When athletes and spectators soon pour into the city of Nagano, Japan, the host of the Olympic Winter Games, they will encounter snowy mountain ranges, a live volcano and the chance to experience death and rebirth - symbolically - in one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist temples.
The temple is supposed to bring a lifetime of good luck, and its underground vault is the only cultural site in Japan that my children count as a rival in significance to Tokyo Disneyland.
Visitors to Nagano will see all this and more, but none of them, not even the Japanese emperor himself, will be allowed a glimpse of Nagano’s greatest prize. That is a gilded bronze statue of Buddha with two attendants, said to have arrived in Japan in 552 from Korea as part of the first mission to carry Buddhism to Japan.
It is therefore one of the oldest Buddhist statues in Japan, and, according to legend, is invested with miraculous powers - one of which is to blind anyone who lays eyes on it. That explains why it has been kept hidden away, presumably unseen for the last 305 years.
The temple where the statue is housed, Zenkoji, attracts pilgrims from all over Japan. One of the country’s great tourist sites, it underscores Nagano’s role as a special kind of Olympic city: not just a ski resort, but also an ancient and mystical spot with attractions that go far beyond the Olympic competition. It is this historic Nagano that will add another dimension for Olympic visitors.
Still, when the Games open Saturday, they will put Nagano on the global map. The Japanese government has invested heavily in a new bullet train that has made the area far more accessible. Since the train began service in October, Nagano has become just a 90-minute dash from Tokyo, making a day trip feasible.
Particularly for visitors on the main Tokyo-to-Kyoto circuit, Nagano offers a refreshing detour into the heart of the country and a glimpse into the nation’s soul. The Olympics will perhaps not be the best time to explore the city, for it will be crowded and traffic will be a snarl, but Nagano will be there after the Games - and as a result of the preparations, there are more English signs than ever. Americans will find it easier to make their way into the right dressing room for the public baths.
Nagano Prefecture (similar to a state) is a sprawling, mountainous region of 5,200 square miles, with around 2.1 million inhabitants. Famed for its apples, delicious and crunchy and sometimes the size of soccer balls, Nagano is largely agricultural and mountainous, a playland of ski resorts and hot springs.
When friends were visiting in November, my wife and I took them and our herd of children - three of ours, two of theirs - on a day trip to Nagano, for it offers a flavor of traditional Japan in a kid-friendly package. We began our visit in the prefectural capital, also named Nagano, a city of 360,000 with its share of glass-and-steel office towers.
Yet somehow Nagano City manages to preserve the aura of a country town, perhaps because of the mountains that surround and humble it, or perhaps because of the refreshing chill in the air when one steps off the train from Tokyo.
After emerging from the train station, it is a straight one-mile walk to Zenkoji, the temple that is home to the miraculous statue. The avenue is lined with shops offering Nagano apples and other souvenirs, and it bustles with pilgrims from all over Japan, for legend has it that a visit to Zenkoji will bring salvation.
Zenkoji is said to have been first built in the seventh century, but it has burned down many times. The present structure, a massive hall that is one of the biggest wooden buildings in Japan, dates from 1707. Dark brown and edged with gold, it looms over the neighborhood and is approached through two huge gates that lend a solemnity to the entire area.
Yet inside the gates, the atmosphere is a bit like a carnival. Thousands of pigeons bustle about, and a grandmother tries to show a suspicious toddler how to feed the birds. Other visitors surround a huge cauldron from which smoke billows, waving the smoke into their faces. The smoke is supposed to be good luck, so the kids in our group frantically waved some into their faces. I tried to accept this secondary smoke as spiritual.
The interior of Zenkoji is dim and crowded, and it takes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Obinzuru-san, a life-size gold-painted wooden statue of a disciple of Buddha, sits in a lotus position near the entrance, and a stream of visitors reaches out to touch his hand, ear or face for good luck. Indeed, such groping has gradually worn away poor Obinzurusan’s face, but still he presides over the multitude with as much dignity as a faceless sculpture can muster.
The real adventure begins in the back of the main hall. It involves going downstairs into the basement below, and stumbling along a pitch-black pathway while trying to touch a “key of paradise” that is hidden in the wall and is said to bring salvation to those who touch it.
The pathway is not just dark, it is absolutely black - I literally could not see my hand an inch in front of my eyes - so we held on to one another as the children advised us loudly and nervously that they weren’t the least bit scared.
We reassured Gregory, 5, and Geoffrey, 3, that if they just kept going a bit farther, they would reach the “key of paradise” and win a lifetime of good luck. I gave them the crucial hint that the key is on the right-hand side, about waist-high. With that they easily found it, shrieked exultantly, and rubbed vigorously.
A temple official explained that the “key of paradise” is directly below the famous statue that has been hidden for the last three centuries. The darkness represents your death, allowing you to be reborn as a new person.
Ready for an earthly meal upon emerging, we found the area around Zenkoji teeming with restaurants featuring one of Nagano’s best-known specialties, soba noodles. Soba, made of buckwheat, is one of my favorite Japanese foods; it is also among the cheapest. A basic zaru soba (cold noodles dipped in sauce) is refreshing and costs only about $5, while tororo soba (hot or cold noodles served in broth and accompanied by a thick sauce of grated yam) is just a dollar or two more.
Americans sometimes are put off by Japanese foods such as natto (fermented soy beans) or basashi (raw horsemeat), but it is difficult to find someone who does not like soba.
Mountainous areas like Nagano traditionally did not have as much fish as the rest of Japan, so instead of turning to raw fish for sushi and sashimi , they made do with what they had, like horsemeat (although sushi and sashimi made with fish are now widely available).
