In 2006 Hidetoshi Nakata caused a major surprise by retiring from football aged just 29. For most players who bow out of the game before 30 the decision is usually forced upon them because of injury or a dramatic loss of form. Nakata was different.

Despite having played at the highest level, representing Japan at the three World Cups and two Olympic Games, he felt there was more to life than kicking a ball around and decided to hang up his boots so he could see more of the world as well as learning more about his own country.

After visiting more than a hundred overseas destinations he decided to make a tour of all the prefectures in Japan, discovering the best shrines and temples, the best landscapes and, perhaps the most enjoyable part of his quest, the best food and drink. More than anything it was sake that intrigued Nakata during his travels. So much so that he has decided to launch his own sake bar (N Bar – produced by Hidetoshi Nakata), which will be one of the main attractions at the ‘Arigato in London‘ event due to be held in the British capital during this Summer’s Olympics.

Hidetoshi Nakata

Arigato in London aims to take advantage of the fact that the world’s eyes will be on the city, and say thank you to those in London and around the world who have helped Japan since the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Another aim is to showcase Japanese craft and culture in a way that will spread hope for the future of Japan. We had chance to speak to the man sometimes known as the ‘Asian David Beckham’, to hear about his role in the project.

“From my experience of travelling around Japan, I realized there are were so many good products and aspects of culture from my own country that haven’t been introduced to the world,” he says. “Producing a sake bar is a big challenge for me (and it will) promote Japanese culture on a global scale. Wherever I go, people are aware of our cuisine and I want to help make them more aware of our sake. I think it can become like wine, something that is known throughout the world.”

While sales have been on the decline in Japan, sake’s popularity has been steadily increasing abroad. Nakata’s association with the drink is only likely to raise it’s profile even further, this is after-all the man whose website once had an incredible 15 million hits in one day. The former Calvin Klein model is clearly excited about his new adventure. It is not just about selling as much as possible, he wants to educate people on the “right way to enjoy sake.”

“Many people don’t know that there are so many different kinds of sake and each one should be enjoyed differently. As with when you select wine, I want many people to learn how to select and drink sake to match each dish. In cooperation with Hasegawasakaten we will be serving 26 kinds of sake at the bar during the Games. I really hope that many people visit here during that time and become as interested in sake as I am.”

London County Hall, the location of ‘Arigato in London’, is the ideal venue to showcase his new bar. On the banks of the Thames, almost directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, it is an iconic place. The event will be held concurrently with the Olympics and a large number of visitors are expected. As well as the sake bar there will be movies, photo exhibitions with images from school children from Tohoku, stage performances and a market selling special products from Japan. As a member of the executive committee, Nakata intends to promote the strengths of his country to the world.

I think that it is very important to show our gratitude for all the support we received after the earthquake, although at the same time I believe it is more important to show how Japan is recovering from the disaster.

I want people to see and feel the soul of my country, to discover the great things about it. Above all, I hope that people will be so fascinated by what they see that they will want to come and visit here.”

Nakata will be attending the opening ceremony of ‘Arigato in London’. He then intends to spend a few days in the city, helping at the bar while “enjoying the atmosphere of the Olympics.” Time permitting, he “would like to watch the gymnastics,” where Kohei Uchimura and his team are among the favourites for Gold, as well as Kosuke Kitajima‘s attempt to make history in the 100m and 200m breaststroke.

Whilst Nakata may not have achieved the kind of success Uchimara and Kitajima have at the Olympics, he does have some good memories from the Games in Atlanta and Sydney. Aged just 19, he was a member of the Japan team that beat a Brazil side featuring Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Bebeto and Roberto Carlos 1-0, while four years later he helped his country reach the quarter-finals before they went out on penalties.

Interestingly enough he never mentioned football when asked what sports he was looking forward to seeing this summer. That doesn’t mean he has fallen out of love with the game, it’s just no longer the most important thing in his life. As well as the sake bar, he’s heavily involved in the fashion industry, does lots of charity work and is Editor at large for the Monocle. Intelligent, eloquent and extremely ambitious, Hidetoshi Nakata is far more than just a famous ex-footballer.

By Matthew Hernon