Bob Sylva, Bee Staff Writer
On a recent Sunday morning, the sky radiant, the clouds tasty little puffs of rice, Taro Arai, the city’s sushi impresario, Mikuni’s clown prince, a man who believes in the gospel of fun, is going to church.
The First Japanese Baptist Church is at 2900 29th Ave. Its Japanese-language pastor is the Rev. Koki Arai, Taro’s father, who assumed leadership of the tiny congregation in 1985. In 1986, to provide a living for his family, Arai and his wife, Komichi, opened a modest Japanese restaurant called Mikuni on Hazel Avenue. It was God’s plan, testifies Arai.
Alas, God didn’t tell the Rev. Arai how to run a restaurant. So, the struggling Arai family spent many years wandering in the desert of empty tables and mounting debt.
Today, 20 years and several locations later, Mikuni is one of the more successful restaurants in Sacramento – surpassing even Randy Paragary in identity, innovation, growth potential – and the Arai family has been richly rewarded for its faith, hard work, devotion.
No one is more responsible for Mikuni’s ascension than Taro Arai, a magnetic personality, a cultural paradox, a human laugh track and irrepressible showman, who has elevated the ritual of slicing fish into something that rivals a Broadway production.
Rev. Arai, 63, is no longer actively involved in Mikuni. When asked about his colorful son, Rev. Arai, sitting in a pew, turns thoughtful. As though reciting a parable, he says, “Taro attracts people to himself. He inherited that (trait) from birth. He never minded the little things. He’s very aggressive, very self-confident. He was always against his (Japanese) teachers, the (Japanese) school system.”
Rev. Arai considers his son’s rebelliousness and family redemption some more.
“Sometimes, I can’t understand what he does or how he thinks,” he says, appearing happily bewildered. “I can’t follow him. But he has been a blessing to us.”
On another morning, Taro Arai is sitting alone in a sleek booth in the Sake Room of his latest venture, Taro’s by Mikuni, at the Arden Fair mall.
Arai is 36 years old and has the graphic features of a Japanese manga hero – sprouting ears, downcast brows, plaintive eyes, a hatchet nose , a cocky, V-shaped grin, a patchy beard. His thinning, streaked hair is mobbed by a jaunty newsboy cap. He is wearing a Mikuni T-shirt, faded jeans and a fabulous pink rhinestone belt buckle that glistens like fish roe.
Arai, who is tall (nearly 6 feet) and muscular, is tapping away on his laptop. Its screen saver is a photograph of his beautiful wife, Machiko, who is his childhood sweetheart. The first and only girl he has ever loved. “I can’t live without her!” he says.
There is a pile of books and periodicals by his side, all in Japanese (he rarely reads anything in English). There is Nobu Matsuhisa’s new cookbook, a devotional text called “Clay,” a slick Japanese fashion magazine titled Cool and a 1994 Japanese dining guide that rates American restaurants.
No doubt Arai brought the dining guide for a reporter’s benefit. He picks up the guide and reads a dire capsule review of Mikuni: “This restaurant will not make it.” For Taro Arai, there’s no such thing as a last laugh.
Five sites and growing
The spectacular, $2.5 million Taro’s by Mikuni is the fifth location in the expanding Mikuni empire, which, started by a family of five, now employs 500 people. Its other locations are in Roseville, Elk Grove, Folsom and downtown. It has a site under construction in El Dorado Hills, and will open a second location in Roseville. Its ultimate goal – Las Vegas.
Annual sales are approaching $30 million. That’s a lot of fish. Mikuni, in fact, slices up 52 tons of fish a month. On any scale, it’s the big tuna in town.
Rating best sushi bars is a surefire way to incite an argument. But Mikuni has its adherents.
“The food is outstanding,” says auto mogul Chuck Peterson, a sushi shark and Mikuni investor who compares Mikuni favorably with Koi, the celebrity haunt in West Hollywood.
“There is nothing like this in Japan,” says David Hoffsten, sales manager of Adams Vegetable Oils, who makes annual business! trips to Japan and entertains his usually agog Japanese clients at Mi kuni. “I would say the quality of their fish is superior.”
