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Japan's biggest football export searches for new goal

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(CNN) -- Hidetoshi Nakata is a national idol whose Web site can draw 15 million hits in a single day; a fashion icon noted for a sharp dress sense and even sharper haircuts; and a marketing dream with lucrative contracts from some of the world's biggest brands.

Now, he has swapped the football field for the departure lounge, with plans to travel the world for months -- maybe even years -- in a bid to work out what to do with the rest of his life by seeing new places and meeting new people, a passion that began with football.

When the sporting superstar retired from football earlier this year, aged 29, he was at the peak of his powers.

He left behind a career that opened the world's eyes to Japanese soccer.

Nakata became the first player from his country to achieve success with a string of top European clubs in Italy and England.

His passion for football was roused at the age of seven, when he began reading a manga comic about the sport.

Exhibiting talent in both football and baseball, which has a much bigger following than football in Japan, the young Nakata faced a life-changing decision. He opted for football because it was more relaxed of the two sports.

One of the first to appreciate his talent was Junji Ogura, a FIFA executive committee member and vice president of the Japan Football Association. He assumed a father figure role as Nakata developed from the youth and Olympic squads to the full national team.

After his talent attracted interest from Europe, Nakata moved to Italy in 2000 to play for a string of top clubs, winning new fans through both his performances and his efforts to absorb European culture.

Six months before the 2006 World Cup, Nakata made a secret decision that he would retire once the tournament in Germany was over.

His career ended with defeat to Brazil and Nakata, a player renowned for showing little emotion, broke down in tears on the pitch.

Soon after, Nakata announced his retirement on his Web site -- a tool he has used for years as a way of communicating with his fans.

He receives up to 10,000 e-mails a day and once recorded a staggering 15 million hits in a single day on his Web site, equal to one tenth of the total Japanese population.

He turned to the Internet after complaining that Japanese media misrepresented his interviews.

One of his friends in fashion is Tyler Brule, the founder of international style magazine "Wallpaper*," who wants Nakata to write for a new magazine called "Monocle," that Brule is launching in 2007.

As Nakata gets his first taste of a world that does not revolve entirely around football, he says he is watching, listening and absorbing new experiences in contrasting worlds that include poverty and prosperity, opulence and austerity.

He hopes, in time, it will help him discover himself. Only then will the world discover the direction of Nakata's path beyond the crossroads.

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Nakata is traveling the world in a journey of self-discovery.

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