Food For The Soul

The Rev. Koki Arai is a man of infinite faith. He may be versed in Scripture, the parables of harvest, but when it came to operating a restaurant he was a lost soul, a gatherer of chaff, a fisherman pulling up empty nets. You can cite your own disaster chapter.

With his small restaurant failing, funds and spirit nearly depleted, he had little recourse. So Arai did what he does best. And then he prayed some more. Would his prayers ever be answered?

In 1985, Koki Arai and his wife, Komichi, recent Japanese immigrants with three young children, opened up a restaurant on Hazel Avenue, near the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. They christened the place Mikuni, which, in Japanese, means “kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God. Just beyond Sunrise.

The desolate Sinai was more like it. In the beginning, customers at Mikuni were rare pilgrims. By 1988, in debt, working 16-hour days, the Arais were in desperate straits. They were considering selling the restaurant. Except there were no buyers for paradise. Mikuni, the kingdom of God, was instead a biblical scourge of faith-testing ordeals. But Arai held firm. While Komichi cooked, he prayed.

Around 1990, a miracle happened. Actually, there were three miracles.

The first miracle was the fertile flow of Gold River from Rancho Cordova, plus the burgeoning of Folsom. Suddenly the desert was abloom with houses.

The second miracle was the swift, almost insatiable appetite for sushi, which, to the Arais, was manna from heaven.

The third miracle was the son. Not the Son. But Taro Arai, Arai’s firstborn who, in 1990, a graduate of Oakmont High School, deferred his dream of UCLA to attend his father’s business.

Taro Arai donned a yukata and tied a bandanna around his dyed hair. He mastered the complex art of sushi, oh, in about 10 hours, reading from a cookbook. Sensei Taro put on a show and attracted disciples.

Faith is good. So is an amiable sushi bar.

Today, Mikuni is an expanding empire. In 1999, the Arai family opened up a second location, at 1565 Eureka Road, in Roseville, to complement the original location, at 4323 Hazel Ave. There are plans to open a third Mikuni downtown next May.

Debts are paid off, loans retired, everyone sleeps peacefully. Mikuni employs 150 people. But some things remain true and irrefutable. Koki Arai firmly believes in God’s blessings, in the banquet of faith to nourish body and soul.

It’s a recent Saturday morning now, the kingdom of God brilliant with blue skies, shimmering green leaves and a cool summer radiance of liquid gold. First Japanese Baptist Church is at 2900 29th St., off Franklin Boulevard, in a low-income neighborhood that is largely Latino. The church is small, clapboard, with a lovely garden, a Sunday school in back, two rows of wooden pews, a hardwood floor, a sanctuary with a red carpet, a combo of rock band equipment and a deep, sunken baptistry.

The congregation numbers around 90. A few souls have gathered for a prayer service, led by their pastor, the Rev. Koki Arai.

Inside, Mitsuhisa Arai greets a visitor with a beaming smile and a plunging, back-breaking bow. He is 85, fit, balding, with the grip of a dairyman. He has a gold cross dangling from his neck.

“He was saved two years ago,” says Arai of his father, who is visiting from Japan. “He was baptized by me right here. Last year, my mother (Kesaye, 83) was baptized by me. Also, my older sister. By me, here. This church is very precious to our family.”

Arai sits at a table. Mitsuhisa places a vase of fresh flowers by his son’s side and recedes like an ocean tide. Arai is 59 years old. He is a boyish-looking man, slight of build, with thinning hair, dark brown eyes. He is calm and soft-spoken.

But Arai glows with an evangelical fervor, an absolute certainty of belief that is as persuasive as it can be off-putting. There is but only one path to salvation: Christianity. Like a big-league ballplayer, Arai keeps a tally of souls saved. His lifetime of hits numbers in the thousands.

With an ironic twist on Scripture, however, his own redemption won, he became the prodigal son. Koki Arai was born in 1943, in Kumamoto Prefecture. His parents were rice farmers, tilling an emerald patch in the shadow of Mount Aso, a still-angry volcano, on the southern island of Kyushu. Life in postwar Japan was cursed with economic hardships and spiritual uncertainties.

