Nagano: Not ready for prime time

Eric Gower reports from Nagano, Japan, on the Russian Club, the CBS-embracing priest at Zenkoji temple and other Olympics-related additions to the local scene.

Published January 14, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

NAGANO, Japan -- As the brand-new shinkansen "bullet train" bound for Nagano and built specially for the Olympics leaves the seemingly endless sprawl of faceless buildings, homes and small factories of Tokyo, the stunning mountain vistas that many people will soon associate with Nagano's moment in the world spotlight open up. The $13 billion train deposits me, as it will nearly all athletes and spectators of the Games, in the center of a city that looks disturbingly asleep, given that hundreds of thousands of people are about to descend on the place. The occasional Olympic flag and poster are there, but other than those subtle reminders I could be in any of Japan's regional hubs, with their congested streets of souvenir shops, KFCs, Doutor cafes, liquor stores, local banks and McDonald's.

But one attractively designed neon sign proclaiming "The Russian Club" does pop out at me while I stroll along Nagano's main drag. When I stop to get a better look, a tall, Russian-looking man gestures to me through a sliding window. He is standing in a teeny room surrounded by cardboard boxes filled with Olympic-themed pins. Behind his little box is a bustling restaurant serving "international" food.

"Are you part of the Russian Club?" I ask him.

"You might say that," says Isaac. He speaks with a lilt, an accent faintly familiar but not your typical Russian one. Then it dawns on me: It's Ricky Ricardo's accent! Isaac is a "fairly orthodox" Jewish Cuban who made it to Miami many years ago -- and is now here for the Games. This is his eighth Olympics, all financed by hustling pins.

Isaac considers himself an internationalist, and he is -- a kind of global diplomat of entrepreneurial good will. He showed up in Nagano with exactly the same approach that he's always used: Get to town, stake out a storefront and start giving away pins. With not a word of Japanese to aid him and with no contacts, he showed up. "I came in October and this place was dead," he told me. "Nothing going on. I've got a big load of pins, some cash and that's it. I start in my usual way: being friendly and occasionally giving out pins. People like gifts. It's just a fact about humanity. Pins are perfect little gifts. They're small and portable."

"Anyway," he continued, "before I know it I've given a pin to a sweet old lady in a kimono, who immediately assumed a weird expression of pain, yet she was smiling. She thanked me -- or at least it looked like she was thanking me; I didn't understand a single word she was saying. I walk away and forget about it when I notice her rushing toward me, as fast as it's possible for a really old lady in a kimono to go. She catches up with me, says some more, and hands me -- I am not making this up -- a pair of tweezers! And I'm thinking, What the fuck could that possibly mean? Can you imagine! I guess she just couldn't be given something without absolutely needing to give something back. Anything at all. She was probably cussing to herself that she could only find a pair of tweezers to give me."

A burly Russian man named Sergei interrupts our cackling and chides Isaac in a fatherly yet vaguely thuggish sort of way. "I'm the official attachi of the Russian team," he booms, almost certainly emboldened with several solid rounds of vodka. He declines my request to talk with him about the upstairs Russian Club. "You have to be Russian," he says, and disappears into the music coming from the second floor.

"So that's not the end of the story," Isaac says. "I thank her for the tweezers and go on my way. I'd been walking for a while, and was pretty hungry and needed a break, so I stop at a soba shop. [Note: There are an annoying number of soba shops in Nagano. It really feels as if around 80 percent of the choices of restaurants involve soba noodles eaten cold. I have no idea what the hordes of tourists who will be pouring in here in less than a month will eat besides soba.] You know the waribashi, the wooden disposable chopsticks that you break apart? What happens? The chopsticks give me a nasty splinter, and I immediately remove it with the tweezers! You can't make this kind of thing up."

The restaurant's house musician, a lanky Beatle-mopped kid fiddling with a high-tech-looking bass, comes around. He looks so much like a slightly aged Bud Cort, Harold in "Harold and Maude," that I have to concentrate really hard on not projecting to him that that's what I'm thinking. He looks like he has heard the word "tweezers" just maybe once too often. The Japanese manager -- or owner? -- of the restaurant joins us; he looks extremely happy. Every table is full. Mountains of food are spilling from the tables.

"Yet again life trumps fiction," Isaac says. "So now I have to go back to tell the old lady what just happened. So I head back there, but we've got this pretty major language problem, right? And I'm not sure exactly how I'm gonna convey the story. So as I head toward her place I see a young blond girl, about 20 years old. I really want to ask her to help me out, or at least see if she speaks Japanese, but she's this real doll, see. And I realize I'm no spring chicken -- it's probably been 20 years since I've chatted up chicks her age, so I'm a little nervous. But by this point I really need to tell the old lady the story. So I screw up my courage and approach her, half expecting her to just walk away, but of course she turns out to be fully bilingual, and is happy to accommodate my request. Needless to say, the old lady is floored. A big belly laugh in a kimono, can you imagine! Not the hand-covering-the-mouth little dainty chuckles variety that you see most of the time."

We're alone again in his pin room, with its glass sliding windows and pins displayed in fancy wood-and-glass jewelry display cases, where passersby are inevitably neck-craning to see the display. We are constantly interrupted by young girls asking to inspect the pins. Most of the pins feature the official logo, or some variant of it, or the "snowlets" -- the official mascots that look like a morphed Felix the Cat on acid and whose "poses" are zealously regulated by the Olympic Committee -- with some athletic motif, like an ice skate or a ski. (Coca-Cola -- Isaac's competition -- has a shop exclusively devoted to selling pins in similar motifs, but with "Coca-Cola" written on them.) The people eventually file out.

