Hidehisa Mori was 15 when he went to see A Fistful of Dollars, half a world away from the Wild West in Fukuoka, one of Japan's most industrialised cities. Clint Eastwood grunted coolly from behind his revolver in Japanese, Mori was riveted.

Fifteen years later, on a main street in Dillon, a dusty Montana town, Mori stepped off a bus for his first day at work in what remains of the Wild West. In his luggage were the basic necessities for the job: two pairs of Levi 501s, a Japanese-English pocket dictionary and a three-month supply of seaweed and soya bean paste. Oh, and a note pad. He could only write English. He thought a pad might be useful.

That was two years ago, and Hidehisa Mori was the newest cowboy in town and one of the first Japanese cowboys in America. As he stood waiting for his ride to what the people of Dillon still refer to as the Lazy Eight ranch, he looked up at the sky.

'It was so big,' he remembers.

On a good day you can see 40 miles in Montana. It is Big Sky Country, a state bigger than all of Japan, with a population of 850,000 - less than 1 per cent of that of the Land of the Rising Sun. Mori was overwhelmed as he hopped in a pick-up for the 35-mile drive to the ranch. 'I knew it was a big country, but not how big,' he says. 'Before I left Japan, all I could think of was the Westerns I used to watch. It really is just like that.'

The Lazy Eight, in fact, disappeared in 1989 when Mori's employers bought it for pounds 7m. Now it is called Zenchiku Ranch and Mori, or 'Harry' as he soon came to be known, a sales executive with Zenchiku Land and Livestock in their headquarters in Japan, is on the home stretch of a two and a half year assignment to learn how the 77,000 acres and 8,000 head of cattle are managed. It has been more of a lesson in life than anything else.

Montana is a no-nonsense state. 'Montanans mean what they say and say what they mean,' says John Morse, the third-generation Montanan hired to run the ranch for the Japanese owners.

When Zenchiku bought the Lazy Eight, it caused a ripple in the conservative Dillon community: old-timers had memories of the Second World War, and the state as a whole was known for the long time it took to accept outsiders. 'They are not racist, though,' Morse says, defending his fellow Montanans. 'They would (and do) react the same way if a Californian moved in.'

The initial xenophobia (currently a national phenomenon in America, as household names such as CBS Records and Columbia Pictures are bought by the Japanese) passed once it became clear the Zenchiku Ranch would continue as part of the local community. Donations to local charities and sponsorship of local baseball teams helped smooth the ripples.

Zenchiku did not buy the Lazy Eight because it was the biggest - it is not - ranch in Montana or as an attempt to capture the spirit of the cowboy, the most quintessential American icon. Shyabu-shyabu, wafer-thin, translucent cuts of beef that sell in Tokyo restaurants at pounds 60 a plate, means big business and the need for a big ranch.

Unlike fat-fearing Westerners, the Japanese like a little fat in their beef. Not shiny, dripping hunks of the stuff, but what is known as marbling - a build-up of fat within the meat to enhance its flavour, something increasingly absent from American and European supermarkets.

With Japan full to bursting and much of its land unsuitable for grazing, Zenchiku looked east to the endless plains of the American West for a ranch capable of specialising in producing the fattier meat for shyabu-shyabu.

Even with the prospect of 8,000 Angus, Hereford and South Devon cattle, all bred 50 per cent heavier than the average animal, Mori accepted the posting to Dillon knowing that his favourite dishes would be one of the sacrifices made for life on the range. The seaweed and soya bean paste would only add some oriental flavour to otherwise hearty American cooking. Chopsticks remind him of home as well.

The Clint Eastwood films were as close as Mori had come to riding a horse when he arrived at the ranch. Then he was introduced to Mr Bill, his mount. Just as I begin to ask him the obvious question, Mori says: 'Absolutely not. I've never fallen off - any horse.'

The rest of his initiation to the life of an icon was not so easy. 'To lasso was hard, but it is even for them (the other cowboys). Some can't do it.' Mori can now - inspired by Kazuhiru 'Kaz' Soma, another Japanese cowboy at the ranch, who tried to tackle a calf using judo, the only way he knew how. 'The trouble was that the cow had four legs not two,' says Mori.

Learning the ropes as a cowboy was relatively easy for Mori. Trickier was the transition from his laborious and not always practical (especially on a horse) method of writing English rather than speaking the language.

A private tutor at Western Montana College helped, but even after two years the Japanese horseman is still tripped up by American slang. He carries his dictionary in true Marlboro-man style in the top pocket of his red-and-black checked shirt, but words such as 'bull' sometimes have too literal a translation, leaving Mori with a brow as furrowed as the Montana plains.

Mori and have Kaz have been welcomed into the fold by cowboys such as Dick Chaffin, who lives a life little changed from those of his predecessors 150 years ago. Although computer tags monitor the movement of the cattle, there is no substitute for rounding up the cows on horseback. The traditional and the hi-tech meet at the Zenchiku Ranch, where computers sit side by side with branding irons.

'On this ranch, the cowboys still exist pretty well as they always have,' says John Morse. 'There is no other way to move around a mob (Australian for a herd) than with cowboys. They still turn up with their own bed rolls and tepees and head off for a cow-camp for a few days of mustering.'

A gift of a drawer full of plaid shirts, two Stetsons (one black and one 'stone' or white) and a rattlesnake belt has added to Mori's original limited cowboy wardrobe. In return, his Japanese cooking has added to the cowboys' traditional fare of solid meat and veg cooking. It is a fair trade, he reckons.

His day is full with roping calves, fence building and the inevitable paperwork that goes with his corporate position at Zenchiku. It all leaves little time for relaxation.

'I go fishing or shooting after work,' Mori says. He has a .357 Magnum, just like Clint Eastwood. 'Montana has the best trout fishing. I love it. The sky here is even bigger in the evening. You feel part of the stars.' His English lessons have worked.

Dillon's wooden-fronted main street is as close to a traditional Western town as you will find outside a film set. Horse-ties still line the sidewalks and cowboys still drink in the saloon of the Metlen Hotel. Spurs have spun on the wooden floor for more than 100 years. Mori drinks there with the other cowboys. He has no girlfriend. 'American women are too hot to handle,' he warns.

His one-bedroom apartment is just around the block. He leaves his Ford pick-up in the street outside. It is adorned with a 'have a nice day' bumper sticker, in Japanese, of course. The Discovery channel plays on television as he prepares his American-Japanese lunch for tomorrow. Some friends in Kyushu have sent him more seaweed and soya bean paste.

Life is good, so good that Mori does not want to make the trip home in March when his contract runs out. His training on the ranch will be put to use at the company's headquarters. It is not an idea he relishes, 'I am not ready to go back to Japan.

'Here life is better,' he beams. 'What is worse, I have no idea if I will ever come back to America.'

(Photographs omitted)