Untold Tales of Japan: Nagano

Chaos in Print

I’ve loved the Olympics. I have for a long time. And all those Olympic host cities always seemed in such distant, exotic locations. When I first set out from Omiya to Kumagaya, I was stunned at the name of the rail line: the Nagano Line. The Nagano Winter Olympics were a mere 4 years earlier, and they were still fresh in my mind. And now, to be living in a city so close to them, just a quick ride on the bullet train, it blew my mind. After I spent my first week in Kumagaya and got settled into the new job and my new apartment, I made a solemn vow. I would go to Nagano.

It was a sentiment easier stated than done. I thought I would do it on a long weekend. Head out on the Saturday, see the sights on the Sunday, and come back on the Monday. But, with the way my hours were arranged, long weekends were few and far between. And for my big vacations – whole weeks off – I decided to waste those going to the farthest reaches of Japan. But I knew that, before my time in Japan was done, I’d be going to Nagano.

Soon, my time in Japan was done. But I wasn’t going to hop on a plane and head home for Canada right away. I sat down with a map and planned a lazy loop through the mountains known as the Japan Alps. It was a loose, two week plan that would take me to see most of the things I wanted to see in Japan before I left the country: Mount Fuji, a couple of tiny onsen villages…and Nagano.


A week into my lazy loop through the mountains, my train pulled into Nagano station. The first thing that struck me as odd about Nagano Station was the fact that all the signs were in Japanese. Don’t get me wrong. I was in Japan. It was expected. But, every where else I went in Japan, all the signs at all the train stations were in Japanese, English, and Korean. This was the first time I was at a station where the signs were strictly Japanese. It was a little unexpected, especially for a former Olympic host city.


Dear Mom and Dad...I made it!
Dear Mom and Dad…I made it!

I stepped out of my train and headed up to the main part of the station. And, the first thing I saw was the large, wondrous mural of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games logo. I pulled out my camera and snapped a picture. And then, remembering the miracles of modern technology, I pulled out my camera/cellphone and snapped a picture of the mural. I quickly e-mailed the picture to the folks back home with a simple message: “Finally made it.”

The first order of business was to find a place to stay. My copy of Lonely Planet had said there was a nice little hostel in town, but I wanted to know if there was anything else. The main inspiration for my trip was my sister, who went backpacking across Europe after high school. When telling me of her experiences, she told me that, in every town, at every train station, there was a tourist information booth, fully equipped with bilingual staff who could help you find a place to stay. In my experiences in Japan, I found it to be pretty much the same. And, lo and behold, right next to that Olympic logo mural, was the Nagano tourist information booth.

I strutted inside and approached the ladies behind the front desk. Little did I know that, over the next few days, these ladies would become my best friends in this small Japanese city. We greeted each other, I explained my quest to see the former Olympic venues, and asked if they could help me to find a place to stay. This was obviously all routine to them, and they picked up the phone and called ahead to the hostel. Bad news, though. The hostel was all booked up. They asked what my budget was like. I explained that, the hostel was pretty much all I could afford. They went back and consulted their notes on all the various accommodations in town. They eventually found a little ryokan, just off the main strip, that was actually cheaper than the hostel. I heartily agreed. They called ahead to the ryokan to let them know I was coming, gave me a little note that I was to give them when I arrived, and I was off down the main strip.


The fountain in back of Nagano Station.
The fountain in back of Nagano Station.

Nagano’s main street lead from the station all the way to Zenko-ji. Zenko-ji is what makes Nagano famous in Japan. It is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the country, and they maintain that they have the first and oldest statue of Buddha in Japan. They keep the Buddha away from prying eyes, though, and they show a replica of it to the people once every seven years. I was later told by a friend that 2003 was the year they were showing the replica, and I missed it by about three months. But, if it could be believed, Zenko-ji was not the main draw for me. I was off to see Olympic sites!

I got a little bit turned around, but a friendly bilingual local eventually pointed me to the ryokan. They were quite thrilled to have me, as they didn’t get a lot of gaijin. Sadly, though, there was no one there that spoke any English, so I got checked in with a lot of gestures, smiling, and nodding. That slip of paper they gave me at the tourist information booth was key, though. Turns out it was my reservation confirmation, with all the good stuff like how many nights I’d be staying and all that. They showed me to my room. I took off my backpack, which was starting to get heavy, and starting settling in.

I got a really great deal. It was a full 1000 yen cheaper than the youth hostel, and here I was given my own private room, with my own comfy futon, and my own private TV. I watched a little bit of poorly-dubbed Fight Club as I tried out the futon and sipped my complimentary green tea. Once I was all rested from my day of travelling, it was dinnertime, so I headed out to see if could get a cheap meal.

After my day, I didn’t feel that adventurous anymore, so I settled for a McDonald’s supper. I stumbled upon an Internet café, where I checked my e-mail and posted an entry in my brand-new blog. As I continued walking up and down the main strip, I soon found a little, tiny movie theatre tucked away at the end of an alley. I was just in time for the late, cheap show, so I finally caught The Matrix Reloaded. Little did I know it would officially be the last movie I saw in Japan.