"So I take a look around the old lady's place and think, well, I could probably use this space as either a warehouse or turn it into a show store," Isaac says. "So I ask the blond to ask her whether she'd be interested in renting it to me. She couldn't possibly do such a thing, the old lady says. It's far too small and dirty. I insist that it's perfect, make her a good offer and she says she'll consult with her family. The next day she finds me and bingo, I've got a space."

Some Russians file past us on their way upstairs. Isaac seems reluctant to talk about the Russian Club, so I thank him for his time and make my way out. I pass a liquor store with a Belgian flag on it. On a lark, I take a quick look to see if they have any Belgian beer. Bang -- Chimay Blue! As I am paying, I ask the woman why she is flying the Belgian flag. "The merchants association decided to do our part by everyone supporting a country other than Japan. Countries were randomly assigned, and I got Belgium."

I pass the we're-supporting-Mexico hardware store and the go-Sweden stationery store and make my way to Zenkoji, Nagano's 1,400-year-old Buddhist temple that is easily the city's biggest tourist attraction.

Takakazu Fukushima isn't your run-of-the-mill Buddhist priest. Armed with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan, he gave up his professorship at a prestigious university in Yokohama when he heard that Nagano had been selected as the site for the '98 Games. Nagano is his hometown, and he returned to fulfill his obligation as eldest son to become a priest like his father (who had encouraged him to do so after he retired from teaching, not at the peak of his career). He was attracted to Zenkoji's nonsectarian stance; it is the only major "nonaligned" temple in Japan -- virtually all are affiliated with a sect of Buddhism, such as Zen, Shingon, Jodo or Tendai.

The first thing one notices about Zenkoji is probably the famed main temple, but the CBS building right next to it runs a close second. I ask Fukushima-san what in the world possessed them to allow the network to slap up a building next to one of Japan's national treasures. "It's a great thing," he says. "We were very excited when they approached us with the idea. They understand the concept of culture much better than does the organizing committee. Zenkoji will be the center of the world for a short while. They couldn't have picked a better spot. The Olympics fit in well with our philosophy here."

Fukushima-san has an intense presence: He somehow manages a burning stare with laughing eyes, and has a tendency to guffaw when making his points. I ask him how he feels about how the Games have been managed so far, but he wants to know my first impressions first. I say that I have just arrived, and that I haven't seen or felt any of the "Olympic fever" that I had imagined would be in the streets, with the Games just a month away. It's difficult to tell that such a big event is in the making, I say.

"Exactly!" he says. "There's almost no consciousness among local people. Most of the merchants were naturally hoping to profit off the events. Who wouldn't? Why else have them, from their perspective? Japan's 'glory' Olympics were the Summer Games of 1964. We had just risen from the ashes of the war, the economy was growing at a dizzying pace, we had built the fastest train in the world; we wanted to show the world what we'd accomplished in such a short span. We were genuinely proud of how far we'd come.

"The reason you don't see much going on in the streets is that the organizing committee has pretty much denied them the right to use the official emblem unless they become paying sponsors. They're expected to be enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Games, but they can't muster much up. They are expected to be happy with all the new roads and the new shinkansen.

"NAOC [the official acronym for the Organizing Committee for the XVIII Olympic Winter Games, Nagano 1998] and the prefecture of Nagano spent a massive amount of money on bringing the Games here. But no one knows exactly how much, because, as it turned out in an investigation in the Nagano prefectural congress, NAOC officials 'lost' all the receipts. No official record exists on how much was spent."

NAOC expected the entire show to be a profit machine, but, according to Fukushima, locals saw little, if any, of the money. Virtually all construction contracts -- shinkansen, roads, bridges -- went to Tokyo construction companies. Most industries in Japan form hierarchies; the bigger, older and more prestigious firms tend to be awarded the most business not because they are necessarily the most cost efficient, but because they carry the most clout. Nagano construction companies do not figure high on this list. "The only local people involved in much of the construction were the guys that reroute traffic with flashlights and flags," Fukushima says.

Any enterprise the size and scale of the Olympics is bound to make lots of people unhappy about the way things are handled. But it will in all likelihood be hard to find fault with the mechanics of how things are run starting Feb. 7. The country's obsession with order, organization and avoidance of chaos has a long and distinguished history, and it is bound to serve Nagano well during the Games. The one potential glitch -- gridlock on the country roads -- has been mercilessly planned for, with all kinds of high-tech traffic management and parking systems now in place. State-of-the-art iris scanners, fingerprint identity systems, bar-code ID readers and other technologies will help minimize security risks. Very high resolution giant screen displays installed at every venue and microphones embedded in the snow and ice promise a richer sensory experience than in previous Games. Seiji Ozawa will conduct a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 during the opening ceremonies, broadcast live on five continents and linked via satellite, complete with a time-lag adjusting mechanism designed to overcome time-delay problems.

The '98 Games won't do for Japan what the '64 Games did -- the country's first-world status has long been confirmed. But maybe we don't need such big goals anymore; it will still be a blast. I'm told that the Russian Club will play host to some serious parties -- if I could only figure out a way to get in there.

By Eric Gower

Eric Gower is a writer who lives in Kanagawa, Japan.

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