A-team imports ‘water of heaven’ back to Japan

by Angela Jeffs

Rocky Aoki and Keiko Ono are quite a team. They were in Japan just last week and now are here again, leading a tour group of 20 U.S.-based serious sake enthusiasts to taste the real stuff on the home ground of the “water of heaven.”

But let us backtrack a few days. After a meeting with representatives of JTB and the Yokoso Japan campaign to encourage tourists to visit this country, we are whisked into a hired limo to be driven from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Yurakucho to the Imperial Hotel. Distance as the crow flies? Less than half a kilometer.

Actually, it’s Keiko who does the whisking. And though Rocky trails behind and can hardly get a word in edgeways, there is a smile on his face that suggests he’s not unhappy with the situation. “When we married four years ago . . .”

“Four years and three days,” Keiko corrects smartly.

“Too long,” he says with a laugh. “To be honest, I was in a bit of a mess. She saved me.”

Rocky is famous in Japan. In the States too, where the couple now live in Manhattan. He personifies Mr. Average made good — any guy you might pass in the street without taking particular note, except that in Rocky’s case he is immaculately dapper, wearing a wristwatch surrounded by not insignificant diamonds and an emerald in a ring that would take out an eye.

He is the founder of Benihana USA & International, with 111 restaurants and franchises in 15 countries with 4,000 employees. “Is it enough? No . . .”

“We are thinking China, Shanghai maybe,” says Keiko, completing his sentence. She is tiny, beautifully outfitted, and fizzing with energy. She was a Miss Tokyo once, but cannot — conveniently — quite remember which year. In a former life, I suspect she was Italian (at least once).

Like her husband, Keiko (who brought the Wonder Bra to Japan) is Tokyo “shitamachi” (downtown) born and bred. She married, went to the U.S., divorced, and now runs her own successful consultancy, Altesse Co. “It’s how Rocky and I met. He needed help with the business. I advised. Things went from there.”

Rocky says he’s driven to succeed because his father was such a hard act to follow. “He was on the stage — a comedian in Asakusa who played seven musical instruments. With a ‘kissaten’ (coffee shop) in Nihonbashi, I guess restauranteering was in the blood. But my father wanted me to be a star. It was he who encouraged me to wrestle, try my luck in America.”

In 1959, at the age of 19, Rocky went to the U.S. with the Japanese wrestling team. He liked it there, wanted to stay. So he studied, took odd jobs, leased an ice-cream truck, and on the back of savings went back to school. “After graduating, I went into the ‘teppanyaki’ (grill) restaurant business, beginning with just four tables. It was tough, but I was determined to build something.”

As Benihana grew, so did Rocky’s aspirations. He began collecting — paintings, antiques, apartments, cars, women, kids. . . . “I have seven. I try to make sure they are all OK, but it’s not always easy.”

He is, he declares, a challenger. “I want to challenge everything.” Which explains the drive that made him backgammon champion of the U.S. in 1975. Also why he went into power boat racing. And in 1982 won the world record for crossing the Pacific in a hot air balloon. “Richard Branson copied me. But that’s OK.”

Such a daredevil life took its toll over the years. Twenty-two broken bones. A Dacron aorta. Loss of spleen and other bits and pieces. Hepatitis C. Life, Rocky admits, became pretty miserable; if Keiko had not come onto the scene, he wonders what might have become of him. “Now I’m a health freak. I don’t even drink.”

Such an admission makes his latest enterprise even more interesting: a coals to Newcastle kind of project being launched in Japan that aims to make its famed rice wine better known and appreciated all over the world. “We want to make sake international.”

This three-day trip has been concerned with preparing the red carpet for the sake tour later in the month and, being a sports enthusiast, making a speech at a panel discussion at the Palace Hotel between baseball coaches, managers and management organized by Sadaharu Oh. “We were looking at the business challenges facing the sport. I told them that running a baseball team is no different to running a restaurant. Then explained why.”

The return trip from Feb. 8 looks to be far more demanding. Because Rocky has been honored with many awards, he regards himself as a cultural bridge and wants to give something back. Working within the framework of the Yokoso Japan project, which aims to bring many more tourists to Japan, the couple are promoting sake, and Keiko is working on a cookbook.

They founded a sake club in New York, with some 200 members, mostly American but not all, and 50-50 men and women. The delegation of 20 will be at the FCCJ Sake (Hanakobo) Nouveau Tasting at the club today from 6 p.m., with 90 rice wines from 30 leading “hanakobo” (“flower yeast”) sake makers. More can be tasted tomorrow at a noh performance at the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya from 2 p.m.

Thinking himself lucky not to have landed on the rocks, Rocky has followed the career of Takafumi Horie, founder of Livedoor, with more than a little interest, because, “he’s just like me.”

Horie wanted to grow, wanted to make money but, “depending too much on other people at the start, dug himself into a pit. He too is a challenger, a doer, but as we are seeing, the outcome is different. All he can do now is go abroad in a few years, start again.”

Saying he has similar problems, Rocky resigned as chairman of Benihana, because he might have been seen as an insider trader. “To live,” Rocky says, “you have to stay within the law.”