Pico Iyer Journeys

Nagano 1998: Into The Heartland

And everywhere the 7,000-ft. mountains and the apple and peach and apricot orchards give a bell-like vigor to the air. Nagano is actually on almost the same latitude as Rome and San Francisco–the southernmost city ever to be host of a Winter Games–but its nearby mountains are famous for their clear, rushing streams and sharp blue skies. “This is the most beautiful place in Japan,” says an American professor at a local university. “I’ll be happy if I never see Tokyo in my life again.”

f Nagano is the unpretentious town you learn to like, Hakuba, an hour away by bus (and site of many of the snowy events) is the practiced charmer that grabs you instantly. This is in part, no doubt, because Nagano is a city with 360,000 people–more populous than Iceland–while Hakuba is a village of just 9,400 residents, a picture-perfect poster site for the Japan Alps with its Chalet Heidihof pensions and white birch forests encircled by snowcaps reflected in the Princess River.

Like many Japanese resorts, Hakuba is essentially a world of foreign fantasy and at times has the air of stage sets from 15 different movies all collected in the same small block. Roughly 800 rococo hotels, inns and pensions crowd the village (one for every 12 residents), and at night the timbered buildings are full of trendy young couples sipping wine over gourmet French food after a long day of snowboarding wearing the latest gurobu and goguru. “This is Youngtown,” marvels a Kyoto woman as she surveys a corner of the Echoland area where the Shop Jah Jah shares space with the Natchez “American pub,” where the Magic Mushroom surf shop and Tijuana Cafe are next door and the Groovy Art Space hair salon is across the street. Thus the ultimate Japanese dream: to live in a Swiss chalet in Montana (with a 7-Eleven around the corner).

Nonetheless, when the thick flakes begin to fall, Hakuba can feel enchantingly like a toy town inside a shaken-up glass bubble, with the rest of the world another universe hidden behind walls of snow. Lights shine from the slopes in the blue-gray dusk, and the new Olympic ski-jumping tracks are lit up against the mountain like bold strokes of calligraphy. One reason nearly 4 million people descend on the village every year (most days there are more out-of-towners here than locals) is simply that Hakuba remains a holiday Sunday to Nagano’s workaday Wednesday. By the same token, a posh new five-star hotel room in Nagano goes for $65 a night; in Hakuba an indifferent, mock-European room may set you back $250.

For locals, however, the rash of new developments exacts a deeper cost. Until recently Nagano had a modest train station specially designed to look like a Buddhist temple–to usher pilgrims to Zenkoji down the street; now it boasts a splashy, escalator-filled arcade with a McDonald’s at the south exit and a McDonald’s at the north exit. Much of the downtown skyline is dominated by a Holiday Inn Express, and a new 150-m.p.h. bullet train puts Tokyo only 79 min. away. The heart of local concern has been the future of the long-pristine environment. The venue for the biathlon event was designed to protect goshawks, and organizers have taken pains to plant azaleas along the ski-jump tracks and to respect the mating habits of butterflies. During the Games, meals are served on paper plates made of apple pulp, and every one of the fully recyclable uniforms worn by 36,000 volunteers has an environmental message stitched into it.

Nonetheless, something has been lost. “I don’t like the Olympics,” a local university professor says outright. “The revenues are limited, so that means a deficit. That means we have to pay more taxes. I, as a citizen of the city and the prefecture, have to pay $30,000. And for what? Sure, the infrastructure has got better–the bullet train, the new expressway. But now we have four ice arenas. Maybe we need one, but four? And we have a $100 million bobsled and luge course. Do you know how many people in Japan participate in bobsled and luge? Fewer than 200. They’ve changed Nagano, and they can’t change it back.” In Hakuba a month before the Games, students were handing out flyers describing how Olympic promises had been broken, trees cut down and personal savings looted.

Yet for the outsider, Nagano offers an echo of an older, purer world, and a journey there suggests a trip in time as much as space, back to a place where children skip rope in front of small straw huts and country stations offer old-fashioned heaters for passengers awaiting trains. On a Bird Line rural bus, the driver chats with his lone passenger throughout an hourlong drive (almost unheard of in Japan), and even in the crowded city streets, taxi drivers open their doors at red lights to shout out greetings to one another.

In his classic novel Snow Country, the Nobel prizewinning writer Yasunari Kawabata depicted the mountains of Japan’s far north as the place where jaded urbanites could come to bathe in a forgotten innocence–symbolized by the cool Tokyo dilettante who takes up with a local geisha. At the book’s haunting end, the man is returning to his wife in Tokyo, suitably refreshed, and the country girl, heartbroken, is left with only memories. Therein lies the promise, and the danger, of what promise to be splendid Games.

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