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Football icon Hidetoshi Nakata lives for passion’s sake

He has made a name for himself in football and fashion, and now one of Japan's most famous sporting exports wants people to imbibe his culture literally.

SINGAPORE: The interview time has run out, but Hidetoshi Nakata is not yet finished. Our last topic of conversation – technology - has him piqued and eager to continue.

“I don’t use a smartphone. Smartphones make people stupid. You become useless because smartphones are too useful,” said the former football star, as he gleefully whips out a Nokia 3720 candybar replete with keypad and dial buttons. “If a smartphone can be better than yourself, how do you then use yourself? Why would you need to be yourself?”

“This is just my way of thinking,” the 39-year-old concluded, offering a rare peek into his mind. The famously private and enigmatic Japanese superstar stopped talking to reporters altogether when he was at the height of his powers playing in the Italian football league.


(Photo: Justin Ong)

An early retirement at 29, years spent travelling around the world and ventures into fashion and jewellery later, Nakata indicated that he is just as driven as before, though not for the reasons you might think.

“What I do is different,” he told Channel NewsAsia on Friday (Jan 29) after an event to launch “N”, his own sake brand. “Before, I used to play just football. Today I do more different things like sake, crafts. My purpose is different, but the way of living is always the same.

“I don’t care about becoming famous or rich. I go for passion. This is most important for me. This is the reason why I dedicate my time and power and everything to whatever I believe in. I just do whatever I love. It doesn’t matter what people say, whether it’s difficult or whatever … I don’t care. Because this is my life."


(Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

His latest passion lies in Japanese rice wine, but it is not about being flush with commercial success that matters to him, he said. “The purpose of my sake is not to make business,” Nakata insisted. “It is to educate people, and let them understand what is saké, how to appreciate saké. I’m not introducing just a product. This is different.”


“People think sake goes with only Japanese restaurants and Japanese food, but my idea is to create something to go with fish and red meat as well, more like French, Italian food.”


(Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

'NOT A TYPICAL BUSINESS'

“N” was born some three years ago, after its eponymous founder visited over 250 breweries and tasted over 1,000 products during a seven-year quest to find the right starting point for what he hopes will become the world’s best - and first globally recognisable - sake brand.

“I don’t think I’ve made it yet, I’m still making it, I’ve been trying to make it,” Nakata quipped.


(Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

Describing the taste of “N” as “between white wine and red wine”, he reiterated that this is “not a typical business” - evidenced by the fact that it is not sold in Japan.

“Business-wise, of course it’s better to sell in Japan. But my idea is to create new markets out there. Why? Because I want to help the good sake makers come out from Japan, to bring their best sakes outside Japan to let people understand the quality of our sake today.”


(Photo: Justin Ong)

“N” is not yet on retail shelves in Singapore but sits on the menu at fine-dining establishments Waku Ghin and La Terre.

“Yes, it’s not easy to let people understand, because it’s very expensive and there are already many different types of sake,” said Nakata. “But I think people today are quite ready to understand, step-by-step. In the beginning it was difficult but after three years, we are selling to more countries, our market is growing - and we only make 1,000 bottles a year.”

He added that he would like to set up a sake bar in Singapore, describing the country as a “meeting place”.


“It’s like people are always passing by through Singapore, and don’t really stay here for a long time,” Nakata observed. “It’s the same as an airport - you just come, meet people, then go off somewhere. It’s nice.”


(Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

Beyond the primary product, he revealed plans to add sparkling sake to the production line. “It exists, but most likely no one knows it,” he let on. He also intends to continue developing his smartphone application called “Sakenomy”.

“I wanted to create a Google for sake,” says Nakata. “But I’m sure after the next 100 years people won’t speak Japanese language or read Japanese, and most sake labels are in Japanese, so I think an app is very important for the future.”

Reminded about his earlier disapproval for smartphones, he replied: “Well, a smartphone used for some things, it’s good. For example, for foreigners, sakes are difficult to understand and to remember all the labels, so this app makes it easier.”

“Always, you need to choose the way of using, if possible.” 


(Photo: Sherlyn Goh)