It is a changed Nagano that greets a returning visitor.
The city doesn’t look significantly different from a year ago - still a hodgepodge of chaotic signage, narrow streets and mishmash architecture. CBS has added to the blight with the stunningly ugly Olympic broadcast studio - it looks like a brown watchtower from the beaches of Normandy - that briefly will deface the tranquil beauty of the Zenkoji Temple grounds.
The change is in how much less disorienting it all seems, for there is a feeling of welcome that did not exist until recently.
In what was the insular capital of Japan’s heartland, the Winter Olympics that open here Saturday (Friday in the United States) finally have affected the people of the host city.
“It happened just within a month,” said Taka-Kazu Fukushima, a priest at Zenkoji. “The atmosphere has changed greatly.”
The temple, one of Japan’s religious and architectural treasures, will become the best-known landmark of the 18th Winter Olympics for both on-site and TV tourists. The monks’ dawn service in the chill interior of the wooden building drew 27 worshippers last Thursday, which is 26 more than had attended on a similar morning in 1997.
A jogger heading for the temple area got hellos and friendly shakes of the head from several passers-by, a marked change from the head-down postures of the locals in past encounters. Groups of schoolchildren touring the temple went out of their way to wave and say hello to obvious visitors.
This is what Nagano hoped the Olympic experience might bring. It is a theme that will recur all the way until the Closing Ceremonies, when it will be restated through an observation of astronauts going farther into space: the astronauts first searched for their state, then their country, then their continent. Finally, they could see only the oneness of earth.
“We are really eager to be part of the Olympic Games,” said Nagano banker Kibu Shigeyumi.
Shigeyumi was speaking in English polished by six years in New York. Most in this city of 360,000 learned English in school and nearly all were reluctant to use it a year ago. Now people are trying to make their city a little more foreigner-friendly.
Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee chief Makato Kobayashi wished that visitors would make an equal effort. Asked a year ago about the language barrier, Kobayashi said, “I wish everyone coming here would learn a few words in Japanese.”
Domo arigato, Mr. Kobayashi. Thank you very much.
The first of Japan’s 313 athletes moved into the Olympic village last Wednesday, knowing efforts to stop carrying the baggage of national hopes will be futile.
“It is an advantage (to compete in Japan) because they are at home and comfortable here, but it also puts great pressure on the athletes,” said Japanese Olympic Committee spokesman Tadahiro Goto.
This is, after all, a culture in which figure skater Midori Ito - who will light the Olympic cauldron in the Opening Ceremonies - felt compelled to apologize to the nation after returning with silver instead of gold from the 1992 Olympics.
The ski jumpers will feel the most pressure because they are Japan’s leading gold-medal hopes and their sport has been a national favorite since the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo. There, jumper Yukio Kasaya won the first and only individual winter gold medal by a Japanese athlete, leading a Japanese sweep of the normal hill event. Those were Japan’s only three medals in the only other Winter Games to take place in Asia.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S IN A NAME? One befuddling question remains at the Nagano Games: How do you pronounce the name of the city? Is it NAH-gah-no or Nah-GAH-no? The answer is - either. Conductors on Nagano train platforms stress the first syllable, announcing: “The bullet train will soon arrive at NAH-gah-no station.” Residents in the southern part of the prefecture refer to their home as “Nah-GAH-no.” And national broadcaster NHK, considered the arbiter of Japanese pronunciation, hedges by reporting on the “NAH-GAH-NO” Games, giving equal emphasis to each syllable in line with standard diction. There is one consensus: Nah-gah-NO is a definite no-no.