Japan 9 : Mothballs
Early morning in Nagano brought a choice: I was there for that day and then the next, and then it was off to Nagoya for a day. Do I spend all of the middle day in the former 1998 Winter Olympics city, or move along to the next place on the schedule. While deciding, I unstuck my various bits of clothing from each other and sent a laundry bag off - the first one since arriving in Japan - and went to an Internet Cafe.
The internet sites I'd glanced at were not kind to Nagoya, referring to it as a place you could safely leave off the list. However, my trusty book did list a few spots you might want to go to if there, so I was undecided.
The tourist office was closed, and wouldnt open for a couple of hours. Since that would waste precious hours, I decided to go for the attractions first. Nagano has two main attractions, one new and one old. The first, Zenko-ji Temple, is at the north end of the city at the far end of Chuo-dori, the long road I'd been up the evening before. It's one of Japans' most famous Buddhist temples, reported to contain one of the first golden Bhuddist statues brought to Japan, and a major pilgrimage site. At the south of the city lies the other main attraction: the M-Wave Arena, a huge indoor stadium that hosted the speed-skating part of the Winter Olympics 10 years previous, and now doubles as a museum to comemmorate the event.
On a coin toss, I decided to head north first. Zenko-ji temple was a 15-minute walk up the road, which became increasingly traditional-looking as it went up the hill. Either side, the buildings turned from flashy commercial glass houses with neon signs (with the odd shrine located on the back streets) to a mixture of older pre-war western-style buildings and Edo-period (or Edo-style) houses. Even the roads and pavements changed to a cobbled surface to let you know you were getting close.
Zenko-ji temple is guarded by twin gates. The first one, Niōmon, is at the end of the final section of Chuo-dori, where the main slew of traffic is diverted to the left, and the road becomes a quarter mile of paving flanked by some of the most well-kept and poshest residential buildings I had seen in the country. Approaching Niōmon itself, the first thing you see after the hugeness of it is the recesses on either side, each of which contain a large sculpture of a Deva guardian, whose purpose is to scare off non-believers and enemies of Buddhism. After quickly heading left and praying to the shrine of Totoro and assorted soft toys, my Buddhist credentials were in place and I went through.
On the intermediate road between Niōmon and the next gate, is the equivalent of Blackpool front. Shop after shop of trinkets and souvineers, each filled and surrounded by dozens of tourists, fingering the plastic necklaces, dried fish and miniature cats-with-bells-on-them. Resisting the urge to indulge for the moment I pressed on to the second gate, Sanmon, which was even larger and more impressive than the first. A huge twin-roofed structure, you could easily mistake it for a building in itself. It had just recently gone through a 5-year facelift and looked pretty damn good for it.
Once inside the inner area, it opens out to a square, with an area to the left containing several smaller temples, including the Kyōzō shrine, containing a giant octagonal stand which you can revolve to show all the different sutras, Buddhist scriptures said to be records of the teachings of the guy himself. Surrounding the area are a number of smaller temples, more Buddhist statues, shrines and a couple of sympathetically-designed souvineer shops, all kept absolutely pristine as if they had just been made. A guy was outside at the time gently filling in a crack in the road with cement it seemed barely a second after it appeared. It was clear that I was in a very highly-respected place. The surroundings of the shrine were suitably palatial - a moat containing koi and some stone turtles, immaculately carved statues and beautiful architecture. Some of the internal decor was gorgeous.
As I approached, the centre of the main square became increasingly smoky. This was due to a giant pot of insense burning away constantly, watched over by a row of Buddhist statues known as the Rokujizō. Resisting the urge to hack my guts up, I did as many others were doing; walking up to it, stroking it and rubbing the smoke over themselves in the hope of good health and fortune for the day. The high-priestess occasionally came out to perform ceremonies in front of the burner, but unfortunately way too early in the morning for me to catch. Maybe next time.
The main temple itself was another shoes-off affair. As you went in, smiling but stern temple minders pointed politely at the no-camera signs, and it was clear from looking inside why they wanted to keep it unphotographed. The centre of the temple housed the dwellings of a god amongst men; more huge golden sutra stands suspended from the ceiling joined with hundreds of other ornaments both on the ceiling and floor, some gold, others laquered wood or polished stone. All this was housed within an area covered with cushioned tatami flooring which you could stand around, but not on. Behind this area was the site of a strange ritual, taken on by almost all visitors. After paying at an out-of-place electronic ticket machine, I was allowed to descend a set of stairs that led to a low, narrow tunnel underneath the palatial area, which twisted and turned at right-angles in complete darkness. The idea was that somewhere within the tunnel hung a key, and if you were to find it and touch it, eternal riches would be yours. Eventually, after a lot of bumping around into wooden posts and other people (but no keys), I emerged at the stairs of the exit which put me back at the start, and since my feet were now freezing cold, I passed on the opportunity to go around again.
Since I'd been through most of the temple buildings by this point, I had gotten a bout of temple overload, and almost craved the prospect of scrabbling through a few hundred trinkets of various shapes and sizes in the far more familiar consumerist society that I am used to. Flitting back and forth across the street between places selling as many necklaces as you could imagine, and then more than that, I finally alighted on a nice one for a certain Ms. Plants, plus a nice hefty 4GB SD card from a nearby camera shop. Since it was heading towards mid-afternoon, it was time to head back southwards again.