“Yes, I helped my parents,” says Arai, one of six children. “(Harvesting rice) was hard work. We had no machines like today. Back then, we used sickles. We had no tractor.” He laughs. “I was the tractor!”

As a boy, he says he was lucky to attend Kyushu Gakuin, a missionary school operated by the Lutheran Church of America. “I was impressed,” says Arai of his teachers. “I wanted to be like them.” Thus, at 18, thinking of a career in the ministry, he was baptized and promptly banished from his home.

“Oh, they were against me,” says Arai of his parents, who, like most people in Japan, were Buddhist. “They expected more things from me. This education they had provided me. They couldn’t understand. But I prayed for the salvation of my family. And, 40 years later, my prayers were answered.”

At 19, he left for Tokyo to attend Central Bible College, operated by the Assemblies of God. “I was confused,” Arai says. “I was depressed. I was from the countryside. Tokyo was so different. But I prayed many hours. And I became grown up in knowledge and faith.”

In Tokyo, he met and married Komichi, also a student at the Central Bible College. His first posting was to a rural church in Amakusa. He served there 15 years, baptized 200 people. Next, he returned for five years to pastor a church in Kumamoto City.

In 1985, the two visited Arai’s older sister, Sue Shirasaka, who had earlier immigrated to Sacramento. By chance, he came upon the aging Issei congregation at First Japanese Baptist Church, a church praying for a Japanese-speaking minister.

First Japanese Baptist Church was established in 1920, at Fifth and P streets, on the periphery of a sizable Japanese community in Sacramento. In 1962, the church moved to its current site. Today, First Japanese Baptist, all its Issei members long deceased, offers two liturgies, in English and Japanese.

In 1985, when he assumed pastorship of the church, Arai was given a small stipend. It was not enough to provide for his family. He needed work.

At 42, with limited English, a resume as an itinerant evangelist, he was not a good job candidate. He applied for work at McDonald’s, at Regional Transit, at various businesses. No luck. So he and Komichi decided to open a restaurant. A Japanese benefactor loaned him start-up capital. He took it on faith from a listing agent that Hazel Avenue was a good location. Koki and Komichi Arai opened Mikuni, and suffered for their sins of naivete.

“In Japan, I had no experience in business,” Arai says. “The first years, I made so many mistakes. For three years, every year, I lost money. But I prayed to God to support me and he did.”

Then came the series of miracles.

Today, Mikuni is a family operation. Taro Arai, 32, is president. His brother Nao, 31, is sushi chef at Mikuni Roseville. Mikuni Roseville’s manager is Haru Sakata, Taro’s Japan-born brother-in-law, who is married to sister Keiko, 30.

Koki and Komichi still work in the restaurant every morning. Of his father, Taro says, “I’m the skeptic in the family. When I was 17, I told my father let’s sell the restaurant. Let’s do something else. But he told me to have faith in God.”

Understandably, Arai thinks his faith in God has been rewarded. The restaurant has provided his ministry a unique pulpit. Many of his parishioners are also Mikuni customers. Many were homesick Japanese exchange students from California State University, Sacramento, and the University of California, Davis, drawn to Mikuni for a taste of home.

“They come to the restaurant,” Arai says. “We become friends. I invite them here. They become Christians. Some 100 students have become Christians here.”

His business on solid footing, Arai’s attention is solely on matters of faith. He serves as executive director of the Northern California Japanese Christian Church Federation, comprising some 30 churches, all of them small, most of them struggling.

Due to zero immigration, intermarriage of the younger generation, a secular age, the Japanese American church is facing a crisis. Arai has devoted the remainder of his life to the preservation of the Japanese language liturgy. He believes in miracles.

“This is my main business now,” Arai says, gesturing at the church. “Not the restaurant anymore. We have a powerful worship here. And I am so happy to be in Sacramento. It is so open, so welcoming. It has been a miraculous life. I have to thank God.”

Bob Sylva

Copyright 2002 The Sacramento Bee

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