Higher! Faster! Wetter!

Gary Kamiya reports live -- barely -- from the XVIII Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan

Published January 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Sunday, Feb. 8, 5:27 p.m.: I have descended, with some urgency, into this little subterranean beer-and-noodle grotto one block from the Nagano train station. A sullen waitress brings me a sake as three vaguely disreputable-looking middle-aged men across the room, all of them with oddly identical stringy hair, argue about something I'll never know. Speed skaters roar across the ice on the TV. Outside, Olympics mania has hit with full, carnival force. Terrible lounge music is blaring in the big train station lobby, hordes of people mill down the main drag, Chuo-dori, and across all this big, unglamorous city hundreds of frighteningly perfect teenage girls in garish promotional booths and matching, flaming-red pit-crew uniforms are trilling the virtues of Coca-Cola.

There are also some athletic events taking place, although I have lost track of exactly what they are. But I have no time to find out, because I have to meet my father at the Aqua Wing arena in two hours and 18 minutes, and because I and 1,200 other people were stuck on the Hakuba mountain for three hours in a driving snowstorm waiting for buses back to Nagano after they canceled the men's downhill, I have fallen somewhat behind my writing schedule -- which is to say, I have written no actual words yet. Owing to the strange vicissitudes of transportation here, I won't be getting back to my distant, weird hotel until close to midnight, at which point even the hot little cans of Jive coffee from the vending machine down the hall may be unable to elicit a squeak from my rubbery brain.

I have just decided to scrap the first-visit-to-my-semi-genetic-homeland angle and the traveling-with-my-72-year-old-Japanese-American-father angle in favor of a fantasy about the enforced public suicide of the man in charge of the Nagano shuttle buses when I become aware that the sour-faced waitress is standing over me and saying something -- and from the tone of her voice, I don't think she's inquiring if the sake is to my liking. My Japanese is limited to "Hai!" -- which, conveniently, is also a common greeting in English -- but I distinctly recognize the characteristic cadences of the 86. Yes, Harridan-san is giving me the bum's rush, a practice universal among all peoples and cultures -- and she isn't leavening it with that fabled Japanese politeness, either. I blink uncomprehendingly at her, hoping that the piteous old deer-in-the-headlights, "non-comprendo" act will save me from being kicked out to wander the mean streets of central Nagano as my deadline expires, but she turns angrily and repeats her harangue to a young couple, who translate my doom. "She says you can't just sit there and study -- you have to pick up a menu or leave," the woman says, embarrassed.

"I can't just drink sake?" I ask.

This word apparently catches the attention of one of the Lanky-haired Gang, who turns and half-raises his beer glass to me with a piratical grin. But this vague show of support from the patronage doesn't bend Ms. Eat or Walk, who keeps giving me the evil eye. I quaff the sake, stumble to my feet and get the bill -- 600 yen, five bucks, with an extra buck thrown in for that lovely gram of nameless pickled-vegetable goop that is such an endearing mandatory-hors-d'oeuvres feature of culinary life here.

I walk around for a few minutes and end up in a McDonald's clone called Lotteria in an upstairs arcade next to the train station, a brightly lit joint filled with teenage girls eating tiny hamburgers and smoking cigarettes -- it's too plastic a place to throw me out. The sweet counter-girl -- they're all sweet here, everybody, station masters going off shift are taking five minutes and walking 200 yards out of their way to help my dad figure out what train to take, policemen are shaking our hands after they give us directions, which is why the nasty restaurant woman threw me for such a loop -- hands me my coffee and points in what I think is a meaningful way to a straw which she places on my tray, on which the word "Lotteria" is printed. No doubt it's some odd Japanese candy-straw, I think, maybe with a lottery number somehow concealed in it. I wonder what you win? After a few minutes, I bite off the end and suck it. It contains white granulated sugar. I furtively put the straw down and bury my head in my notebook.

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An hour and a half later, as I wander through the station trying to figure
out what line to take to Aqua Wing, I realize that the super-fast
Shinkansen train my father will be taking from Saku, the deservedly
uncelebrated town 30 miles out of Nagano where we're staying, has just
rocketed in. I hurry to the exit turnstiles and spot the old man in the
crowds -- I feel a small twinge of joy at seeing his familiar husky figure,
a little more stooped now, in this crowd of strangers halfway across the
world. We walk our old easy father-son way through deserted streets with
colored lights strung above them lighting the way toward the Aqua Wing. The
effect is magical, like an exterior scene in an Ozu movie.

