N is for Namesake
Hidetoshi Nakata has two lifelong passions: Soccer and sake. A few years ago, the 36-year-old former Japanese soccer star retired from the sport following the 2010 World Cup in Germany. Then, he took two well-deserved years off to rest and recuperate. During that time, he traveled extensively throughout Japan and the rest of the world. Surprisingly, he travels so often, he doesn’t own a house back home.
At the moment, he’s in town alongside his manager to attend some VIP sake tastings and promote his very own luxury brand, simply called N. The last few years have been a whirlwind of getting the word out about the new venture. Reclining into a white-on-white booth at Morimoto’s in the Modern Hotel over lunch, Nakata looks relaxed although a tad tired from his travels. It makes sense. He’s been swamped.
As the story goes, when he retired, he packed his bags and visited over 100 cities around the world. He wanted to see the world outside of the pressures of football. He visited many areas throughout Africa and Asia with serious social issues and cooperated with local aid organizations to tackle charitable projects. During his travels abroad, he realized that soccer was such a worldwide sport and gave him the opportunity to use it as a communication tool.
“Even if you don’t speak the same language, soccer is a truly universal language,” he says. “All you need is a ball and a place to play.”
During his extended travels, many asked him about Japan and he realized that he did not know much about his native country. So he flew home to do the ultimate staycation and explore his homeland. He packed up a car alongside a writer and a photographer, and set out to travel all 47 Prefectures. After a total of three years, he has just four more to go. His extensive travels in Japan focused on local culture, agriculture as well as traditional arts and crafts.
While out there on the road, the centuries old authentic Japanese craft of sake making seduced him. So what does a retired soccer pro do for an encore? Become a master sake maker, of course. “For those years, my true focus was on craftsmanship. I was fascinated about what they’ve been doing over the past 100 years. They know how to make it so I traveled to 44 prefectures in Japan. I visited about 200 makers and I even got a sake sommelier degree. I learned the art and craft of sake from the masters themselves.”
Just last year, his very own N label was finalized and he was involved in the process every step of the way, from the custom sake recipe (in collaboration with Takagi Shuzo in the Yamagata Prefecture) to the indigo blue bottle to the custom “N” calligraphy that adorns each bottle. Only 800 bottles will be produced each year. Each 720-milliliter bottle retails here in the US for $2,069.
So what does a chilled wine glass of N taste like? Well, let’s ask the master himself. “It has a strong, subtle taste but it’s easy to drink. It’s really more of a sipping thing. Somewhere between white wine and red wine so it can pair with fish and meat.”
Finally, the age-old question emerges: Sake, hot or cold? “Some sake can be enjoyed hot,” he says leaning back in his white-on-white cushion. “But generally speaking, hot sake is not so good quality-wise. The heat masks the taste. Quality sake is made to be drunk chilled like a fine wine.”
Beyond N, he has plans to develop a hand crafted, artisanal sparkling sake. So, the million dollar question becomes, why premium sake? Nakata-san shrewdly knows the answer. “The number of traditional sake makers is shrinking. At the same time, the global demand is rising. Overall, the sake market is increasing. So I believe that there’s a real opportunity there.”
Beyond the business benefits and the obvious bottom-line, Nakata-san believes that the current perception about sake must change. He’s hoping to help educate global consumers in the same way that tequila has done in recent years. “Right now, people don’t really order sake by brand. They simply order by taste. What goes well with their meal. That needs to change in order to ensure sake’s sustainable future.”
During that time, Nakata transformed himself from being an unlikely ambassador through football to becoming a bona fide ambassador for Japan and its historic culture. Today, he seems genuinely proud of that accomplishment more so than any trophy or medal from his playing days. “It’s very important to retain my own culture as well as promote my culture.”