I went back to the ryokan, and had a bath. I also bumped into the son of the ryokan manager, who just happened to speak English. He gave me the good ol’ “If you have any problems, come see me” speech. Feeling a little less overwhelmed, I hit the sack. I was in for a big day tomorrow.

Day 1

After having what I adopted as my on-the-road breakfast in Japan (an egg salad sandwich and a carton of milk), I went back to the station and the friendly ladies at the tourist information booth. It was time to play hard. I laid out my goal of seeing the former Olympic venues, and they had just the thing to help me out. One of the ladies disappeared into the back room and came back out with a leftover official 1998 Winter Olympic Nagano city map, with all the venues highlighted. I asked the ladies which would be a good one to start with, and they suggest M-Wave, which was the oval where they had the speed skating events. As a good portion of it had been turned into a museum dedicated to the 1998 Winter Olympics, I agreed that it was a good place to start.


The outside of M-Wave
The outside of M-Wave

I hopped on the bus and headed down to M-Wave. The walk up to the main entrance was lined with all kinds of statues and murals celebrating the Winter Olympics. I stepped inside and was greeted with…well, the entrance to a normal hockey rink. But, there were all kinds of signs pointing me over to the museum portion, and soon I was in the middle of the museum.

Now, I know lots of people told me that the Nagano Winter Olympics museum was more impressive than the Sapporo Winter Olympics museum, but I actually found the Nagano museum to be rather modest. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the fact that the Sapporo Winter Olympics museum was a brand-new facitily only about a year old that very few of my friends had been to yet.


The inside of M-Wave
The inside of M-Wave

That’s not to downplay the coolness of the Nagano museum. They still had some impressive displays. One that caught my eye right away was the Olympic torch used for the 1998 games. It was on display, and thanks to tricks of light and parabolic mirrors, they had a computer animated flame flickering in it. They even had this little amphitheatre off to the side, where you could watch videos about the Olympics. They even had one in 3D, where you could watch speed skating highlights in three dimensions.

There were also multimedia kiosks, where you could watch videos from every Olympics that had been filmed. After reviewing some of the highlights of the Nagano games, I decided to refresh my memory and watch the opening ceremonies for Calgary 1988. Ye gods, it was horrible. The opening ceremonies are always a celebration of the host country’s culture. But, because it was Calgary, the culture on display was cowboys, cowboys, and more cowboys. Oh, and I forgot that Ralph Klein was the mayor of Calgary during the 1988 games. He looked drunk in every shot.


The Official Olympic Zamboni!
The Official Olympic Zamboni!

I kept touring and eventually came face-to-face with the official Olympic Zamboni. The Zamboni was in front of the stairs that took you to the bleachers for M-Wave, so you could actually see the stadium. At the time I was there, the ice was replaced with a soccer field, and looked like the Nagano schoolchildren were having some form of soccer clinic. In the corner of the bleachers where I was standing, they had on display an Olympic podium where you could actually stand in the gold medal step, and, on mannequins, the official mascot costumes.

The mascots for the 1998 Winter Games were a quartet of owls called the Snowlets. There were a few teenagers up in this area, too, and, when no one was looking, one of the kids actually walked up to the Snowlets costumes and punched them as hard as he could. What is it about mascots that just brings out the worst in some people?

Once I had seen all there was to see at M-Wave, I made a quick stop at the gift shop. From what I had already seen, it looked like the M-Wave gift shop was the last place where I could get souvineers with Olympic logo on them. I got a hat, a mug, and I even got some postcards, “Greetings from the M-Wave. Wish you were here.” Won’t the folks back home be jealous!

I hopped the bus and went back to the station. I looked at the map and decided that the next place I’d head off to was Big Hat, the hockey stadium. I popped in at the tourist information booth to find out which bus I’d need and all that. I went back outside, and, since I was in the best shaped I’d been in my life, and it was only 40 blocks away, and I had a map, and it was beautiful sunny day, I decided to walk.


Big Hat
Big Hat

Now, I’ve already told the tale of my adventure at Big Hat in an article called You Can’t Go In, so I’ll just give you the Cole’s Notes. The ladies at the tourist information booth gave a big speech about how I couldn’t go into Big Hat. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to see it, not go inside. So, I get there, and I find that the main entrance is open, and people are walking in and out. I walk in, talk to the people at the front desk (after they found a bilingual friend who could translate), and find out I’m just in time for the Nagano Art Festival. The stadium had been turned into an art gallery showcasing the works of many local artists. So, I did get to go inside, where I enjoyed several very fine paintings while standing on the surface where the Canadian Women’s Team won the first-ever silver medal in women’s hockey, and the men spectacularly blew the bronze medal game.