Even traditional Japanese-trained sushi chefs give the brash, upstart Arai his due. “He’s young, he’s creative, he’s talented,” says Yutaka Watanabe, owner of Taka’s in Fair Oaks. Masa Nishiyama, owner of Zen Toro, grudgingly acknowledges, “I think he’s a good businessman. But I am a professional chef.”
Russell Oto, of Oto’s Japan Foods, contends that Arai, more than anyone, has popularized sushi in Sacramento, leading to a tsunami of imitators.
“People go to a sushi bar for the atmosphere,” says Oto. “You’re not just eating. You are talking to the chef. So, he started that camaraderie.”
One minnow in Mikuni’s school is Koichi Mizushima, owner of Kamon on 16th Street. Asked to assess Arai’s impact, Mizushima hollers, “Dude! He’s the man! Give him his props! They (Mikuni) are revolutionizing the Japanese restaurant industry. It’s no longer mom and pop – and they were the proverbial mom and pop. They are branding the image. It’s not so much the food at Mikuni; it’s the whole experience.”
If Arai has a critic, surprisingly enough (or maybe it’s not so surprising), it’s his partner and nemesis, the very cautious, deliberative Derrick Fong, who is chief financial officer. Fong is the mastermind behind Mikuni; Arai the floor show.
Says Fong: “What’s great about Taro, both good and bad, is his unpredictability. He’s creative. He’s witty. He’s Japanese. But he’s not Japanese. He’s been a challenge for me. But he makes Mikuni fun. He reminds me of a Japanese version of James Dean.”
A cultural hybrid
Bingo! Take a closer look at Arai. The hair, the dress, the attitude, the gales of laughter, the flamboyant sushi persona, some of which is affected. He’s playing a role. Or make that “roll.” Like one of those crazy concoctions he invents, e.g., the Train Wreck Roll, the Godzilla Roll, the Pimp My Roll – is this food or an MTV show? – Arai is a compelling fusion of unlikely ingredients. A cultural hybrid.
He admits as much.
“People call me a ‘banana’ or a ‘Twinkie,’ ” he says, typically cracking up. “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
Told that some Asian Americans would find the term ‘banana’ disparaging, Arai appears shocked. “Really?” he says. Pleading innocence, he declares, “I never had a Twinkie in my life. So, I made a Twinkie sushi roll. I deep-fried it. I added some eel sauce to it. I had some fun with it.” More laughter.
Fun. That’s Arai’s governing principle.
“I have no talents,” he says, in contrast to Fong. “He has done things that I would never be able to do. The numbers, the operations. We are opposites. He is like my brother.” Pause. “An older brother.” Pause. “A much older brother!” He laughs at his impudence.
“What are my talents?” he repeats. “I don’t think I have any talents. I just have fun. Ever since I first got here (America), I’ve always had fun.”
A ‘feet’ of defiance
Kotaro “Taro” Arai was born and reared on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu. He spent time on Amakusa Islands, later moving to Kumamoto City. By Tokyo standards, he was a country bumpkin.
As a Christian minister in uniform Japan, Rev. Koki Arai was viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Thus, by virtue of baptism, Taro Arai was born a rebel. He was pious, carefree, filial, nonconformist, individualistic, and was forever being sent home from school for a litany of transgressions.
Once, at the beginning of the sixth grade, he wore the wrong shoes to school. As punishment, he was summoned before the entire student body, where he was slapped and humiliated. Incensed, young Taro went without shoes the entire year, even walking barefoot in the snow, until his soiled feet turned bloody.
Another time, in defiance of haircut codes, Arai shaved two bald stripes along his scalp. The reaction at school was predictable. The solution comically cruel. His teacher took a black felt pen and darkened the objectionable hairless swaths.
Taro Arai, a persecution figure, a kid gaijin wannabe, the nail that refused to be hammered down.
“I didn’t want to be the same as other people,” he says of his revolt. “I wanted to express myself.”
At 15, he was determined to flee Japan and move to America. He had managed to save $6,000 from his longtime paper route. He told his father he was leaving. Rev. Arai thought it was a good idea. So good, he decided that the whole family would go with him. Taro’s savings paid for the family plane fare.
