishi squeals up on his bike, slightly winded, and agrees to talk with me. Inside, he explains that the name Margotto comes from the Japanese word marugoto (the whole thing) and refers to the restaurant’s passion for truffles. “People love truffles and it seems restaurants never serve enough,” Kishi says, opening a little treasure chest of the pungent beauties he sourced from his own truffle hunter in Italy. “Here you get the whole truffle and can use the amount you want!”

OK, that explains Margotto. What about Baciare? Kishi grins. “We have a policy here: If our customers kiss one another on the lips, we offer them a free grappa after dinner. It makes for a lovely, passionate atmosphere.” But what if the customers are two heterosexual businessmen or something? “We have a little paper lip card they can put between them,” he says, laughing. “But paper or not, the kiss feels the same.” Really? Kishi puckers up.

Do I kiss him or don’t I? And do I use the paper? No appetite here for kiss-and-tell.

Getting there: Nishi-Azabu is a district of Minato Ward, Tokyo, and a short walk from Hiroo Station on the Hibiya Line.