Truly, one of the highlights of any Winter Olympic venue are those wonderful, magnificent ski jump towers that they build. I even distinctly remember the ones for Nagano because, as a kid at Augustana in 1998, I was just discovering the Internet. And, the Nagano ski jumps had that wonderful innovation known as a webcam on the roof. I watched so many images from that webcam that I just had to go see the real view for myself.
As is also becoming a growing custom in the Winter Olympics, the ski jumps – in fact, a lot of the skiing venues – aren’t in the host city. Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of Olympic-level ski hills in most metropolitan downtown areas. Instead, they are at a small ski village a short bus ride from town. And Nagano was no exception. The ski jump towers were in a small village called Hakuba. On this day, I would venture deep into the mountains to Hakuba.
Even though the railway runs through Hakuba, there was no rail line connecting Hakuba and Nagano. I was going to have to bus it. Not a problem! Another stop with the friendly ladies at the tourist information booth, and I was soon riding the Hakuba express.
I stepped off the bus into Hakuba and took a deep breath. No matter where you go in the world, mountain towns smell the same. There’s a faint hint of snow, a fresh scent from the foliage, and everything’s damp. I love that smell. I drank it in as I stepped off the bus.
Now, don’t let my description of Hakuba as a small village fool you. I still needed to take another bus to get to the edge of town where the ski jump towers lay. Another question I was always asked in Japan was, “How can you find your way around the buses when you don’t read the language?” True, I couldn’t read the names. But I could read the numbers. I was soon bound for the towers!
I rode the bus to the closest stop to the towers, but I could already see them rising out of the tree line. I swear, this had to be the most remote of all the Olympic venues. When I got off at the last stop, I began my walk to the ski jump towers.
They were a sight to behold. Nestled against the mountain slope were these two, massive towers. Each one had a gentle, sloping ramp extending from the top. Next to them were a massive set of concrete bleachers, with a huge scoreboard on top. A miniature version of the Olympic cauldron sat in front. Obvioulsy, 5 years ago, the Olympic flame burned here, too. I sat and stared at it for a while. I watched the slow, rhythmic chair lift going to the top and coming back down.
Oh, c’mon. Like I was going to come all this way and not ride to the top? Please. The ticket was only 250 yen.
Let me fill you in a little more on the towers. There were actually three towers; the two jumps and then a central tower where the athletes prepared and all that. The chair lift took you up to the central tower. And then, inside the tower, there was an elevator and a set of stairs that took you up to the smaller jump, and then up even higher to the bigger jump. The highest you could go was the observation post at the very top of the central tower. My plan of attack was to go up to the observation post, and then work my way down.
I’m not sure my words can do the view justice. Granted, I spent a lot of summers in the blue Canadian Rockies, so I was used to seeing spectacular mountain views. But this was…different. The mountains were different. The town below was different. And the fact that I was standing on top of an Olympic ski jump. It was all a little overwhelming.
I hopped in the elevator and rode down to the upper jump. I was crammed into the elevator with a group of elderly Japanese people. If at any point in my trip I felt like a tourist, this was it. One of the old ladies looked at me and must have instantly assumed “tourist.” She reached into her purse and offered me a candy. I accepted with a smile and my best “Arigato.” And that made her group chuckle.
I went to the upper ski jump and walked out to the platform where the skier gets ready and makes the jump. I looked directly down the jump, seeing what the skier sees. My God, it was nerve-wracking. And to think, a ski jumper then takes a deep breath and goes rocketing down.
When I’d had my fills of awe-inspiring views, I went to the chair lift and headed back down. I hit the gift shop and stocked up on postcards of the area. I then resumed walking around the base of the structures, admiring the feat of engineering.
I also heard a rumbling in my stomach. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I hadn’t had any lunch yet. As I continued roaming around the base of the jumps, I soon came to an oasis. Food kiosks! All arranged around a central gathering of picnic tables. It was like an open-air food court. Lunch was at hand! I cautiously walked into the area. This was something way out of my league. But I was hungry, darn it! I walked up to one nice-looking noodle kiosk. I greeted the clerk with my best, “Konichiwa,” and she replied with her best “Hello!” It looked like I was safe. This open-air food court was definitely a family affair, as all manner of children and men and women started coming out of the nearby houses to see the one lone tourist who wandered into town that day. The family sold me on a bowl of cold mushroom soba and an iced tea – perfect on that hot summer’s day!
I settled into a picnic table and noticed that I had a spectacular view of the ski jumps. And then, I heard a “whiz!” I looked up at the jumps just in time to see a jumper take flight! Summer ski jumps! I heard about this. Those green mats that line ski jumps aren’t just for decoration. Wet them down, and they become nice and slick – perfect for jumping without snow. Obviously, some folks were doing some practice runs today. I sat there, in the shadow of the Japan Alps, eating a bowl of soba and watching ski jumpers. I took another breath of that fresh mountain air. I’m fairly certain that, in my short life, I’ve only had about five or six days that I would classify as paradise. This was one of them.
When I finished my meal, I started sauntering back towards the bus stop. I took my time, though, as I had lots of time to kill. Hakuba was definitely a tourist town. And I was definitely there in the off-season. The streets were deserted. There were lots of restaurants, gift shops, and ski chalets, all closed. The few that were open were staffed by lonely teenagers who looked bored witless. A lone gaijin coming in to buy a postcard must have been the highlight of their day. There was an eerie calm to the place. I found it to be incredibly relaxing.
But, my day could not last forever. I caught the bus back to Nagano. I returned to my ryokan, where I broke out the pens and started writing postcards to people. As I now had less than a week left in Japan, I wrote to my parents, “This’ll probably get home after I do.” I also had a weird compulsion to phone home. Good thing, too. Turns out it was Father’s Day. After I wished Dad a happy day, I wandered down to the post office and dropped my postcards in the mail. I knew this wasn’t going to last much longer.
And All the Rest
I had seen pretty much all I wanted to of Olympic venues. The hockey rinks, the stadium, the ski jump towers…although, as I wrote this, I started feeling regretful that I never made my way down to White Ring; the rink where they had most of the figure skating. Oh, well. Like the man said, “May I never be complete.” This way, I’ve got a reason to go back some day.
I spent another day hanging around Nagano, though. I went to this wildlife preserve out in the mountains where I got to see some wild monkeys, and I figured I should finally see this Zenko-ji that everyone talked about. Plus, it gave me more time to surf the gift shops. I had sweet-talked my former boss into letting keep all my stuff in the back room of my former English school, so a very cool thank you gift was in order. As is the Japanese custom, I settled on a box of Nagano’s local special cookies. I even briefly considered getting something for the ladies at the tourist information booth, for all their help in the past few days.
It was with a heavy heart that I boarded the train and finally sailed away from Nagano. In a way, I was happy that I’d been able to spend as much time there that I did. If I tried to do it in a long weekend – as I’d originally planned – I wouldn’t have been able to do it. The train sailed west, taking me back to Kumagaya. I now had less than a week left in Japan. I was starting to feel the weight of an impending future. But, at that moment, I was happy. It was the happiest I’d felt in a long time.
I’d done it. I’d gone to Nagano. Shortly after I returned to Canada, the announcement was made that Vancouver would be getting the Winter Games in 2010. And, once again, I made a solemn vow. I will go to Vancouver. But this time, it won’t be 5 years after the fact.