American bar, ski lodge owner puts the emphasis on fun

Entrepreneur beats the odds by making business bringing people together; hopes to do same with beach cleanup goal

by Daniel Robson

“The first question people ask when you say you’re in the bar business in Japan is whether you have to pay money to the yakuza,” says Matt Naiman, owner of several bars around Japan and a ski resort.

“The answer is no, we don’t. When we were building our first bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya, every day we had these three guys coming by in tracksuits and sunglasses, totally stereotypical yakuza, and demanding that we pay them some money. I didn’t know what to do — if we didn’t pay them, would something terrible happen? At the last minute I decided to go to the police, who said, ‘Just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone.’ “

Naiman was born in Philadelphia, where he dreamed of one day opening his own bar with friend Greg Natali. He spent five years in New York, where he studied at Columbia University and worked as a bartender. Then, having picked up some basic Japanese at college and during a yearlong exchange trip to Japan, he was hired to work for a Tokyo company specializing in furniture design, owned by a friend of the family, and moved here in 1996.

“When I first got here, I realized how big the difference is between colloquial Japanese and what you learn in university. But it was enough of a start to get me going, and I entered an intensive program while I was here. The job was a great way to get to be in a group that was all Japanese, and it was a really good introduction to the Japanese working culture.”

Natali moved to Japan, too, and, after a year or so, the pair happened to meet a property owner who was looking to rent out one floor of a building in Shibuya.

“So we scraped together the money and went in on a real shoestring,” recalls Naiman of the beginnings of his first bar, Sugar High.

“We did most of the work ourselves. My old company was pretty cool. They gave us bathroom equipment and samples that they weren’t using. And friends came in to help us paint and do carpentry and things. It took us about two months of intense work. We’d go home to sleep and wouldn’t even take off our shoes,” he recounts with a laugh.

Sugar High is now gone. In its five years it grew to occupy four of the building’s five floors and hosted numerous packed DJ parties, attracting such famous spinners as the British electronic artists Aphex Twin and Massive Attack.

“It was sad to have to leave that place, but the owner wanted to rebuild it, and he gave us some money to move out,” says Naiman. The two friends used the money in 2002 to open two new businesses in Shibuya’s Dogenzaka district: the restaurant Sonoma and the Ruby Room bar above it. Though Sonoma closed earlier this year, Ruby Room has attracted a vibrant mix of event organizers and bands, and with them a cosmopolitan clientele.

Naiman also opened two other venues at the turn of the century, one in Yokohama’s Kannai district and the other in Shibuya. These were followed by another in Osaka in 2005.

“I think I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” says Naiman. “When I was a little kid, my brothers and me would organize the neighborhood Olympics and sell tickets door to door. I’ve always enjoyed getting people together and organizing parties. Especially now, the difference between ‘digital socializing’ and actually going out and being together with people, listening to music together — it’s even more important.

“Of course there are exceptions, but a lot of Japanese people tend to be very risk-averse,” he continues. “If things go wrong, they could be embarrassed. We closed Sonoma recently, and I don’t find that embarrassing. Next time we’ll know what to do better. But one thing the Japanese do really well is creating atmosphere. It’s like a whole experience, not just the food, and that is very inspiring.”

One way Naiman goes about creating that all-important atmosphere is by placing great emphasis on good staff. Whether Japanese or Western, his staff tend to be outgoing, friendly and (to some degree) bilingual.

“We think it’s really important that our foreign staff are able to speak Japanese,” he says. “But I don’t think the language should be the most important thing when you’re looking for staff. It’s more important that they’re really friendly and have some individual character.”

In 2007, Naiman made something of a departure: Fueled by a passion for winter sports, he teamed up with his brother, Michael, to open a ski lodge in the Annupuri range in Hokkaido’s Niseko area. Over the four-month winter season, Annupuri Lodge is a stylish retreat that last year was listed by Conde Nast’s Concierge Web site as one of the “sexiest” winter lodges in the world. Michael cashed out this year, leading Naiman to invite the owners of Indonesia’s luxury Telo Island Lodge to help run the business.

“The location was really good, right at the bottom of a mountain, so you could ski right off the mountain into the lodge,” recalls Naiman of his first viewing of the property. “But nothing really prepared me for the amazement of seeing it snowing all the time. It’s very refreshing to be a part of this kind of business. People aren’t drinking or carousing, so you can have some meaningful conversations and hear what people are saying.”

Naiman now spends much of the winter at the lodge, and travels regularly to Osaka and the United States. His base is in Tokyo, where he lives with his girlfriend, but where does he consider home? “Recently I’ve been asking myself the same question!” he admits.

As if he didn’t already have enough on his plate, Naiman is also involved in the Beautiful Ocean Project, a charitable organization that aims to clean up Japan’s beaches, starting with the Nishihama section of Shonan Beach in Enoshima, Kanagawa Prefecture. He says he was drawn to the campaign because of his love for Japan’s nature.

“Sometimes you go to a Japanese beach and it’s like somebody slipped some acid in your drink and you’re having a bad trip,” he explains. “So we’re trying to build awareness for people not to leave trash there, and getting groups to pick up trash. They get 3 million people every year visiting Enoshima, so it’s one of the busiest beaches. If you can make a difference there, as a model for the rest of Japan, it could have an incredible impact. Once it becomes fun to keep tidy and the thing to do, people are willing to get on board.”

As for future plans, Naiman is currently considering opening a school in Niseko to train budding snowboard instructors.

He admits that, as a foreign entrepreneur in Japan, the odds against him are great, but he has overcome them by following a very simple philosophy: “I think what ties it together is just providing a place where people can meet and be together and have fun,” he says. “That’s the common factor in everything I do.”

Ruby Room in Shibuya holds its seventh-anniversary party on Nov. 21. For more information, see www.rubyroomtokyo.com, www.annupurilodge.com and www.beautifuloceanproject.com