The year is 2001 and our hero touches down in a distant and unfamiliar land, the local language a far cry from his native tongue. The indecipherable billboards and advertising that greet him on his arrival only serve to heighten the sense that a challenging adventure is in store.
The protagonist in question is not the famous actor Bill Murray or even the alluring Scarlett Johansson, and the setting is not the fascinating city of Tokyo. On this occasion, the traveller is none other than Masakatsu Sawa, a Japanese footballer who, at just 18, decided to leave his native Kashiwa to try his luck in Argentinian football.
Although his early years in the land of the Albiceleste were frustrating, six years on, the player has fully adapted to life in South America. Currently based in Peru, he is committed to helping modest Lima outfit Deportivo Municipal avoid relegation from the top flight and dreams of one day representing his country. Read on as FIFA.com brings you the full story as told by the man himself.
'Not a single word'
Sawa was born on 12 January 1983 in Kashiwa, Chiba, and he was soon displaying the same passion for football as his fanatical brothers and father. There, as he honed his skills with the school team, the idea of one day travelling to Brazil or Argentina began to take shape. Sawa recalls telling his mother about his plan as a youngster, explaining that this part of the globe "was where the best players in the world come from".
Opportunity knocked at just 18, when a specialist scouting agency arranged for him to have a trial with River Plate, one of the most prestigious clubs in South America. Masakatsu duly impressed the Argentinians and would go on to spend over three years at the club, eventually holding down a midfield place in the U-20 side. However, his biggest challenge came off the pitch, as he tried to adapt to the vastly different culture.
"I didn't speak a word of Spanish, so I had to bring my dictionary with me everywhere to try and communicate. It was hard at first because I wasn't sure of myself, but my colleagues helped me a lot. I also used to watch a lot of TV and listen to the radio to try to tune my ear into the sound of Spanish. After about a year and a half I began to take classes," he adds.
The Internet proved a lifesaver for Sawa, enabling him to maintain close contact with his family and in particular his mother. "She took my absence the hardest," the players says wistfully. One aspect of South American life Sawa had no problem getting used to was the food. "No, I took to that immediately, both in Argentina and Peru. I particularly like the chicken," he admits.
However, in terms of his footballing development, Argentina did not turn out to be the promised land Sawa expected. So, when the opportunity arose to move to Sporting Cristal in Peru, a country with a sizeable Japanese population, he jumped at it.
Like many of his compatriots before him, the player had to prove himself before he was accepted by his new hosts. In the end, a combination of pace, steely determination and fighting spirit convinced Jose Del Solar of his worth to the Lima outfit, although the then coach decided not to deploy him in central midfield.
"He put me out on the wing, and I played there during the Copa Sudamericana. Generally speaking we Japanese are fast, although I'm not as quick as some of my compatriots. Back home I'm considered average, but here my pace can sometimes make the difference," says Sawa, who is also good in the air and capable of shooting with both feet.
The player then spent a season with Tacna club Coronel Bolognesi before signing for his current side Deportivo Municipal. Coincidentally, the modest capital outfit use the same strip as River Plate. "It's a small club, but it has a large and fiercely loyal following," he says. And it is no idle boast either. Despite their dearth of honours, the club are famous in Peru for having produced such legendary international players as midfielder Hugo Sotil - a key member of the country's side during the 70s - and current international forward, Jefferson Farfan.
"We haven't had a great campaign this season and are fighting to avoid the drop. It's not over yet, but we need to raise our game and perform consistently well if we're to continue in the top flight," says Sawa, who scored his first goal of the season recently against Alianza Lima. The player also knows he too must play his part, saying: "It was my first goal, but I have to score more often to help the cause."
Dreams of a call-up
Although the 24-year-old knows the Peruvian league has limited exposure in his homeland, he still hopes that one day he will get his chance to represent his country. "I know it will difficult, but it's always been my dream. Perhaps if I could return to Argentina or get a move to Europe, then my chance might come. I still have time," he says.
And it is not only European and international football that feature in his dreams, as his native Japan and its unique culture figure prominently. "Yes, I'd like to go back there and play professionally one day. Who knows, perhaps even with Kashima Antlers, who I've supported all my life. Not right now, though. For the moment, I'm having a very good time here," the player says.
Before signing off, Sawa has this advice for anyone keen to follow in his footsteps: "Without hesitation, I'd recommend this experience to my compatriots. However, I'd also advise them that football here is more aggressive, and of the importance of non-sporting matters like learning the language and integrating with your new culture."