MAN OF THE WORLD. Almost a decade after retiring from the soccer world, Japanese icon Hidetoshi Nakata has a new venture under his belt: his own sake brand, “N”
There are several basic stereotypes of how a soccer star should look like that the general public seemingly adheres to: They need to be good looking with an equally good-looking partner, as they live a life that closely resembles a rock star’s while always looking extremely sharp when they’re not on the field. Japanese soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata once followed that very stereotype, before he retired at the age of 29, just after playing for the Japanese national team in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Back then, people wondered what he would do, and his answer was simply: “To see what’s going on in the world.”
“The world is big, with a lot of great places and great people. Why do you have to stay in one place?”
Fast-forward to almost a decade after, and Nakata has done much more than just see the world. When DA MAN met him for this issue’s cover shoot and interview in Jakarta, he came across as calm and collected, a stark contrast to the city’s chaos and hectic pace. Following his journey across Japan where he visited over 250 sake breweries and tasted over 1,000 products, he carried a different mission this time: to introduce his own sake brand, called “N.” Beyond furthering his own venture, however, Nakata has an even bigger personal mission: To elevate sake’s international standing, creating what he called a different “drinking culture” where the Japanese liquor could enjoy equal standing with the world’s finest spirits.
DA MAN: We’re excited for your latest venture, “N” sake. It must be both exciting and thrilling to work on something so different from your previous background. Can you tell us more about it?
Hidetoshi Nakata: I think you know that I used to play soccer [laughs], and I retired when I was 29, which was almost 10 years ago. Then, I started traveling around the world, to see what I could do next. As I was traveling, a lot of people asked me about Japan—about its culture, where to go and what to eat there. Well, I left Japan when I was 21, so I didn’t know much about Japanese culture back then. Then I said to myself, “Okay, maybe now is the time to go back to Japan and learn more about my own culture.”
There are 47 prefectures in Japan, and I thought that I needed to go to all 47. Six years ago, I started my trip around Japan. I started from Okinawa and, this year, it is about to end in Hokkaido. Most of the time I was meeting with craftsmen, farmers and sake makers, as well as visiting shrines, old hotels and restaurants just to know about the culture. I am now planning my trip to Hokkaido, the last destination, and hopefully I will finish it by the end of December.
During my trip around Japan, I was fascinated with various great techniques and products the local craftsmen are capable of. However, they still have a hard time promoting it to the public, both in and outside of Japan. So, I thought that maybe I could do something.
Today, there are so many Japanese restaurants all over the world. This also means many people eating Japanese cuisine and drinking Japanese sake. The problem is, there are thousands of wine brands, but nobody knows even one sake brand. If no one knows the brands, the market cannot grow. Therefore, I’m doing two things: First, I produce my own sake, including establishing the brand and educating people about sake. I work with the best craftsmen because I want to make the best sake in the world. When I make something, I always want to make the best I can.
Then, I make an application that provides information about various types of sake in different languages. All sake brands are written in Japanese, so a lot of people can’t read and remember them. With this application, people who cannot read Japanese will be able to understand the variety of sake available.
“When I make something, I always want to make the best I can”
DA MAN: Did you find any difficulties when you started developing your sake brand?
Hidetoshi Nakata: Initially I didn’t have much experience when it comes to sake-making, but in Japan there are over 1,000 sake makers, and I have visited 250 of them. Around that time I gradually learned a lot of things about sake. I eventually tapped a sake maker to be my partner in developing the exact sake that I wanted. I told him my idea, and he understood it. At the beginning it was not easy to share feelings and ideas with a partner and, even though I know some people outside Japan, promoting sake is a whole different issue. It is not easy, and it takes time. It was quite a difficult year.
By the end of the day, I am not trying to merely make a business or promote a product; I’m trying to change the culture of drinking. I don’t know if I will be able to reach my goal, but this is something that is very meaningful in my life.
Outfit by Lanvin
DA MAN: You mentioned that promoting sake internationally is a challenging process. Can you elaborate more on the approach you use for people outside Japan?
Hidetoshi Nakata: I don’t want to sell sake strictly to Japanese restaurants. I want to bring my sake to a higher level. That is why I try not to promote my products to sake distributors. Instead, I want to approach every kind of restaurant to prove that Japanese sake does not only go well with Japanese food, as it actually goes really well with just about any kind of food, just like wine and champagne.
As a matter of fact, sake and wine are very similar. Therefore, when introducing sake in a tasting dinner, I always start with champagne, follow it with white wine, then I bring in my sake before closing the dinner with red wine. I do this because people won’t immediately understand it if I only present sake.