On the way, I decided to try my hand at using the ATMs once again. So far, I had seen very few card machines around Japan, and those few that I had tried were not very appreciative of my foreign status, spitting the card back out again and telling me where I should put it. However, passing a faux-Edo period Post Office building and remembering hearing that post offices had special machines, I thought I would have one more go, not least because the coffers were getting a little low. I wasn't quite prepared for what they had; pushed away in a corner of the entrance were two leviathans that resembled some sort of textile loom more than a cash machine. Thankfully, the little touch-sensitive screen had a big button marked 'English' and upon pressing, it literally talked me through it. I was briefly disheartened when it failed to display my current balance, but it did allow withdrawls, and soon the yen were being enthusiastically spit out at me.
So theres a tip I should share: if in Japan, always make sure you know where the post offices are. Some businesses will accept your (visa) card, but only if it has been enabled for foreign use, (which mine sort of had, though it was a bit of a stickler the first time I needed to use it). Japan, despite its status as a thoroughly modern country, still favours good old-fashioned folding rather than cards.
A little peckish, and not wanting another curry, I stopped off at the first place that looked like it served authentic Japanese cuisine. Fujikan looked pretty good, and after reading up on various Soba-based foodstuffs I decided that it would be the thing to try. Unfortunately, I got mixed up with the contents of the menu cross-referenced with the contents of my phrase book, and ended up with.. Beef Curry.
After finishing my meal, I headed back down the hill in the light of the afternoon sun, popped into the all-encompasing internet cafe once more, and finally got accommodation for Nagoya and Kyoto after about an hour of waiting at the packed tourist office. Both places were a bit on the pricy side compared to what I was used to at this point (6-7000 yen per night, or about 30-35 quid), but they were in the middle of each city and at such short notice I couldn't be anything more than grateful.
Now came the daunting part: Getting to the M-Wave Arena. By bus. This was the first time I was going by Japanese bus, and I was not understanding of the etiquette. Finding the stand took long enough, and once again I was reliant on the kindness of strangers; this time a young mother with two hyperactive children to take care of. Once on the bus, I was given a few hand signals by fellow passengers about what to do, which eventually I got the hang of after several such trips.
For those who may have to ride a Japanese bus (or tram), here is the way it works: When you get on (at the rear) you get a ticket with a number on it. That corresponds to one of the numbers on a big board at the front of the bus, where each number has a little LCD readout under it. As the bus goes between stops, the values under each number increase, and the price you pay is the amount under your number when you get off. To pay, you put your coins into a funnel atop a machine next to the driver. The machine also provides change for 500yen coins using the slot on the top. If in doubt, the driver will usually lend a hand at the stop.
After several nervous scans, I eventually arrived at the stop listed on my little piece of paper (fortunately like the train stations, bus stops usually have english translations on them too) and got off. I was in the south of Nagano, and it couldn't have been more different. Reflecting the type of attraction I was heading towards, this was a much more modern environment; wide roads, car lots, and american-style sidewalk shops and cafes. My goal was over the road and hard to miss, but looking at the time it was 4.45 and getting pretty late. Rushing over and scanning the area, it was not apparent how you actually got in; the side of the building showed off the impressive curved roof, and the front sloped down in a '1970s Bond Villan hideout' set of angular concrete pillars and shapes. Looking round for the entrance, and now a little panicked I may be too late or out of season, I took a stab at one of the Goldeneye-styled passageways through the concrete lair. The passageway acted like a wind tunnel and searingly cold air was blowing through, unheated by the lack of sun getting in. It took a little while for me to realise that the walls of the passage were made up of thousands of little tiles, each of them naming an athelete taking part that year.
Finally, and by fluke, I headed down some steps and found myself in front of some glass doors. Despite not seeing a single person yet, the doors swished open as I got near, and I was greeted by a lady who clearly was happy to see a paying punter. The place was empty. Really empty. The first thing she did was usher me into a film room, where the opening and closing ceremonies were being played on a 3D projector screen in front of me. Happy for a sit down for a while, I adorned my dusty 3D specs and watched as the various small children of the ceremony leaped about in front of me. Torches were lit, spotlights flashed and focused on different areas of the arena, and some sort of story of Nagano and the olympics was played out via the medium of dance. It was all very nice, and when it all went dark at the end, it was a little sad. Now, opening before me was the museum dedicated to the memory of the olympics, which was all that was left of a time of newness and excitement and hope. The place was deserted, smelt of mothballs, and some of the exhibits using the 'latest Windows 98 computers' were showing blue screens of death or other such disabilities. As I went round, the dusty remainders paved the way to the entrance to the indoor stadium itself, the cheering of the spectators still ringing in my ears from the video. It was now mostly silent, and as I climbed the stairs up to the higher seating areas the only signs of life now were a few people mulling about on the rink below, which had been drained of ice and water, and had just finished being the site of a car show. A few surviving olympic mascots - a quad of giant furry owls - sat in one of the corners. Sad and dejected, they were shadows of their former selves.
The final nail in the coffin of the memory of the olympics was the souvineer shop at the end, where the curators were still trying to sell off stocks of T-shirts, badges and books at silly prices. It made me glad to get out of there (this time by the now-obvious proper exit).
By now, the light was fading, and the bus I rode back on spent an hour or so in terrible traffic. Once back in the comfortable part of Nagano, I went to the 24h Internet Cafe again and uploaded all my pics, then went back to the hotel with some Halls cough sweets and ordered a pizza in. I don't know whether it was my feelings on seeing a city desperately try to wring some extra cash out of a fleeting event rather than concentrating on its much longer and better held history and architecture, or whether I'd picked something up, but I was starting to feel a little off.