Koji Honda - From sushi king to bungy stuntman...
He’s been king of the kitchen since he was four, whipping up fried rice and sashimi with his mum back in Tokyo.
By 21, Koji Honda, a freshly trained sushi chef, had ventured across the world to New Zealand as one of its first ever qualified sushi chefs, currently believed to be Queenstown’s longest serving chef.
Raised in Tokyo, sushi was always the comfort food his mother made if he was unwell. “When I was little, I always wanted to be a sushi chef to help people when they’re sick,” he says.
Koji was the envy of his friends when his movie director father worked on the Godzilla movies, Koji also starring, aged 10, as an extra.
His grandmother – a true ‘Tokyo (Edo) Lady’, was a big influence on his life. “She looked after us a lot. On New Year’s Day she’d make snapper sashimi, soup using a snapper head, and tuna sashimi.”
After working part-time in one of Tokyo’s busiest sushi restaurants while at high school, Koji worked there full-time completing a four-year apprenticeship, always with a desire to work abroad.
His Sushi Master suggested NZ, deterring Koji from America where sushi was already popular. “I’d seen pictures of lakes, mountains and sheep,” Koji smiles. Arriving in 1988, Auckland didn’t appeal, and a chef put him in touch with Queenstown’s Minami Jujisei owner Tony Robertson who’d just opened the fourth Japanese restaurant in NZ and who snapped up the young, qualified sushi chef, flying him south.
Koji had arrived in NZ speaking no English at all and in a day when there were no English language colleges in town, he headed to the pub every night after work “to learn English”. It may not have been Oxford Dictionary version, but every night Koji picked up some of the language – good or bad, checking the dictionary when he got home that night.
It was a hard road luring the locals to try his national dish. “Not many people knew what sushi was in Queenstown. When I’d say I worked in a sushi bar and explained sushi was made from raw fish they said, ‘No way! Get lost! You’re having us on. They thought I was joking,” he laughs.
Bungy jumpmaster by day and Minami Jujisei Restaurant sushi chef then partying by night, Koji was working 15-hour days but living the dream. He was well used to hard work having clocked massive hours, seven days in a row at the Tokyo sushi restaurant where’d he’d work from November to February without a day off, sometimes 24-hour stints. “It was unbelievable. So many quit.”
“I’d work at the (bungy) bridge from 8am until 3pm then head into town to work at Minami from 5pm until 11pm, then go drinking until 3am or 4am,” he grins. Chico’s, Eichardt’s, The Penthouse and The Dolphin Club were his playground.
Bungy days were fun working for AJ Hackett himself, and Henry Van Asch, who had not long launched their revolutionary new bungy operation that was taking the country by storm. “I was pushing the people off the bridge. It wasn’t called ‘jumpmaster’ back then,” he grins. “We did testing every day and I always wanted to do it so I’ve done a lot of jumps.”
Koji even starred as stunt double for a famous Japanese actor who couldn’t make it to a Japanese sports commercial shoot at the bungy bridge. “I did 12 jumps that day and had a bad headache from hanging upside down so many times. It was aired all over Japan.” Koji also became master of the bounce, bungying from the heady heights of a crane during festival displays in the region.
His visa was to expire after a year, so Tony helped him apply for NZ residency. “I went to Immigration NZ in Dunedin and the woman said. ‘What is sushi? Ok, I don’t know the difference between people making donuts and hamburgers and sushi,” Koji says. “Tony was angry and wrote to the Minister of Tourism then two days later the woman asked me to send my passport, and in another two days my residency arrived.”
There were only 20 Japanese in town. Flatmates included renowned local Chinese restaurateur Ming Han, and Koji’s Japanese wife Ayako after romance blossomed in Fernhill where they’ve since lived for 35 years.
Koji soon owned shares with Tony and his then wife Jan, and bought Minami outright in 1999, selling it in 2018 after a 20-year association. He then worked in the Wai Group prep station for Jan and her partners, then joined the team at Finz where chef Steve Clayton taught him how to cook European style. “He’s really good. He changed my life,” Koji says.
At 57 Koji’s sure he will cook “well into old age”. I just want to serve the nice food and make people happy. That’s my motto.”