The place to stay in Nagano is not a Western hotel but a Japanese inn, ideally one of those clustered around hot springs in the less populated parts of the prefecture. One of the most famous springs is Jigokudani, or Hell Valley.
Another is Seni Onsen, where the spring is inside a natural cave.
There are a couple of English-language books on hot springs in Japan, including Nagano Prefecture, and the tourist office in the Nagano train station can help with bookings.
Apart from Zenkoji, the most interesting site in the prefecture also is underground, but it conjures up grim memories for Japanese and so does not get the attention it should. It is the Matsushiro Headquarters network of tunnels that the Imperial Army built in the waning months of World War II as a refuge for the emperor, the army and the government. The plan was to move the country’s leaders to a safe haven underneath a mountain, where the government could continue to operate.
The scale of this underground complex is dizzying. The tunnels are big enough to drive a car through, and they extend for around seven miles through hard rock. But nuclear weapons would have infected even these tunnels with deadly radioactivity, and the blasting finally stopped Aug. 15, 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender. The caves were 75 percent complete.
We entered through an old air shaft, descending a set of stairs carved in the rock, where a series of electric lights provides adequate but eerie illumination. Most of the tunnels are closed to visitors, but even so we could hike for the better part of a mile down a series of shafts.
It is sobering to contemplate the work that went into making these tunnels. “It’s scary,” a Japanese friend whispered to me on my first visit to the tunnels, earlier last year. “This place must be haunted by the ghosts of those who were killed. And I’m Japanese, so the ghosts will want to come after me.”
The Imperial Army forced thousands of Korean laborers and nearby Japanese residents to build the tunnels, and between 300 and 1,000 people died in the process. Most of the dead were Koreans who died in cave-ins or explosions or else succumbed to malnutrition, disease or suicide. Others were shot for trying to escape or for protesting the brutal round-the-clock working conditions.
In a self-lacerating plaque at the entrance, the local authorities have written: “The historical remains of the Matsushiro Headquarters call attention to the Japanese invasion of other Asian countries, as seen in World War II and the colonization of Korea. The remains forever remind us of the sins we committed during the war period.”
Nearby are some less grim sites. The old castle town of Matsushiro, part of Nagano Prefecture, was the fief of the Sanada family, and the Sanada Museum offers armor, guns and other artifacts that show how the lords lived during the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 to 1867. The Sanada estate, a beautiful Japanese house in the traditional style, with a pond full of colorful koi, or ornamental carp, is next to the museum.
For a memento of a trip to Nagano, there is a perfect souvenir: Matsushiro yaki, porcelain with a distinctive green glaze. I stopped by the kiln of one master, Takashi Aizawa, whose wife, Kinuko, showed me his vases, teapots and sake cups in the adjoining shop, selling for as little as $5 up to more than $1,000 for a large vase. Then I noticed that one of the less expensive items, a sake cup for $5, had what seemed to be a flaw. There was a hole in it, near the bottom. I pulled out another, and it had the same hole. They all did.
Mrs. Aizawa explained that this is intentional. The guest is forced to hold his finger over the hole and quickly gulp down the sake; then it is time to refill the cup. The message is that as a generous host you intend to serve the guest plenty of liquor.
So this is a traditional Nagano, one that may not always be evident to spectators tuning their televisions to Olympic figure skating.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The easiest way to get to Nagano is by bullet train from Tokyo Station; round trip, $131 (calculated at 122 yen to the U.S. dollar). It may be possible to buy tickets at the last minute, but seats sometimes run out, so it is safest to buy tickets ahead of time at any railroad office. Sightseeing: Zenkoji’s main hall and underground vault are open from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and a visit to the vault costs $2.45. Take your shoes off and put them in the plastic bags provided; do not step with your shoes on the tatami mats in the hall. From Zenkoji, it is a 45-minute taxi ride, costing about $62 one way, to the wartime tunnels of Matsushiro Headquarters. They are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Tuesdays, and admission is free. From the tunnels, it is a 15-minute taxi ride to the kiln of the Aizawas or any of the other Matsushiro Yaki masters in the area. The Aizawas’ kiln and shop are open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; they are closed on Sundays and some Mondays. Lodging and food: Foreigners stay periodically at the hot springs Seni Onsen or Jigokudani Onsen, but there may be some communication problems at times. Thus it might be easier to ask a Japanese friend or a hotel to try to make the booking, but you can also try directly. The Iwa no Yu inn at Seni Onsen may be reached at (026) 245-2453, fax 248-0047; the Korakukan inn at Jigokudani is at (026) 933-4376, fax 933-3244. The price ranges from $150 to $260 a person, including two meals, at Iwa no Yu, and from $74 to $98 at Korakukan; tax and service are extra. The excellent Japanese dinners served at a good onsen are a good way to enjoy first-class Japanese cuisine. With any of the onsen, be careful to distinguish between the men’s and women’s baths; the lettering may be in Chinese characters, but usually the men’s has a blue entrance and the women’s a red entrance. And as always with a public bath in Japan, scrub and rinse yourself before you get in the bath; it is for soaking, not cleaning. An inn run by Zenkoji is very reasonable at around $82 a person, double occupancy, including two meals; it can be reserved in English by calling (026) 234-3591, fax 235-2151. There are a dozen soba restaurants around Zenkoji’s front gate, with similar food and service, where a basic meal costs about $10 a person. Try Owariya, inside the gate, (026) 232-5347; no reservations.