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For the week of February 27 - March 5, 2002


Japanese import a heavyweight 

Inside and outside the kitchen

Express Staff Writer

A Ketchum restaurant is hoping customers will go for a little sumo with their sushi, thanks to their latest addition to the kitchen.

While not at work, the 54-year-old Iwatora “Tora” Matsuoka keeps himself in shape along with the help of a improvised bench press. 

Iwatora Matsuoka, a sumotori, or sumo wrestler, for 18 years, and sushi chef for the last 15, arrived in the Wood River Valley two months ago, and has been serving up the Japanese delicacy at Hana Sushi in Ketchum since then.

Born in 1948 on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, "Tora" left home at the age of 13 after his father’s tatami mat-making business failed. Seeking to help his family survive financially, he came upon professional sumo as a way to help pay the bills.

"I had to make money somehow, because my family was so poor," he said.

Becoming involved in sumo—a very popular and formal event in Japan—requires plenty of training and preparation, Tora said, including six months of training school, and a number of tests to advance up the ranks. A sumotori must not only prepare himself physically and mentally, he said, but must also work to memorize and practice the 50 different techniques involved.

"I’ve studied them all, but I don’t remember every one these days," he said. "It was not an easy thing to do."

Tora serves up one of his creations on a busy Friday night from behind the counter at Hana Sushi in Ketchum. Express photos by Willy Cook

In a little more than 10 years, Tora weighed 300 pounds, and had excelled at sumo to become makunouchi, a member of the top division of sumotoris.

At the age of 32, Tora retired from sumo, and headed across the Pacific Ocean for a change of pace and career.

Soon after his arrival in the United States in the early ’80s, Tora began establishing a culinary reputation in sushi for himself in New York, first working at a trendy restaurant, and then offering personalized catering services to groups as large as 200 people and as small as intimate meals for two.

In his 15 years of preparing sushi, Tora said, he has served meals for a number of celebrities, and traveled to various parts of the country, including a recent stint in Jackson, Wyo.

Scheduled to stay at Hana Sushi until at least the end of the upcoming busy season, Tora seems to have settled into the Sun Valley culture, having recently gone on his first snowboarding expedition, and settled into his temporary home in Warm Springs, which he shares with two other of the restaurants imports from Japan.

“Tora” Matsuoka practices one of the many katas  he mastered during his career as a sumotori in Japan. Express photos by Willy Cook

Merlin Alabert, manager of Hana Sushi, said the restaurant had been advertising for a new sushi chef for a while, and received repeated phone calls from Tora, asking if they’d made a hiring decision yet.

"He just kept calling," she said. "Usually, nobody wants to come here to work, but he was really excited to come, and did so very quickly."

Alabert said she enjoys watching Tora’s delicate preparation style, and the results of the many types of fish that he works with—although his favorite, he says, is tuna.

"All sushi men have their own technique," Alabert said. "And they all have a lot of fun preparing the food. Almost as much as the customers do eating it."

When not working, Tora spends much of his time at home, practicing katas and other sumo moves. With no gym equipment around, he has fashioned a bench press and weights out of old patio furniture. With the bench press weight measuring in at about 100 pounds, Tora said he usually does at least 100 repetitions per day.

"I’m 54, but all this keeps me in shape," he said.

Alabert, who has helped Tora adjust to his new surroundings, said the aggressive sumo moves he practices conflict with the gentle chef she sees behind the restaurant counter.

"His sport and his personality are so hard to put together," she said. "He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever know. He can’t even bring himself to kill a fly."

Even though he might have lost his killer instinct, Alabert said his culinary style, and the dishes he creates are breathtaking, whether it’s in the restaurant’s main room, or in the private sushi room for up to 12 people. With the restaurant open seven days a week, from 5 p.m. to closing, she said she hopes many visitors and residents take the time to see Tora in action.

"He’s something that we don’t see too often around here, and I think we’re lucky he decided to spend some time here."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.