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Ready, Set, Olympics


© St. Petersburg Times

A scholarship program that fosters cultural understanding and foreign education for young militaryofficers.-- Here is her look at the site of 1998 Winter Olympics -- in Clearwater's sister city.

Approaching the ancient temple along the path followed by Japanese pilgrims since the seventh century, I stopped to admire the bright red-and-white paper lantern display. A design in the middle of each "traditional" globe caught my eye -- the familiar logo of Coca-Cola. Coke is a sponsor of the 1998 Winter Games, which begin in this small city in less than five months. The steady preparations and expectations are palpable. Visitors are likely to be charmed by both the blend of time-worn and modern offerings and the scenic beauty of the surrounding mountains.

While the much of the world is just noticing Nagano, my hometown of Clearwater has had a rich history with Nagano, as sister cities, since 1959. Nagano City, the capital of Nagano Prefecture, is roughly 125 miles northwest of Tokyo, in the northern part of a prefecture known for the majestic Japan Alps. The mountains attract nature lovers and winter sports enthusiasts alike, and the surrounding fields are known for producing tasty apples, apricots and high-quality grains that are used in local sake and noodles.

Nagano City, while sprawling to many suburbs, is actually compact for the tourist's purpose. The city's main attraction is the Zenkoji Temple, a 20-minute walk from the train station. Nagano, originally developed as a temple town, emerged to meet the needs of the flocks of pilgrims coming to worship at this Buddhist temple famed for its tolerance. Zenkoji quickly became my favorite among the many temples I have visited in Japan.

Full of beauty, meaning and history, it contains elements of many temple traditions. Many temples have a "gimmick," and Zenkoji's is the pitch-black circular corridor, underneath the main sanctuary, that contains a lock hung on the smooth surface of the wall. Visitors grope through the passageway, hoping to touch this lock, the key to a "guaranteed" salvation and passage to Buddhist paradise.

The complex includes the main sanctuary, two large gates, the Sutra Storehouse, associated temples, a three-tiered, pagoda-style Memorial for the War Dead, a graveyard, gardens and numerous statues. The temple area bustles with worshipers, fortune-tellers, sellers of religious paraphernalia (including by vending machine) and tourists.

Zenkoji, so active by day, seems transformed in the quiet hours of dusk. Released from daytime shadows, the towering wooden deities flanking the entrance gate impose the powerful presence of the guardians they represent. The O-Jizo and waterbaby images, protecting the "souls" of the stillborn, aborted and miscarried, stand poignantly in the night air, draped in red bibs and topped with hats for warmth. In this peace and solitude, it is easier to appreciate the temple as a religious, rather than tourist, destination.

The approach to the temple is along Nagano's central street, Chuo Dori, a sloped road lined with a hodgepodge of restaurants selling clothing, dolls, bamboo crafts, spices and lacquerware. I was always greeted by a warm welcome and kind, unhurried service. Chuo Dori intersects Gondo Dori, a covered arcade lined with less-distinctive shops.

Restaurants are plentiful along both of these major shopping roads as well as around the train station. Nagano is famous throughout Japan for its fresh buckwheat soba noodles. The most common way to eat them is as zaru soba, where the noodles are served cold, sprinkled with roasted seaweed. An accompanying sauce is seasoned with wasabi (a kind of horseradish) and onions to taste. With chopsticks, diners dunk the noodles in the sauce. To complete the soba meal, the water the noodles were cooked in is brought to the table. This buckwheat broth, when combined with leftover dipping sauce, is a tasty substitute for tea.

But the adventurous diner should not miss Furusato restaurant, near the train station. With a menu skillfully translated into English, customers can choose among local specialties such as wok-fried bee larvae and salted squid guts, natto (fermented soybeans) and basashi (sliced raw horsemeat). Nagano City's popularity also stems from its convenience as a jumping-off point to other resorts and towns nearby. Many of the Olympic venues will be spread throughout the prefecture, with Nagano City as the hub and with train and bus access among the various sites. Two of the many worthy side trips include the hot springs of Yudanaka and the castle town of Matsumoto. A pleasant day in Hell Valley Yudanaka, an hour by train, is a small mountain town filled with onsen (hot spring) resorts among the snow-blanketed, sloped tile roofs of the traditional homes in the hills and along a narrow river. Nearby Mount Yakebitai is scheduled to host Olympic Alpine skiing and snowboarding. Preferring warmth to the chill of snow, I took a bus to Kombayashi Onsen, then hiked for 30 minutes to reach Jigokudani Onsen (Hell Valley Hot Spring). Despite its intimidating name, this area is known for the mountain monkeys said to come and soak in the hot-spring spa every morning. The spa itself was not worth the cost or bother of entry, but the scenic walk to and from the resort offered solitude and peace. Near the spa is a park in which monkeys can be observed up close, frolicking in the snow and soaking in their own outdoor spa -- an attractive, if a bit artificial, setting. Yudanaka is filled with hot spring resorts, many of which offer public facilities. I chose Sekiya (across from the bus stop), which has a public rotenburo, or outdoor bath. I had the spot to myself, and as I looked through the steam of the hot bath in the bracing chill of March, the Alpine hills and trees looked beautiful. Matsumoto: castle town of traditional charm In contrast to the serenity of Yudanaka, my day trip to Matsumoto was stimulating. Matsumoto is reached from Nagano by an hourlong ride southeast, plunging into the sheer snow-capped ridges of central Nagano prefecture. Famed for the Matsumoto-jo Castle, considered the most beautiful of those in Japan, Matsumoto's charm lies in its preserva tion of traditions.

The castle, a 15-minute walk from the trainstation, is stunning, especially on a winter day when the black castle contrasts dramatically with the snow- covered peaks in the background. The castle tour is excellent, with interesting recordings and signs available for the English speaker.

A word of caution, however: The castle's interior stairs were built at 55- to 61-percent angles, to make them difficult for intruders to mount an attack. Climbing these narrow, steep stairs is challenging, especially because the handrails are placed awkwardly for use by tall people. And tourists must wear slippers on the slick surfaces. I quickly wished I had deposited my hand-carried items in the coin lockers at the entrance to free myself for better balancing.

Matsumoto's traditions are beautifully revealed in the small dollmaker's shop, Berami, in the old section of town. Mrs. Mimura took the time to show me the various types of dolls made by her family, the only artisans maintaining this unique Matsumoto craftwork. My favorites were those displayed from behind, the charm being in the style of the hair and how the obi, or sash around the kimono, is tied.

Also in Matsumoto, though less convenient, is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, which houses the famous Sakai collection of Japanese woodblock prints. About 100 prints are on display at a time, and there is a slide show to accompany the exhibit.

Matsumoto, like Nagano Prefecture as a whole, is a destination with many charms. Nagano City offers a convenient and accessible base from which to enjoy nature, visit historical treasures, view art, relax in a hot spring spa, or participate in winter sports at any of a number of surrounding towns and resorts.

When the world watches the Winter Games next February, they will surely be impressed. The athletes and spectators, as well as any tourists who decide to add Nagano to their travels, have much to look forward to.

Originally published September 28, 1997

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