Outfit by Gucci
DA MAN: Aside from your sake business, are you currently involved in other cultural projects?
Hidetoshi Nakata: The next thing that I’d like to focus on is a craftsmanship-oriented project that I have been doing for a long time with my foundation. Most craftsmen are undervalued, even as industries like fashion emphasize craftsmanship and quality. Craftsmanship is actually very important, and therefore it should be very expensive. But in Asia, everything becomes very cheap. It is quite a contrast because, here in Asia, there are so many good craftsmen who are perhaps even better than the craftsmen in Europe.
Through this project I want to change the pre-existing image of crafts. In the meantime, I will have to start in Japan but eventually I want to do it all over the world. I want to create tableware such as those pieces made of glass and ceramic, as well as making beautiful things with the craftsmen. I am also inspired during several experiences when people asked me, “So, which kind of glass do we have to use for sake?” While people are familiar with wine glasses, there is no such thing as a sake glass. So, now I want to make sake glasses with Japanese craftsmen and promote them all over the world. Eventually, I’d like to do something like the Venice Biennale that focuses on crafts, especially because each country must have a specialized craft.
“As long as I have good friends, I feel at home anywhere in the world”
DA MAN: When you were traveling all over Japan, what did you learn about your own culture that surprised you?
Hidetoshi Nakata: A surprising fact that I came to realize is that in Japan there are many crafts with long histories. For instance, my sake partner’s business has just celebrated its 400th anniversary. All over Japan there remain many places with long histories. That is why when foreigners come to Japan, they will be able to find good quality products and rich stories.
DA MAN: You have also traveled to more than 100 countries. What makes you feel at home no matter where you go?
Hidetoshi Nakata: For me, a home is not a house but the people. People cannot live by themselves; people need other people. As long as I have good friends, I feel at home anywhere in the world. Being at home is not the same thing as being in one specific place, though. For instance, I don’t have a [physical] home now. If I am in Tokyo, I will spend time in a hotel. The world is big, with a lot of great places and great people. Why do you have to stay in one place?
DA MAN: Speaking of great places and people, you are frequently seen in fashion events, and you’ve also been named one of the best-dressed celebrities. How do you see fashion?
Hidetoshi Nakata: Fashion is just like food. I like good food and I like good clothes, because good food makes me happy, and so do good clothes. Food, clothes and house are a part of everyday life. Thus, there is nothing special about fashion—it is something that you have to wear every day. And because you want to feel better every day, you try to wear good clothes every day. Then, if you like it, of course you are into it and slowly you get to know the people [in the industry]. Fashion is very simple for me: I wear it and I like it. I dress for myself, although of course sometimes I want to look good. I am not trying to wear anything because I want to look fashionable. However, I do have to admit that I’ve spent a lot of money for fashion [laughs], and that is why I get to know the people, designers and brands.
DA MAN: Are there any particular fashion items that have become a part of your style essentials?
Hidetoshi Nakata: I don’t like to stick to one style; it is good to change. I want to have a wide variety of clothes—sometimes a tuxedo, in another occasion maybe just jeans and a T-shirt. I do think that fashion is very fun and beautiful because when I wear a suit-and-tie getup, I feel that I need to have a certain attitude. As the style changes, my emotion and motivation change as well. So, that is why it is fun. I love to surprise people.
“I don’t like to stick to one style; it is good to change”
DA MAN: Reflection on your journey through life so far, what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Hidetoshi Nakata: I definitely need to travel more and learn more. I also feel the need to always see new people and learn from them. In contrast to a lot of people today who always use smartphones to make communication easier, the most important thing for me is to see people face-to-face. That is why I need to travel more because I need to see people face-to-face. It may cost more but I prefer it that way. It is about meeting craftsmen, farmers … people who are using their hands to make something.
DA MAN: You’ve been empowered by people with special skills, those whom you’ve met throughout your journey. Are there any particular skills that you want to learn yourself?
Hidetoshi Nakata: I’d like to learn as many different languages as I can, especially because I constantly travel to a lot of places. This is something I really want to spend more time learning. Having lived in Italy since I was 21, I am able to speak Italian, in addition to English and Spanish. I probably want to learn Chinese and French now.
DA MAN: Lastly, how do you envision yourself in the next five to ten years?
Hidetoshi Nakata: I just live day by day. If I die tomorrow, then I will have no regrets. I have done the best every day, and I don’t need to think about my long-term future.