When I left Big Hat, I looked across the street to see not another Olympic venue, but another very important part of the Olympics: the Media Village, which is where reporters from all over the world set up camp to cover the games. Just think! That’s where Brian Williams and Ron McLean gave us their up-to-the-minute coverage. In these years after the games, it had been converted into Nagano’s NHK affiliate.

I looked up in the sky and saw my sunny day was gone, and that rain was starting to move in. I grabbed some supper at a Yoshinoia, and rode the bus back to the station. It was a full-blown typhoon by the time I got back to the ryokan, and it was the first time in my life I was literally soaked to the bone. The helpful ryokan staff gave me a towel to dry off, and I went back up to my room where I got out of my wet clothes and into my nice, dry robe. All in all, it was a good first day.

Day 2

I awoke from my comfy slumber and prepared to head out to more Olympic venues! This time, though, I was a little more prepared. Thanks to that fancy, official map the tourist information folks had given me, I was prepared to go it alone. I only had one goal for this day: the Minami Nagano Sports Park, which is home to the stadium that housed the opening and closing ceremonies.

This one was going to take a little more adventuring to get to. According to my map, the Minami Nagano Sports Park was a little ways up the rail line. Nothing fancy, just take the train to the Shinonoi station, and just a brief walk.

I went back to the station, found my train, and got on it. I thoughourly enjoyed riding the trains in Japan. It is truly one of the easiest and most convenient ways of travel – especially the way the Japanese do it. People often asked me, “Mark, because you never learned Japanese, how did you know which stations to get off at?” Easy. Even though I couldn’t speak it, my listening skills were pretty good. All I had to do was listen very carefully, and when I heard the announcement “Shinonoi,” I knew I was there.

According to my map, it was just a short walk. Lucky for me, it was a nice day. I set off down the sunny streets of the greater Nagano area. It wasn’t too long before I started coming up to the Sports Park. And it truly is a park. Shaded, lots of trees, very nice on a day like that day. The stadium itself only occupied one small corner of the park.


The Olympic Stadium
The Olympic Stadium

I began roaming around the park, and thus walking around the stadium. I admired the vast, concrete structure, which seemed to resemble a baseball stadium. I looked to my side to see a baseball player go jogging by. And then another! And another! It looked as though there were a baseball team doing their workouts in the park! I wondered if, perhaps, the stadium were now home to Nagano’s baseball team.

I resumed my walk, and before long, I was at the front entrance to the stadium. And, just like with Big Hat the other day, I noticed that the front doors were open! And people were walking in and out! I wondered if there were a baseball game that day. I didn’t feel as brave as I did the other day, and I didn’t want to walk up to the guy at the front gate and go, “Hey! What’s going on here today?”


The Olympic Cauldron, with the stadium in behind
The Olympic Cauldron, with the stadium in behind

I continued roaming around the park and soon found the Olympic cauldron; where the flame burned. I thought it was very cool. Just think! It was only 5 years ago that this held the Olympic flame. Now, though, it sat empty. I wonder why. I know in Calgary, the Olympic flame still burns to this very day.

I found a local convenience store, bought my lunch, and ate under a tree in the park. I looked at my watch and found I was making remarkable time. I wandered back to the station and hopped a train back to the Nagano main station. While riding, I pulled the map out of my pocket and did some figuring. If I went just one more stop up the line – to the Kitinagano station – it was just a short walk to Aqua Wing; the other hockey stadium. I still had plenty of time to get to Kitinagano and make the walk to Aqua Wing!

I got off at Kitinagano station and promptly got lost. I had to get to the other side of the tracks, but I couldn’t find the underpass that my map kept mentioning. I wandered up and down the street looking for it. I even soon found myself lost in a crowd of schoolchildren on an outing. “Ohio!” some of the kids said to me. “Hello!” I said, and waved back. That led to a bunch of excited giggles from the kids, and the proudly said “Hello!” back to me. Incidents like that always made my day.

Eventually, I found the underpass; a dark, dingy concrete tunnel. A sign with the Olympic rings indicated that I was on the right direction. I was a little befuddled, as I was certain that the road to an Olympic venue would be a mighty street. Instead, I was going down a slightly run-down alley. Oh, well. Don’t forget, I was there 5 years after the fact. At the height of the Olympics, I’m certain it was much splashier.


Aqua Wing
Aqua Wing

It wasn’t too long until I got to Aqua Wing. It was another very nice stadium, overlooking a vast concrete square with a beautiful fountain in it. I briefly considered throwing a 1 yen coin into the fountain, then realized that that’s not really the custom in Japan.

And, once again, I was in for a surprise. This stadium was open, and people were walking in and out of it. As I’m certain the name suggests, Aqua Wing is now home to the Nagano city swimming pool. Had I brought my trunks, I would have gone in for a dip. I didn’t, though, and I didn’t want to venture asking about renting a suit and all that.

I roamed around this area of Nagano for a bit before returning to my ryokan. This was turning out to be a grand adventure indeed.

To Be Continued Next Week!

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