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Nagano Readies Itself to Serve as Gracious Host

By Amy Shipley and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page D1



 Nagano's 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Temple is a peaceful oasis within the city that soon will be the focus of thousands of competitors, spectators and people around the world. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)
NAGANO — U.S. Olympic speedskater KC Boutiette climbed the steps to the 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Temple last week, eager to see the biggest tourist attraction in this small industrial city. With time on his hands before the start of the Olympic Games, Boutiette paused before the ornate entryway to wave smoke from a huge incense burner over his body.

That gesture, according to Buddhist tradition, brings good health and luck — rather useful for a 27-year-old American seeking his first Olympic medal in a land halfway around the world from his home.

The open-air temple provides a peaceful and gentle backdrop to the Winter Games, offering a marked contrast to the garish commercial scene in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Games. In Nagano, other than the colorful assortment of Olympic flags dangling from light poles, there are virtually no advertisements on display. Even CBS's chocolate-colored studio on the temple grounds is designed to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Japan intends to display its unique traditions and culture in a tasteful setting during the 17-day Olympics, which begin here Saturday (at 9 EST Friday) with the Opening Ceremonies. Nagano's citizens want to conduct a glitch-free Games while welcoming Olympic visitors with a gracious hospitality that will both reflect favorably on the nation.

"The people are really going all out for the Olympics," Boutiette said. "Everybody's so nice here, and that plays a big part in it."

At a time when their government is being rocked by scandals and the Asian financial crisis is threatening their economy, the Japanese also expect some psychological relief in the form of a strong performance by their athletes, who excel in speedskating, ski jumping and the Nordic combined event.

In recent weeks, the Japanese banking system has teetered and bankruptcies have soared. Several government officials were under investigation for taking bribes. One high-ranking official caught in the probe committed suicide last week.

 A city with international flavor: A Nagano streetside vendor offers a free sample of buckwheat dumplings to a grateful custormer. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)
"There has only been bad news and that's everybody's concern," said Yukihiro Kitamura, 67, while waiting for a bus on Chuo-Dori boulevard. "I just hope it will be a successful Games. ... Nagano will be known to the people of the world."

Despite their intention of greeting the world warmly, Nagano's citizens only recently embraced these Games, wary of environmental damage and the long-term tax burden of the $12.5 billion price tag.

Nagano Olympic organizers and international skiing officials waged a three-year battle, prompted by environmental concerns, over where to start the men's downhill. In December, a starting point was agreed upon that crosses protected land twice. The compromise was considered a victory for skiing and a setback to the Olympic Committee's goal of "respect for the beauty and bounty of nature."

Snow-covered mountains surround Nagano, a city of 360,000 dotted with squat, grayish buildings. While the city's main arteries are often clogged with traffic, the residential sections are filled with walkers, bicycle-riders and fewer cars, all making their way through sometimes narrow alleyways. Though Nagano can at times resemble a fast-paced city, a local store employee, Takao Ootaki, 42, said he didn't want the Olympics and the recently constructed highways to alter the "secluded Nagano."

"I'm an anti-Olympic person," Ootaki said. "I occasionally go to the mountains for fishing and hiking, so I'm worried about the environment being destroyed. I'm worried the newly built highways will allow other people from other prefectures [regional districts] to come in and change the atmosphere."

Despite those weighty concerns, Ootaki said he wasn't unhappy the Games are coming to town.

"Since Nagano will be known to the people of the world, I think it will benefit," he said.

These Olympics are the third held in Japan. The nation used the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo to show off its rebuilding after World War II. It used the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo to provide evidence that it had become a world economic power.

This time, the concerns are closer to home.

"We know, because a lot of money has been spent, we will be bearing the burden and we are a little worried about it," said cab driver Hideo Yonemochi, 60. "But people here are generally very happy having the Olympics here. . . . During the time of the Tokyo and Sapporo Olympics, the whole nation was excited about it. Whereas for this Olympics, only recently has the whole nation become excited about it."

The 3,000 athletes, 8,000 media members and numerous visitors gradually began arriving last week, most flying to Tokyo and completing the journey with a five-hour bus ride or a 90-minute trip on the new $7.5 billion bullet train.

Athletes will represent nations ranging from Iceland to Cameroon to Uzbekistan. Three competitions will make their debuts as medal events: curling, snowboarding and women's ice hockey. For the first time, NHL players will compete in the Olympics. Unlike the NBA players who participated in the Summer Games in Barcelona and Atlanta but sequestered themselves in luxury hotels, the hockey players — more than a few of them millionaires — will reside in the athletes' village alongside lesser-known Olympians.

With the Opening Ceremonies less than a week away, the atmosphere here seemed decidedly more receptive than a year ago, when interviews showed mostly a wish that the Games and the high cost of staging them would go away.

"I'm very excited," said 60-year-old pharmacy owner Toshiko Kitazawa. "I'm looking forward to the Japanese athletes doing well, but what I'm really excited about is watching the window there and seeing the people outside, all the foreign visitors going outside the shop."

Washington Post researcher Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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