Eyes of the World Focus on Nagano

Of apple orchards and soba noodles

At first blush, Nagano seems an unlikely setting for the Winter Olympics.

This city of 360,000, which rests at the base of the Japan alps at an elevation of 1,350 feet, is the southernmost site ever to host the winter Games. It's on the same latitude as San Francisco, and its average snowfall in February is only 1.5 inches.

What's more, Nagano is remarkably uncrowded and sleepy for a Japanese city. Despite being roughly the size of Buffalo, Nagano is surrounded by open spaces, and there's no discothque. The city's most famous landmark is the Zenko-ji temple, a 1,300-year-old structure built by Buddhist monks that lures about 7 million visitors annually.

Nagano is best known for its apple orchards and its buckwheat - the chief ingredient in the region's trademark soba noodles.

No shortage of building projects

Japanese authorities have spent an estimated $13 billion to build venues and shore up infrastructure. A new Shinkansen "bullet train" from Tokyo to Nagano cuts the trip from three hours to 90 minutes. Venues built expressly for the Games include the Big Hat and Aqua Wing arenas (hockey), the M-Wave (speed skating), the White Ring (figure skating), and the Spiral (bobsled and luge). The Olympic Stadium, in the shape of a cherry blossom (Japan's national flower), will be home to the opening and closing ceremonies. It will be converted to a baseball stadium after the Olympics.

"The Japanese have set up the most outstanding facilities ever in the history of the Winter Olympics," says Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee.

Moreover, the Nagano Games will benefit from having a record 2,000 athletes from 71 nations compete for 68 gold medals. Organizers expect more than 1 million spectators during the Games. Japan and Germany will field their largest teams ever, and for just the second time, athletes from India will compete.

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