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For the sake of Japan

Former footballer, fashion icon and traveller, Hidetoshi Nakata has a new passion. Jing Zhang finds out what's brewing

 

''My vision is world wide; it's not just from a Japanese point of view," says Hidetoshi Nakata, the softly spoken ex-footballer and style icon. He's in Hong Kong to promote N, his own brand of sake. But, he insists: "I am not just selling sake. I also want to export Japanese culture."

Having been one of Japan's greatest cultural ambassadors for almost two decades, Nakata should know a thing or two about how to achieve that. With interests in sport, fashion, humanitarianism and, now, the drinks world, he is Asia's answer to David Beckham.

The Nakata story starts with football - the precociously talented midfielder made his debut with Japanese J.League side Bellmare Hiratsuka (now known as Shonan Bellmare) when he was 18. He debuted for Japan's national team at 20 and, at 21, his technique, passing flair and goal-scoring feats during the 1998 World Cup, in France, convinced provincial Italian club Perugia to pay Bellmare Hiratsuka US$4 million, making him the second Japanese footballer to play in the Italian league.

"When I got into football, I just wanted to be the best, to beat everybody else," Nakata says, getting comfortable in Wellington Street's FoFo by el Willy restaurant. "Well, I couldn't be the best in the world, but that's still OK."

With characteristic modesty, he plays down the period in his life when he became a global superstar. Nakata was voted Asian Footballer of the Year in both 1997 and 98, becoming the first player to win two consecutive titles, and Nakatamania spread from Japan like wildfire across Italy and other parts of Europe.

Unfashionable Perugia were suddenly making headlines both on and off the field. Japanese football fans and media descended en masse on the sleepy Umbrian town, with some home games attracting up to 3,000 Japanese spectators. The team sold hundreds of thousands of replica shirts and signed many new sponsorship deals, proving Nakata's commercial clout. Meanwhile, the Italian football press, among the most unforgiving in Europe, saw past the hype and lauded Nakata's talent, bestowing on him the nickname Gioiellino ("little jewel").

As Nakata gained fluency in English and Italian, his fashion sense became increasingly pronounced. In 2000, AS Roma, one of Italy's biggest clubs, bought Nakata for €22 million and went on to win the Italian league title that season. He moved on again when AC Parma sought to make him their talisman and paid Roma €28 million for the privilege. The Italians took Nakata to their hearts and, in 2005, he became a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, for promoting Italy in Asia.

Nakatamania reached fever pitch in his homeland in 2002, when Japan co-hosted the World Cup. He, more than any other, shouldered the hopes of an entire nation as they made it past the group stages of the tournament for the first time.

However, Nakata's form was disrupted by a series of injuries and his time in Italy came to an end in 2005 with a transfer to the relatively unglamorous English Premier League side Bolton Wanderers. After only one season at the club, he shocked fans and quit professional football, aged 29.

Nakata has eschewed the typical ex-professional routes into management, coaching or media work, but he still plays in charity matches.

"I still love football. I don't want to just commentate or teach - I want to play," he says, adding: "I think that we have enough connections and good people around us to make things better. Football is really so influential all over the world."

During his time as a footballer, Nakata developed other passions, most notably one for fashion (a more realistic proposition in Italy than in Bolton, one would imagine). He starred in various shoots and a much talked about Calvin Klein X underwear ad campaign; and the videos, released on YouTube with the tongue-in-cheek tagline "X marks the spot", gained him an altogether different legion of fans.

Friends and fans assumed that Nakata would forge a career in the fashion world, but once again he wrong-footed everyone.

"Obviously I love fashion, it's a part of my life; I have so many friends in the industry," he says.

Nevertheless, one day Nakata just packed up and went off to see the world.

For several years, he didn't have a proper home or a permanent address. "Hide", as friends call him, lived nomadically, suitcase in hand, moving from hotel to hotel every few days.

"With material possessions, in a way, the more you have the less you are free," Nakata says. "I am just collecting people, not things. Of course, I cannot make art and architecture and designs, but I know people who can. So I just collect, connect and learn from them."

