The Olympic Road to Nagano: Diary of a Spectator
by Aaron Ernst

On February 7th 1998, the 18th Winter Olympics Games will begin here in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. Athletes from all over the world will gather deep within the Japanese Alps to push their bodies to the edge and beyond in search of their ultimate goal, the elusive Olympic Medal.

The athletes have trained all their lives for this moment, and for many it will be their one and only shot at world glory and recognition. Years of sweat, pain and grinding practices come down to this, two short weeks in Japan.

The clock outside Nagano station ticks relentlessly down, 78 days until the Games at last begin.

Every 4 years, the world is introduced to a new winter wonderland as the Olympic games travel the globe from one country to the next. This Winter's Olympics will highlight the Prefecture of Nagano, a small city until now rarely mentioned beyond the borders of Japan.

Here in the mountains of Shiga Kogen and ranges of Hakuba, world records will be shattered and athletes deified. The media will create heroes as surely as it creates villains. And it will do so against the backdrop of a unique, sometimes bizarre, and always interesting culture. Beyond the drama created by the clash of the world's best athletes will be the clash and mingling of the East and the West. It's a combination of these stories that I will be reporting for the Tacoma Weekly as the Games approach.

Nagano: The City
Nagano City is located in the Japanese Alps of central Japan about 250 miles from Tokyo. It has a population of about 360,000 and is completely surrounded by a circle of green wooded mountains. Today, the city is best known as a departure point for the ski resorts of the Japanese Alps, though it was first brought to life as a Buddhist temple town. Signs of the coming Olympics are everywhere and construction projects are rampant. Narrow streets are being torn up and widened in a frantic and probably hopeless effort to prepare for an increase in Olympic traffic.

In October, a new bullet train line connecting Nagano to Tokyo was opened. With a top speed of 260 km/hour, the once three hour ride to Tokyo now only takes 80 minutes.

Not all the Olympic Venues are located within Nagano City, but looking out the window of my apartment onto the valley below, I can see a few of the sites. Most visible is the futuristic-looking speed skating rink dubbed the M-wave. World records will be shattered here due to a technological break-through by the Dutch in skate design. Called the "clap skate", it has proven to shave entire seconds off of times.

Beyond M-wave, just over the river that cuts Nagano in two is the figure-skating venue, an oval and silver UFO-shaped contraption called the White Ring. Here, Americans Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan will battle each other for the Gold. Closer to downtown and directly across from the International Broadcasting Center is the ice hockey stadium called simply, the Big Hat.

This Winter's games are made up of hockey, figure skating, speed skating, giant slalom, slalom, downhill, super G, cross-country skiing, ski Jumping, Nordic combined, free-style skiing, short track speed skating, bobsled, luge, and biathlon. The addition for the first time ever of curling and snowboarding bring to 68 the number of different events being offered this Games.

Another unavoidable sign of the Olympics is its official mascot, the "snowlets." These terminally cute, multicolored snow owls are on everything, on pens, towels, tie pins, key rings, mugs, lighters, thermometers, in commercials, you'll see them being used as a backdrop to grim-faced local news anchors, and they even have their own mini-cartoon series.

From time to time I will be asking Olympic Trivia questions within this column. Those with the quickest response will get some form of Olympic goods sent directly to you from Nagano.

Japan: A Taste of Culture
Stories and images of Japan that enter the mainstream press tend to be mostly economic in nature. If not related to economic issues, reports will often focus on stereotypical representations of Japan a la kimono and sumo wrestling. In this Olympic diary, I will try to bring you various insights into the true Japanese culture, what it is like to live and work here.

I welcome any questions you may have and will answer as many as I can in future reports. Especially insightful or leading questions used in this column will make you eligible to receive genuine Nagano Olympic goods as well.

Aaron Ernst is fluent in Japanese and has been living in Nagano City since September. Born and raised in Alaska, he has lived a total of 4 years in Japan. He is currently working with a media/major-rights-holder as an interpreter and researcher during the Olympics. Any questions you have can be sent to

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