They came to Sacramento, where Rev. Arai had a sister and a position at First Japanese Baptist Church. Then the family opened the restaurant. Taro, just 16, drove to the fish market in San Francisco three times a week, rising at 2 a.m. He slept his way through high school.
A fateful book on sushi
In 1989, consulting a sushi book he bought at Kinokuniya, in San Francisco’s Japantown, Taro added a sushi bar to Mikuni. He had no idea what he was doing. But he had flair, nerve. The Arai family, Koki and Komichi, children Taro, Nao and Keiko, worked day and night. That’s how Mikuni began.
Daniel Schmoock, 32, is executive chef at Taro’s by Mikuni. He speaks fluent Japanese. He is married to a Japanese woman. He goes to Japan every year. “He is more Japanese than I am,” Arai says with a laugh.
A cynic might say that Mikuni, with its repertoire of zany rolls, has made a fortune in artfully disguising the actual fact of fish. Schmoock, who reveres the Japanese art of sushi, agrees to a point. But he also notes a growing sophistication among customers. People asking for, and actually savoring, sea urchin, monk fish liver, squid guts.
Squid guts? In Sacramento?
Who would have imagined?
Asked to describe Arai, Schmoock laughs, “Where do I begin?” He notes Arai’s creativity, his energy, his fearlessness. But then he says, “There’s a humble intelligence to him. He plays the role of the fun-loving guy. But he’s also very shrewd and very observant. He doesn’t miss much.”
On a recent Friday night, Arai is on center stage. Behind the front sushi counter at Taro’s by Mikuni, he can see and greet every customer coming in. And every patron leaving can pay homage to him.
“Onegai shimasu!” shouts a hostess (“If you please …”), ushering a new, slightly startled customer into the sanctuary of Arai.
“Shiawase desuka?” yells out Arai (“Is everybody happy?”)
“Hai!” cry the dozen or so sushi chefs behind the counter, in a chorus of affirmation.
Let other, staid sushi chefs wear a yukata or headband. Arai is wearing a pink golf cap, a pink T-shirt that says “Sushi Rocks!” For the chosen few, he pours shots of chilled, crystalline sake.
“Kanpai!” he toasts.
And, slicing fish, fashioning plates, smiling, joking, teasing, bowing, always laughing, pouring sake – too much sake – he puts on a commanding performance.
A house full of toys
Taro Arai is at home now. He lives in a large but not spectacular two-story house at the end of a quiet cul de sac in a gated community in Granite Bay.
His wife, Machiko, is cooking in the kitchen, preparing an after-school snack for their four children and their friends. Later, the house is crawling with kids, creating a joyous commotion.
Machiko, 36, who is tall, chic, and once was a national swimming champion, remarks that her home’s family room in Granite Bay is bigger than her entire house in Japan. Yes, she laughs, Taro was a rebel at school, but dangerously attractive to the girls. She says her father threatened to disown her for marrying him, and initially refused to attend her wedding.
Arai gives a whirlwind tour of his sprawling house, which has the appearance of a warehouse furnished with toys – a pool table, a trampoline, an entertainment center with a wall-size projection screen. Hidden behind a bookshelf, he shows you his secret room.
It’s his prayer room. Resembling a Buddhist shrine, it has a low altar, a floor cushion. A picture of the Last Supper.
“The first thing I do every morning,” he says, “is that I thank God. I can’t help smiling.”
He believes Mikuni’s fortune is God’s plan.
Maybe it’s faith. Maybe it’s fun.
Back downstairs, the family gathers in the kitchen. All the Arai children are fluent in Japanese. Taro, who cherishes his time at home, is soon restless, eager to go outside and play basketball.
“Am I?” he says, when told he’s a wealthy man. “I’m not a material person. I started from nothing. And if God took everything from me, I don’t care. My focus is on having a happy wife and family.”
The Bee’s Bob Sylva can be reached at (916)321-1135 or email@example.com
Edition: METRO FINAL
Copyright 2006 The Sacramento Bee