Feb. 04, 1998
NAGANO, Japan (AP) _ The fresh concrete has dried, the foreign faces are streaming in, the surrounding mountains are quilted with snow and the Olympic mascots, the Snowlets, are liberally deployed. Nagano, finally, is ready to welcome the world.
But exactly what will that world find? A city with a decided tendency toward multiple personality, a place capable of being most things to most people _ in other words, just what the multicultural, multieconomic 1998 Winter Olympics needs.
Parts of Nagano resemble a cozy Rocky Mountain village, ringed with snow-capped peaks. Wait _ turn a few corners and it becomes the neon-laden Los Angeles of ``Blade Runner.'' Or hop on a bus and ride for a mile: Then, more prosaically, it melts into one of the drab, miracle-mile edge cities of North Jersey.
``This city is still not sure what it is,'' one young Japanese woman, an Olympic volunteer wearing platform shoes and the requisite recyclable jacket of this year's games, said today. Giggling, she declined to give her name.
At this moment in time, this is what Nagano is:
A place where an unparalleled bellyful of hand-pulled soba noodles costs less than $6. A place where shopkeepers will abandon stores and walk down the street with you to provide directions, where downtown features virtually no litter boxes but immaculate streets, where the ``Duet Twinkle Sound Pub'' is just up the road from the ``Women Dream Differ'' clothing store. A place where politeness is assertive, even aggressive.
The Olympics have, of course, transformed Nagano dramatically. Evidence of recent construction is everywhere; parts of the city feature buildings so factory fresh that they resemble to-scale architectural models. The five Olympic rings are omnipresent, and four of five locals display some sort of Olympic gear on their bodies.
And, of course, gargantuan Olympic-related corporate logos are everywhere. Urban Japan specializes in oversized signage _ the more neon, the better _ and thus downtown Nagano is the perfect canvas.
Visa, Mizuno, McDonald's, Amway and Kodak lead the giant-signage parade. Coke (here, Diet Coke is ``Coke Light'') offers the ``Coca-Cola Plaza''; next door, at ``Kirin Square 1998,'' a giant beer-can spotlight projects a beam into the sky. Nearby, more permanent neon advertisements adorn the sides of buildings, pulsating with the city's energy.
Some logos are instantly recognizable despite Japanese characters: 7-Eleven's red-and-green stripes pop up in the unlikeliest places. And the McDonald's arches are the usual beacons of familiarity, although Nagano's downtown branch features the ``Teriyaki McBurger'' and a Big Mac with a fried egg on top _ Homer Simpson nirvana.
In the United States, all this oversized advertisementia would be garish. Consider Times Square, or your average suburban strip crowded with the Taco Bell and muffler shop breeds. And yet, superimposed upon the elegant Japanese esthetic, somehow all this consumerist chaos works without being utterly over the top. It manages to exist within the environment, not above it.
Life here is an endless succession of courtesies. Continuous thank-yous and bows. Fruit stores that give you a free apple just for walking in _ and an entire package of tissues when you make a purchase.
Beyond that, it's difficult to discern exactly what makes this place different from many Asian cities. But after a time it becomes clear: Nagano doesn't smell like anything.
Most Asian cities are a bounty of the fragrant and the not-so-fragrant. Nagano's cleanliness eliminates odors, and the Japanese obsession with packaging separates food from consumer with numerous boxes, bubble wraps and the like, preventing the visceral nose experience so typical elsewhere on the continent. No Chinatown hanging-duck smells here.
Oh _ a neglected detail. What, you may ask, is a Snowlet? They are the official Olympic mascots, a quartet of small, owlish cartoon creatures _ Sukki, Nokki, Lekki and Tsukki (not to be confused with Sukki) _ that evoke Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde, those aggressive video-game ghosts of Pac-Man fame.
It's the tyranny of the Snowlets in Nagano these days: To say they've besieged the city might be an understatement. It's a rare store that doesn't have a Snowlet display. Then there's the Snowlets House, a vast emporium of kitsch. Featured among its myriad wares: Snowlets lighters, Snowlets keychains, Snowlets bean cakes and some genuinely intimidating giant stuffed Snowlets. It's more of the consumer juggernaut that's consumed Nagano.
But when the most threatening thing about a dark urban alley is the chance you might slip and fall, and when a local will chase you down to alert you that you've dropped the equivalent of 3 cents, you know you're in a place unlike most others. If nothing else, the Olympics will probably live up to their themes of peace and friendliness on the streets of Nagano.
Just watch out for the giant Snowlets.