The calm, waving lanterns reflect my own equanimity, which has been
sneaking upon me in a way that surprises me. Every day, something strange
and disastrous has happened, but I don't seem to mind. The shuttle bus
debacle was nothing compared to our Tokyo fiasco on Friday, when Dad and I
took the train to the ultimate endless beast of all cities to visit one of
our last surviving Japanese relatives, 80-year-old Emiko. She told us to
meet her outside one of Tokyo's biggest train stations, the apocalyptically
vast Shinjuku Station, and we ended up standing for hours in what seemed to
be Tokyo's only pool of bum piss, looking for her all afternoon long as the
light dropped behind the neon-drenched modernist buildings and an endless
sea of cars and faces, all of them endlessly and exhaustingly fascinating
to me and none of them hers, went past, and we ended up getting back on the
train and returning to Saku.

But that, and every other mishap we've endured -- like the fact that we
have to leave hockey games midway through the third period to catch the
last train home -- has just been a picturesque bend in the road. Chalk it
up to traveling: When you really leave (which doesn't happen every time),
it puts you outside yourself, lets you watch your own story. No matter how
far you fall, when you land you're still in a novel you don't want to stop
reading. You're forced to pay so much attention to every moment -- do I
turn left here? what does that word mean? who am I? -- that life suddenly
becomes as serious and devoid of weight as it's supposed to be.

Maybe, too, it's the Olympics. The Games are a two-week-long drama, an epic
with a dozen new endings every day, and its story is written by the
athletes who come here from around the world for the greatest prize in
sport. That prize is not a place in the record books, or a
multi-million-dollar contract. It is to be a small black-and-red figure on
an amphora that lives forever -- "Man Running," "Woman Jumping." We
celebrate the victories of athletes, and have since the days of the Greeks,
because the great deeds of the body imitate, and are not separate from,
other human striving. Behind the corporate sponsors and the jingoism, that
sense of comradely competition still lives, and even if you don't know
anything about skiing, or biathlon, you can feel it and be moved by it.

I haven't seen much yet -- only preliminary hockey matches, the men's
involving cannon-fodder teams (Kazakhstan, Italy, Germany and Japan) that
will be quickly devoured by powerhouses like Canada and the U.S., and the
women's mismatch between China and the vastly superior U.S. Those stories
will build in interest as the Games progress. But you could feel it on Mt.
Hakuba, as the crowd waited for the downhillers to begin their breathtaking
drop-dead speed rush down the mountain. There were Austrians there, and
English and Canadians and Japanese, all waving their flags and cheering for
their countries, but it was an innocent nationalism, friendly, without
rancor. On the ground, the spirit of sportsmanship, of genuine enjoyment of
the contest, is apparent in a way it isn't when watching the Games on TV,
where the plastic parochialism of the announcers distorts it.

A Berkeley boy, I was raised to abhor every manifestation of patriotism,
from the Pledge of Allegiance to the national anthem, but if I'd had a flag
on Mt. Hakuba, I would have happily waved it. To cheer your tribe, here, is
to cheer all tribes, to acknowledge their commonality. The Opening
Ceremonies, which we watched on TV from lounge couches in a swanky Nagano
hotel, were corny yet oddly moving for the same reason: The Olympics are
the only occasion on which we affirm that we are all members of the human

And then there is Japan. I still have trouble believing I'm here, and an
even harder time figuring out what this place should mean to me -- if
anything. There's no question it is a strange place, radically different
from any country I've ever been in, yet at moments it seems oddly familiar,
as if some archetypal memory were stirring within me, or I was having a
glimpse of a parallel life I could have had. Or perhaps it's just that I've
imagined it for so long that my dreams are confused with the shapes I
actually see.

My father, of course, is the perfect guide. A Nisei (second-generation
Japanese-American), he still speaks enough of the language he learned as a
child to confuse and intrigue the natives. Being of a decidedly
non-sentimental disposition, he doesn't mythologize the Old Country, but
neither does he disparage it. He is a bridge, however tenuous, to this
place that I simply wouldn't have otherwise. I'm glad that I have a chance
to see it with him.

While we spectators were all standing stoically in the falling snow today
-- no one complained a bit -- a young Japanese man saw me writing in my
notebook and asked if I was a writer. His father, he explained, was a
writer, and he wanted to send me his novel. We all introduced ourselves --
the father, mother and son were all teachers, living in a town near Tokyo
-- and after the bus finally came and took us down off the mountain, they
asked me to have lunch with them. I didn't really have time, but I made
time. We stopped into a little soba joint and talked about this and that as
we ate noodles and drank beer. They were kind, and they seemed happy. I
don't know much about Japan, but I know more today than I did yesterday.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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