A few years ago, at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, Nakata told me about witnessing the migration of wildebeest across the plains of northern Tanzania, playing football with children on dusty plains across Africa, seeing the Northern Lights and following the old Silk Road, a route that led him from Urumqi through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

"All those people living in developing countries don't have a lot of stuff, so they have to think and be clever," Nakata said. "That's why they have a lot of unique ideas."

Spending long periods of time in foreign lands, often unable to speak the language, taught him patience and acceptance, says Nakata.

Then, almost as suddenly as he had stopped his football career four years earlier, Nakata came to another halt.

"I travelled around the world, to all these different countries, for many years, but I realised that I didn't really know my own country that well," he says. So he returned home.

"There are 47 prefectures in Japan, I have now visited 43 of them, so there are only four, in the north, to go."

Exploring, learning - or re-learning, in some cases - from the people he met, Nakata connected with the culture he had left behind as a young man for the stadium lights of Europe and sowed the seeds of his next venture.

"Japanese culture is the way of living. Once we start learning things in Japan, we never complete [the process] … like in calligraphy and tea ceremonies, you never - how do you say - there is no goal, there is just the way, the street never stops. I think Japanese people always want to make things better, but they are not really good at selling. I want to be a spokesperson."

Although sake, a rice wine, is central to Japanese culture, history and artisanal craftsmanship, Nakata found it had an image problem. Unlike with whisky or cognac, there are no internationally recognisable sake brands.

The idea of creating his own began to ferment as he travelled through Japan's agricultural areas, visiting ryokans (inns) and traditional breweries.

"Obviously, when I visit craftsmen, the farmers, they have a very basic, simple life, but they are real people," he says. "I'm not saying that people in fashion are not real, but these guys are really down to earth."

The former footballer says he has visited about 200 of the roughly 1,300 sake breweries in Japan, and tasted more than 1,000 varieties of the alcoholic tipple.

"When I learn things from [the sake makers] and when I try and work with them at making the sake, you really feel like a human being."

For N, Nakata employed the Takagi Shuzo brewery, in Yamagata prefecture, which is run by the 14th generation of the family that started the business in 1685. The result is a smooth sake consisting of 35 per cent koji rice (an "A" rank Yamada Nishiki rice), 15 per cent alcohol and 40 per cent kakemai rice - an "A" rank Aiyama type that is processed using the painstaking " fukuro shibori" method, which involves pressing and squeezing it in cloth bags.

Only 800 bottles have been released, 80 of which (costing HK$11,000 each) found their way to Watson's Wine stores in Hong Kong, but a more accessible line under the same name is in production.

"I think sharing good sake or food is like sharing good design and good arts," he says. "Passion is always passion and I don't want to do anything just for business or fame. I want to do it also for fun; to figure out how to do something, to connect the people and make it happen."

Nakata is also a supporter of social entrepreneurship that "brings good ideas from one country to another", and has joined initiatives such as the Junior 8 summit.

"I just came back from the place that was affected by the [2011 Tohoku] tsunami," he says. "Of course, when I see places affected by disaster, it's sad, but I can also see the people [staying put] and making good stuff; it's amazing.

"I need a balance," Nakata adds. "For me, with luxury things and simple things, it's not about which is better, which is worse - I want to have both. It's like going into nature or to the city, you cannot compare."

Nakata is rueful about modern society's fixation on consumerism: "Now the world is going for fast, easy and cheap, but then our culture will be gone.

"Culture should … not just be looking to what's easy or cheap. Because then your life becomes very cheap. Everyone wants to have a good life, but it's not all about money. It's about the quality of things."

Nakata still has prefectures and sake breweries to visit but he is already planning his next attempt to promote the culture of his homeland.

"When I finish all my travels in Japan, I'd like to make a travel app for iPhone and iPad for foreigners, so when they come, they'll know what to do, see and eat, and know where to stay.

"This is just the beginning, this is not a goal," he says. "I have so many ideas, because of travelling and meeting all these people. Maybe, in four years time, I'll be doing something else.

"The important thing is that I am having fun doing this. I'm not doing it just for the sake of it."

 

Additional reporting by Abid Rahman

 

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