When my contract with the company came to an end, I knew I wasn’t going to go straight home to Canada from Kumagaya. I decided to take a few weeks and do a little of the traveling through Japan that I had longed to do. Being a mountain man at heart, I sat down with a rail map and sketched a bit of a loop through the Japanese Alps. I would drift by Mt. Fuji, head on up to Matsumoto for a dip in some hot springs, and then I would be off to the one place I had wanted to go since I arrived in Japan: Nagano, home to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. What can I say? I’m a little Olympic-crazy. Once I had my fill of Mt. Fuji and the hot springs, I arrived in Nagano eager to see the Olympic sites.
On my first day, I had decided to go to M-Wave, the facility which housed the speed skating events. It seemed like a good place to start, as it now also houses the Museum of the 1998 Winter Olympics. I marvelled at the Olympic memorabilia on display. They even had the official Olympic mascot costumes on display, being worn by mannequins, of course. I noticed a group of teenagers gleefully beating the crap out of them. Something about mascots just brings out the worst in people. After I had my picture taken next to the official Olympic Zamboni, I was ready to move along. For my afternoon journey, I had decided to make my way to Big Hat, the wonderful locale where the Canadian Men’s Hockey team completely blew the bronze medal game, but the Canadian Women’s team won the first silver medal in women’s hockey. After a quick return to the train station (and Nagano’s tourist office to get directions), I learned that Big Hat was close enough to the station for me to walk. The folks at the tourist office told me, “But you know, you can’t go inside, right?” I nodded in understanding and set off on foot.
It was roughly a half-hour walk, so I was enjoying roaming the streets of Nagano. I was waiting at a red light when I was approached by a fellow white guy. I guessed he must have been a fellow English teacher. “G’day,” he said. Something told me he was Australian. “Hello,” I said. “So, have you come to see Zenko-ji?” he asked. Zenko-ji is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, and claims they have the oldest image of Buddha in the country. It is one of the few temples that people still make religious pilgrimages to, and it is Nagano’s premiere tourist attraction. “Not really,” I said. “I’ve actually come to see some Olympic sites.” He responded with a disappointed, “Oh.” At this point the light turned green and we were on our respective ways. From that conversation, I began to wonder how the people of Nagano feel about their former Olympic host status. I’ll have to do the research to find out exactly how much money a city makes when they have the label, “Former Olympic host city.”
I continued on foot. Soon, I began noticing the familiar domed roof of a hockey stadium on the horizon. I turned towards it, assuming it was Big Hat. As I got closer, I started to notice Olympic rings on the side of the building on. Upon closer inspection, I couldn’t help but notice that the building did in fact resemble a big hat. Something told me I had found Big Hat. I whipped out my camera, and like every good tourist, I started taking pictures.
But it was different than I expected. They were very clear at the tourist information booth that I could not go inside. But, here I was, and the front door was wide open, and people were freely going in and out. It was open. Other people were going inside. Could I go inside, too?
I wandered up to the front doors. Surely, some kind of event was going on as there was a promotional poster next to the front door. My Japanese, still being quite poor, was not adequate to translate the poster. Peering through the glass, I could see three people just inside sitting behind a folding table. Having been the guy designated to work the door quite a lot in the Liberal Association, I knew right away that they were charging admission. I wanted to know what was going on, and those people were my best bet to tell me.
I reached into my utility belt (actually a shoulder bag, but “utility belt” makes it sound cooler, in a geek way) and grabbed my phrasebook. I leafed through the pages, but nowhere could I find the question, “What’s going on here today?” or “What’s happening?” I decided to try a second option. One of my friends in Japan gave up teaching to go form a rock band. Seeing as to how he’s now required to speak Japanese every waking moment in Japan, he knows the language pretty well. I reached back into my utility belt and grabbed my cellular phone. Knowing he’d probably be at work, I switched it over to the e-mail function and asked him, “How do I ask ‘What’s going on here today?'” I hit send, and then sat back, waiting for his reply.
30 seconds later, I said, “Screw it!” Fortune favours the foolish, Captain Kirk once said, so I decided to go forward on my own. Screwing my courage to the sticking place, I approached the three people working the door. I had been an English teacher for the past year. One of the first things they taught us was how to make your English simple enough for anyone to understand. I felt I could do it. I walked up to them. They greeted me. I replied with, “Hello,” and I bit of a nervous giggle. You see, in Japan, that was my way of saying, “Hello. I don’t speak Japanese, so I’m about to make a complete ass of myself trying to talk to you.” They must have got the meaning, as they began nervously giggling among themselves.
It was time to display the skills that didn’t get me a contract renewal. In my slowest, simplest English, I asked, “What is happening today?” They looked at each in bewilderment. Not simple enough. Another lesson given to us teachers was to act it out, and to use props. I spied a pile of programs sitting on the table, sporting the same poster image on their front cover. A prop! I pointed to the program, and asked, “What is this?” I saw sparks of thought flash over their eyes as I knew they understood. They began chatting to themselves in Japanese, but I think I know what they were saying: “How the hell do we tell this guy what’s going on?” At first, they tried to tell me in slow, simple Japanese. I looked at them in bewilderment. I saw their shoulders sigh as they realized, “Not simple enough.” Fortune must indeed favour the foolish as someone soon emerged from Big Hat. One of the three door-workers recognized this person and waved her over. She spoke English, and she told me what was going on.
It was the annual Nagano Art Festival. It was a showcase of paintings, sculptures, and other things produced by the artists of Nagano prefecture. Well, now, this sounded like something worth checking out. I knew enough Japanese to read the sign that said, “Adults: 500 yen.” But still, to confirm, I held up my wallet and asked, “How much?” They waved me in. For free.
At this point, my cellular phone beeped and I was told how to ask “What’s happening?” in Japanese. But I had accomplished the same out of sheer stupidity and/or boldness.
I stepped out onto the ice, which was now a concrete floor. Partitions were set up, each one adorned with paintings of various types. Off at one end of the rink was a collection of sculptures. A few tables held ceramics and smaller sculptures. I began to wander among the partitions, taking it all in. This was my first time in an “art gallery,” even if it was, in actuality, the Olympic hockey rink were the Canadian Men’s team blew the bronze medal game and the Women’s Team won the first silver medal in women’s hockey. I spent a whole hour inside, in which I made three circuits of the entire gallery. On each circuit, I would always find I’d spot some painting I didn’t notice the last time through, or spy some other one in a different light, thus changing my feelings about it. I was awestruck as this arena of gladiatorial sport was converted to a display of the more civilized. After my hour, I knew I had not seen it all, but I knew that I had seen enough. As I walked out the door, I turned to the three people working the door and I said one of the few expressions I know: “Arigato Gozaimous.”
It had started to rain, so rather than walk back to my ryokan, I hopped on the bus. I was lucky enough to find a seat, so I sat and pulled out my map. The evening was upon us, and I had already set aside this time to head to a Nagano theatre and finally see The Matrix Reloaded. (The final film I saw in Japan.) But I had enough time to start figuring out what to do tomorrow. There were still so many Olympic sites to see, and I still had a good three days before me. The next day: Olympic Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies. That, however, is a tale for the next day.