Arigato, Nagano

In her Olympic farewell, Cintra Wilson wallows in weird TV, moons the ski slopes and finds the big heart of Japan

By Cintra Wilson
February 25, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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Saturday, Feb. 21: I used my last set of tickets yesterday, for the bronze medal hockey event. This turned out to be a match between my old pals, the Canadian team, and upstart Finland. Finland clearly had the superior chi in this game. Canada had slowed way down; they were somnambulant and clearly depressed, they'd had enough of Japan and the Olympics, and even with Lord Gretzky, they didn't seem to be doing anybody any good, least of all themselves.

Finland was a bunch of rogue mongrels with nothing to lose; nobody expected them to win a medal at all, and the thought of kicking ass over famously important Canada obviously had them jacked up out of their skulls for a crazed, adrenal cockfight. Canada rolled over like a sick lion and let the smaller animal humiliate it. In the past 10 days, I've watched more hockey than I have in my entire life before (or probably ever will again), and while the finer points of the game finally became clear to me (the Kafkaesque mystery of the penalty box, the little red and green Christmas lights over the goal), I still found myself wishing, John Watersesquely, for more violence.


Every time Finland's No. 24, Sami Kapanen, started scowling and rassling with Canada's No. 27, a Mr. Shayne Corson, I kind of woke up and got involved. The high points of the game for me remained the shoving and mad-dogging at the boards and the swatting and tripping with sticks, the teeth spit out into gloves and the guys going fetal with pain in the corner. All the art is in the brawls and injuries. Everything else just seems like so much overrehearsed skill and luck.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Russia and the Czech Republic, who played each other for the gold medal, and then you have the extra added bonus of hateful political tensions. As I was running into the Finland-Canada hockey game, a TV cameraman ran up to me with a sign written out in English that said, "Who do you think will win? Russia/Czech Republic?"


I said, "Hmm. It's hard to say, both are very strong teams, but I personally favor the Russians because they're uglier!" The news team sort of laughed nervously. I don't think I got on TV.

All hockey games in the world should adopt Japanese speed-metal music for the face-offs. It features a bunch of Biohazard-style electric guitars and a group of Japanese guys yelling, "Face-OH! Face-OH! Face-OH!"

This needlessly aggressive power rock nicely counterbalanced the preschool routine, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands (clap-clap)," whose 4-and-under charms apparently made the most sense to the Swedish fans, who learned all of the lyrics in Swedish and howled them out drunkenly from under shoulder-length blond wigs.


Above: Czech Republic star Jaromir Jagr lies injured during his team's first game against Russia on Feb. 16. The Russians won that game, but the Czechs won the gold medal with a 1-0 win over Russia Saturday.

I overheard one of the professional scalpers talking to his girlfriend in a restaurant last night.


Her: So wait, no really, you can't be doing that badly, you just bought a $35,000 car.

Him: Lemme see ... I dunno, I got about a hundred thousand in a retirement fund, I got fifty stashed in other places, I got about eighty on me ... I guess I'm worth about $300,000 right now ...

Her: Then how come you never pay for dinner?


There are few things I will miss about Japan as much as the totally bizarre late-night TV, featuring stuff like "The Convoy Show," 11 orgiastically enthusiastic men in their late 20s, sort of like an elderly New Kids on the Block, who perform poorly synchronized Kung Fu-style solid gold dancing in matching leisure suits while lip-synching songs like "Love Phantom" with cordless microphones. Sometimes they even do it in Jolson-style blackface. Then they stand around after the big dance numbers and give humorous interviews about themselves, while sweating, to giggling show-host women in long skirts. This happens three or four times in a half-hour.

I also love the weird craft shows, featuring older Japanese matrons painstakingly gluing beads to eggs and the audience clapping softly and saying, "Ahhhh."

Today being my last day, and myself being ticketless, I'm going to try to make it over to Nozawa Onsen, the hot-spring public bath zone, and soak away some of the Japanese stress I picked up here -- regardless of the fact that all of the Nagano citizens politely wear little white surgical masks strapped to their faces when they are feeling contagious.


