I have a few tips for the aspiring Nagano traveler. No. 1: It is imperative that you learn fluent Japanese because, it is important to remember, even the designated English-speaking people here have only the most cursory and remedial grip on the language, so when you say things like, "If you don't help me find the right shuttle bus, first I'm going to kill you and then I'm going to kill myself," they invariably say, "OK! Thank you."
The men's giant slalom tipped me off to this, more clearly than ever before.
In order to get to Nagano from Sakudaira, the locale of our little non-English-speaking hotel, you must first take a taxi to the train station, then take the astonishing Shinkansen, the swan's-head-shaped bullet train. The bullet train is always exactly on time, and very comfortable when you can sit down, but lately there are so many legions of folk pouring into Nagano from Tokyo, there is invariably nowhere to sit and the train is wall-to-wall people with huge shoulder bags. Still, the ride is smooth, and over in about 20 minutes. From Nagano Station yesterday, I walked three minutes to the shuttle bus station for a ride up the mountain for the ski event. At the shuttle bus ticket counter I was informed that there was no shuttle bus; I would need to take a wholly different train, one down under the Nagano station. My rail pass was invalid on this line, and therefore the ride would cost me 2,000 yen, ensuing shuttle bus ride not included.
So I went down into the train station, where there was no information in English whatsoever. I finally found a sign that said something like "Men's Skiing" and went to that window, where the kindly ticket seller tried to painstakingly explain to me where I needed to go, in Japanese. There's a lot of that on both ends -- me and whoever I'm talking to saying very slowly and carefully whatever it is we're trying to get across, as if clarity was the key to a totally foreign language. Maybe one of us will understand, both of us think, if I enunciate PER-fectly.
I did end up on a little train that wound through the feet of the Alps for a half hour, through strange, poor little parts of town with rusty old swing sets in the backyards. An older Japanese couple could see I was confused and took pity on me. "Olympics?" they asked. I said "Hai!" which means yes. They motioned for me to follow them when I got off the train.
From the train, we were directed to walk five minutes to a parking lot, where shuttle buses would take us to the event. The bus drivers looked at our tickets and said, "OK!" and we got on. There was a fabulous and astonishing view, which stretched all the way to New Zealand, it seemed. The sun was sharp and snow was melting off of the trees and falling in great bright boulders off the boughs. We were taken to what appeared to be an expensive ski resort area and dropped off at the foot of a large slalom course, where we were instructed to walk five minutes uphill to the finish line to spectate. When I arrived at the security gate, the English-designated girls looked at my ticket and apologetically said, "This ticket no good. This for men slalom."
"This isn't the men's slalom?"
"How do I get to the men's slalom?"
"Shuttle bus. Fifteen minute."
OK. A mistake. I still had time to see most of the race. So, I went back to the parking lot. I asked the English speaker there how to get to the men's slalom event.
"Oooooh," she said. "Moment."
After five minutes of panicky conference with several of her other security team members, she came back.
"You can take local bus, but it cost money."
That's when I started acting more American.
"Wait! I just paid to get on the wrong bus! No!"
She got a cop to sneak me into the back of the local bus, which was filled entirely with Japanese resort-goers in incredibly expensive and complicated fluorescent ski wear, and their skis, tangled like pick-up sticks all through the aisle. The bus went about 20 feet and I chickened out -- I knew that there would be NO English spoken on this bus, and I figured I'd be better off with the people with the arm bands. So I bailed as soon as it stopped.
When I got out, it was clear that there were several other people with my problem, shuffling around, confused.
After many arguments between the security team and another bus driver, we were finally allowed on a different bus. This guy was going to take us to the men's slalom event. OK.
We got to the foot of another slalom course and everybody anticipated getting off the bus, but for some reason, the bus driver didn't think so. He didn't want to open the doors. There was an argument with him in Japanese, and then a moment when all of the other displaced slalom-seekers and I finally mutinied, and got off the bus with him yelling at us disgustedly.
OK. We're at the event.
When I got to the security gate, the women with the arm bands told me, "You need to walk, 20 minute," and pointed down the hill.
"Is there another way?" I asked.
"Oh! Yes. Gondora." A gondola! Cool. I got all hot for the view.
"How do I get to the gondola?"
"You walk, 20 minute," they said, and pointed to the right. I thanked them and set out by myself toward the right. I had left Nagano station at 11 -- it was now 2; the race was beginning. I walked, totally alone, on this wild mountain road, through a long slushy tunnel with slit windows, musing that I would get lost and end up freezing for days, eating some fallen Slovenian tourist for sustenance until the helicopters found me.
Twenty minutes later I found, by following the herds of identically clad Japanese ski resort students, the gondola.
"You have?" asked the person running the gondola, pointing to a coveted media/athlete all-access badge that he wore around his neck.
"Uh, no," I said, worried he'd make me walk back to where I had just come from.
"OK," he said, and waved me through. The gondola ride was fantastic, like sitting in a little Willy Wonka plexiglass egg for 10 minutes, high over the world. I could see the event taking place miles below, with spectators like neon confetti all over the mountain face. I was sorry when it ended. "How do I get to the race?" I asked, when I got out of the gondola.
"You walk 10 minute," said the girl in the arm band.
I nearly started crying.
"Only 10 minute!" she said, and indicated a kind of path at her left. I started walking. I shortly realized that she had pointed me down a ski slope when a dozen or so people started skiing past me at breakneck speeds. I inched my way down the hill, carefully. I was on such a strange part of the mountain that I seemed to be completely alone whenever the skiers vanished past me around a corner. The dripping trees were arched over my head and I was crunching down the white path, half expecting to see Ichabod Crane come careening past in a stagecoach, pursued by the Headless Horseman.
Ten minutes later I was standing (sort of) next to the men's slalom race! There were no seats, no water, no restrooms. I stuck my coat into a pile of snow and sat on it. I could hear a loudspeaker, announcing the next athlete in Japanese. Then the fans' three-note kazoos started blowing, a sure indication that another skier was starting down the course. (After a while, you hear those three-note horns all the time, even when you're sleeping. They are like trying to get rid of the feel of the sea in your knees after you've been on a boat all day, or the ring in your head after a rock concert.) Sure enough: zop! I saw a fluorescent orange blur move by at 105 miles an hour. A slalomist! Wow.
Five minutes later I saw another blur, this time hot pink!
Another, zhip! Yellow, accompanied by lots of announcements in Japanese about who the blurs were, what country they represented. I looked at my watch -- 3:15. There was still another 45 minutes of the race, but I realized, with cold, grim certainty, that if I didn't leave right then, I would get stuck in the crowds and remain foodless on the mountain until 8 or 9 p.m. There was no question.
I was allowed to go down that part of the hill on a ski lift, another peak moment for incredible views of white mountains and tall trees and valleys below melting into prismic rivers. When I got off the ski lift, nobody knew where the shuttle bus was. There were no signs anywhere.
Two hours later, I was back in Nagano, exhausted at a restaurant. I want to reprint this page of the Japanese/English menu for you, exactly, spelling and all, 100 percent true:
KURAGE SU - Vinegared jelleyfish
AYU MISOZUKE - A Raw Riverfish that is soaked in miso for two months.
INAGO - Locusts wok-fried in sweet "soy" mixture
HACHI NOKO - Bee larva wok-fried in sweet "soy" mixture
BASASHI - Sliced raw horse
IKAWATA - Squid Internal Guts (a little difficult for the unnaccustomed)