Postcards and Vignettes From Nagano

With thousands of fans pouring in to the Olympics, Japanese know-how and a few foreigners are profiting.

There's one point when the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano bursts out of a tunnel at ear-popping speed into a sun-bathed vista of cloud-shrouded mountaintops. Reclining in an upholstered seat, you begin to forgive the 1,001 writers who've compared this to air travel. It's certainly unlike any train ride you've ever taken.

Apart from the unearthly view, there are vending machines and phones; computerized information displays in English, French, and Japanese; attendants wheeling refreshment carts; and plush, wide seats that swivel 180 degrees at the touch of a foot pedal.

What's missing? The turbulence. At 168 m.p.h., this red-white-and-blue monster slices through the Japanese Alps so smoothly that passengers wonder whether the train rides the tracks or floats above them.

But that's as it should be. At a cost of $7 billion for the ribbon of steel linking Tokyo to Nagano and the Asama train that rides it, this is possibly the world's most expensive stretch of railroad. The Asama is the latest innovation in a train-obsessed culture, and is so sophisticated that sensors in the track will shut the train down if they detect an earthquake.

While the train is a tribute to Japan's high-tech capability, the true marvel might be the commute to Tokyo Station, the bullet-train hub. That subway ride is part of a clean, safe, punctual system that daily funnels some 20 million people to jobs - one-fifth of the nation's population.

Now that's amazing.

Competition among scalpers

SPREAD out along Nagano's railway station corridor and bellowing in basic Japanese, about 100 scalpers from Canada, Europe, and the United States are striving to outhustle each other as they hawk tickets to Olympic events.

"It's risky and the competition's tough," says Roger, a Canadian in a blue down jacket with a belly bag full of tickets strapped to his middle. "The Brits bargain hard and there are about 50 of them. And the prices for food here are unbelievable!"

So are the prices the scalpers are asking. Some tickets sell at five to seven times their original cost.

While country groups cluster in certain areas, a lot of good-natured ribbing and bonding goes on. Not only is this an all-male sport, but they've all followed the same path to get here. First, they shell out up to $10,000 to buy tickets from brokers designated by the Olympic Committee in more than 40 countries. (Roger explains that scalpers have a saying about the daunting up-front costs: "If you have no wood, you can't make no fire.")

Then there's travel, which this time meant an average 24 hours of trains, planes, and automobiles. Now, there's the weather to endure: a steady, stinging drizzle of icy rain. The payoff? A profit in the neighborhood of $15,000, says Gary Agar, a young Briton.

While Roger and company spend their days yelling "chiketto!" - tickets - the Olympic Committee discreetly turns a deaf ear. It takes a hands-off stance on scalping, says a spokeswoman.

As line-ups at ticket booths mean hour-long waits, many Japanese are grateful the scalpers are there. "It's expensive," says Kaori Nakamura, a university student. "But it's faster, and it's so international. That's fun."

Environmental issues

These Games are about "coexisting with nature," the slogans say. So it's a little hard to understand how a visitor can walk 12 city blocks, crumpled paper cup in hand, looking for a garbage can. Is Nagano so environment-friendly that people take their gum wrappers home to throw out? Could be. The crowded city sidewalks are meticulously clean and organizers have gone to great lengths to make this a "green" event.

But critics are grumbling that the Games' claims to green status are disingenuous at best. The Anti-Olympics People's Network has been holding rallies to protest environmental damage. The use of ammonia to cool the bobsled run and severe erosion on the freestyle skiing hill are damaging the ecology, they charge.

Already, a pair of rare goshawks have been driven from their nesting area, according to a nature preservation group.

The Olympic Committee argues that respect for nature is a central theme and points to the efforts it has made. The biathlon run was scaled down to minimize disturbance to the birds' nesting area. Smoking is banned at event areas, and recycled plates, made from apple fibers, are used in the stadiums, media village, and cafeterias. The Olympic torch is lit with propane gas.

Even the volunteers' outfits, spiffy white and gray fleecy jackets, are recyclable. "To make this an environmentally friendly Olympics, we came up with the idea to wear '100 percent recyclable nylon wear,' " explains Akiko Yamamoto, NAOC volunteer assistant director. "If we melted all 40,000 outfits, for example, we could produce as much as 180,000 liters worth of gasoline, easily enough for a car to circle the globe 45 times."

Good thing there's no smoking.

Chillin' in the hot springs

IF you're an athlete, you may have muscles to ease. If you're a spectator, you have frozen feet to thaw. But even those with no connection to the Olympics can use Nagano's hot springs, or onsen, to unwind. The steaming pools of water bubble up throughout Japan, and are heated in deep subterranean crevices, some by active volcanoes. In a country that boasts more springs than any other (2,000), Nagano is renowned.

The biathlon events are being held at Nozawa Onsen Village nearby. Anticipating the influx of visitors, the village has prepared. Inside the entrances, wooden signs establish the protocol in several languages: Store clothes in a locker and pick up a towel, then scrub with plenty of soap in the washing area. Once you've rinsed, you're clean enough to enter the baths.

Onsens always have single-sex baths, but many offer mixed bathing. The modest can soak wrapped in a towel, but Japanese culture sees nakedness with none of the shame Western cultures sometimes do. Co-ed public baths were common at the turn of the century, when a communal soak wasn't just a way to get clean, but also served as an information network. News and gossip could be exchanged, new babies shown off.

Japanese still prize the social aspects of bathing. For $2 to $10 a visit, it's pure pleasure.

Seaweed on my what?

A stroll down Nagano's restaurant-lined main drag reveals as much about Japanese eating habits as it does about Olympic merchandising.

Nagano is famous for its buckwheat soba noodles, its apples, and its oyaki - plump dumplings stuffed with vegetables, pumpkin, or sweet bean paste.

But in a large tent set up outside the Olympic Square to promote local farm produce, the apple juice stands unlabeled, lest the rights of official soft-drink supplier Coca-Cola be infringed. Nearby, mounds of fresh oyaki are on display, in defiance of the official bread supplier.

There's an official supplier for every kind of sustenance a chilly sports fan could want. Small businesses that sell similar products have been pressured by the local Olympic committee to keep their products in the back room, locals say. Cynics are quipping that it's one time US companies are getting protected and not shut out by Japanese officialdom.

Like every major Japanese city, Nagano offers international eating options - Thai, Indian, Italian. Dunkin' Donuts pumps out the same honey-glaze you'll find stateside, Colonel Sanders stands watch outside KFC stores, and McDonald's golden arches are ubiquitous. But it's never quite the same. The curries are milder; the pasta is likely to come with a topping of dried seaweed. And at McDonald's, some burgers come crowned with a glistening fried egg.

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