Words by Mr James Hadfield
Everybody said he was too young to retire. Mr Hidetoshi Nakata was just 29 when he announced he would be calling it quits, bringing to a close a football career that saw him represent his country in three World Cups and play in the Italian Serie A and English Premier League. But the most famous Japanese footballer of his generation - OK, make that any generation - already had other plans: he wanted to travel. "The football world seems very big, but actually it's not," says the 35 year old. "Every day of my life I played football, so I [only] knew about football... Of course, we travelled a lot for the matches, but we were always in the hotel, stadium, hotel, stadium: we never got to see the cities." Mr Nakata would spend the first few years of his retirement plugging the gaps in his knowledge of the world; today, he estimates that he has visited around 100 countries. And in every one of them, he's found someone who recognised him. "Not because of me," he says, "but because of football."
Well, not just football. Mr Nakata wasn't the first Japanese player to try his luck overseas when he signed to Italy's AC Perugia after the 1998 World Cup, but he was the first to become a household name. His impressive displays in Serie A helped, but so did the modelling contracts and a sense of style that drew comparisons to his European counterparts Mr David Beckham and Mr Fredrik Ljungberg. (In 2010, he even followed Mr Ljungberg's example to become a Calvin Klein Underwear model.)
Mr Nakata says it was during a month-long training session in Italy when he was 18 years old that his sense of style really began to develop. "Obviously, if you go to Italy - you go for football, but fashion is all around you," he says. Before long, he was spending his pay packets on expensive outfits and dying his hair a range of different colours.
There was a considerable media hubbub at home when he gave himself a peroxide rinse in advance of the 1998 World Cup, in what was thought to be an attempt to get noticed by European scouts (if so, it worked a charm). But these days, Mr Nakata is not inclined to be so ostentatious. "Before, fashion was something to look at: I wanted to be fashionable," he continues. "Now it's like a part of my life, so I don't need to really think about it. Every day, I'll take a shower and then eat - [it's on] the same level."
His tastes have evolved, too, extending from fashion to architecture, interior design and craftsmanship - "because that influences you a lot in your life". All these experiences have come in handy for his latest mission. After travelling around the world, Mr Nakata is now rediscovering his native country. He's spent the past few years scouring each of Japan's 47 prefectures for their best arts, crafts, shrines, temples and ryokan (inns), starting in the far-flung southern islands of Okinawa and steadily working his way north. When we meet, he only has eight prefectures left to visit.
Mr Nakata has extensively travelled Japan, including visiting the Nangu Taisha Shrine in Gifu Prefecture, in September 2010
the Style Setter
Mr Nakata at the Korea Best Dresser Swan Awards, Seoul, December 2011
Mr Nakata's Japan side takes on Argentina during the World Cup, Toulouse, June 1998
It was in the course of these travels that he picked up his latest obsession: sake. Japan's traditional rice wine is a drink with a rich history and an image problem - a tipple that could do with some high-profile help as sales decrease in Japan. And after visiting 150 of Japan's top breweries, Mr Nakata will be launching his own brand this year, sold exclusively overseas - where consumption is on the rise - and aimed at high-end restaurants.
"Before, I thought maybe it would be nice to have my own vinery or wine brand," he says. "But after visiting sake makers, I said: 'I'm Japanese, so maybe I should have my own sake label'.
"At the same time, it would be cool to have one of the best sakes in the world. It's like having a Château Mouton or Gaja - if you are the owner of that kind of wine. You go to good restaurants in London, in New York, and then you can order your own sake. That's cool."