"I'm sick of Tokyo, sick sick sick of it," said an Amway rep I shared a cab with on the way back from the bronze medal game. "I've spent 33 years here. I grew up here. I've been working here for 15 years. I still can't get a bank loan. I was born here, and they won't give me a passport. Thirty-three years, and they still treat me like an alien."

I'm feeling a bit ready to go home myself.

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Sunday, Feb. 22: Well, that was it, the last day. The Czechs beat the Russians, and all was right in the world of singing plastic clocks and people who don't speak English. Everybody knew that the Czechs had to win, the same way that Bambi has to have a happy ending after his mother dies in the forest fire. Win they did, and the plucky Czechs all dogpiled on heroic goalie Dominik Hasek.


Since I had swapped my ticket for the Closing Ceremonies, I decided to take a little trip to Nozawa Onsen, the site of the biathlon events that kept getting canceled. This is a place famous for its hot springs, so I opted for one of the spring-fueled public baths and spent an hour with a small group of naked Japanese women sitting on tiny plastic benches, soaping up with washcloths folded on their heads. The women there ranged in age from 13 months to 75 years, with a healthy dose of high school girls in between. It was one of the sweetest community things I've ever seen: old women scrubbing the backs of young women, young women scrubbing the backs of babies. The water was unbelievably hot in both the inside pool and the outside pool, but the outside pool had the extra fun touch of being outside in the 35-degree weather, with a keen, unobstructed view of the ski slopes, which I realized with some amusement also meant the ski slopes had an unobstructed view of my naked white ass.

Getting to the onsen, I had a real taste of Japanese hospitality at its most magnanimous and kind. A little businessman I had asked directions from on the train came to the information booth at the station with me and found out that there was a public bath near where he was going. He took me there in a cab, refused money, walked me into the bath, paid for my towel and asked the attendant to call a taxi for me when I was finished. He wouldn't think of accepting money from me. There was nothing funky or weird or lecherous about it. He just helped me and treated me because he was a solid citizen. You get little tastes of this in Japan, every now and then.

Yesterday I went to the Zenkoji Temple, which has become, essentially, an enormous souvenir stand, but there are parts of it that still give you the reverent collywobbles. You pay 100 yen (80 cents) and buy a small handful of incense, which you then throw into a big vat along with everybody else's incense. This is a sacred brass vat, and the Buddhists stand in front of it scooping the smoke out with their hands and rubbing it into their heads and faces. It leaves you nicely electromagnetically stoned afterwards, this smoke-bath, the way a mountain hike or a hot spring will. Japan is privy to these mysterious therapeutic secrets. Then you walk back out into the world and louse up your buzz all over again with the enormous crowds in front of the Kodak stand and the breakneck competition for a seat at the soba counter.


I watched the last half of the enormous Closing Ceremonies in the big hotel, surrounded by the great scalper exodus: all the greasy jerkwater mulletheads going back home in their NHL Starter jackets, thousands of dollars richer in some cases. The ceremony was full of pomp yet oddly moving: a whole stadium full of people with little illuminated lanterns, watching the token military official fold the Olympic flag, teenagers looking like they were having a genuinely good time, a massive fireworks display. A Japanese guy next to me was translating what the clown/emcee guy was saying: Roughly paraphrased, he would shout to the audience of adorable young people, "What place do you come from?" and they would shout back, "The earth," in Japanese. This was the prevailing vibe that came across these Olympics. There was a big generosity of Japanese heart these last two weeks, which came across despite the logistical fuck-ups and/or the profound language barrier -- all their childlike goofiness and kooky good will added up to a touchingly sweet job of hosting the world. Domo arigato, Japan.

I am a nervous flier, so all day the other day I was looking for a small rabbit as a lucky charm. Don't ask; I just feel more spiritually comfortable if there's a rabbit around. I couldn't find one suitable for my purposes, so I gave up the hunt. That night, in a little shop, when I was eating my grilled eel, an old Japanese man ran up to me and said, "Please, take," and ran away before I could thank him. It was an origami rabbit he had folded himself, with a little face he'd drawn on. He'll never know what it meant to me.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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