NAGANO, Japan — When this once-sleepy temple town welcomes the world to the 1998 Winter Olympics 50 days from now, Japan's charms and quirks will be displayed as nakedly as the scantily clad sumo wrestlers who will help open the Games.
Cheap this spectacle will not be. Japan may set an Olympic record for spending. But in return, it hopes to generate some badly needed economic and psychological cheer when the festivities begin Feb. 7.
The city and prefecture of Nagano will shell out an estimated $1.1 billion--more than twice what was spent for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta--on sports and housing facilities in Nagano and the five outlying towns that will host Olympic events.
But Japan is spending a stunning $12.5 billion on miles of new highways, tunnels, bridges and a new bullet train that will whisk visitors from Tokyo to Nagano in 79 minutes, down from a three-hour trip on the old trains. This spending tops even Barcelona's $7-billion Olympic building spree for the 1992 Games.
This public works bonanza, coming amid a Japanese economic slump, has delighted many Nagano residents. But it has disgusted some beleaguered taxpayers and driven a few environmentalists to despair.
Some residents were horrified when the old train station--a charming replica of Nagano's most famous landmark, the 16th-century Zenko-ji Temple--was demolished to build a huge, wheelchair-accessible station. Preservationists argued in vain that the old wooden building could have been incorporated into the new structure or moved aside to serve as a visitors' center.
"I am very disappointed by the new station, but most Nagano residents are very happy," said Takakazu Fukushima, a Buddhist priest at Zenko-ji, whose beautifully preserved medieval neighborhood is the only part of Nagano to have survived Japan's postwar love affair with concrete, steel and prefab. "They have the new station, the improved superhighways, the wider roads. They don't care if there is an Olympics or not!"
Meanwhile, Olympic organizers have been making Herculean
efforts to ward off every conceivable disaster, from massive traffic jams to telecommunications overload to the threatened obliteration of the food supply of an endangered species of mountain butterfly.
The warm winter blamed on El Nino has created fears that snowfall in Nagano might be lighter than usual. But organizers insist there will be plenty of snow by February, at least in the surrounding mountains where the skiing and snowboarding events are to be held.
Fears of chaos are unfounded, they say, adding that the last construction will be finished with plenty of time to spare.
Organizers are billing Nagano as the most environmentally friendly Olympics ever--although local activists say the infrastructure frenzy has trampled many fragile species.
Nevertheless, with help from volunteers, eight times more trees have been planted than were felled for Olympic construction.
"We're not just planting trees--we're planting species that are native to the Japan Alps," said Yutaka Ota, spokesman for the organizing committee. "And we're not just planting saplings--we're planting big trees."
Environmentalists also strongly objected to a proposed men's downhill ski course that placed the starting gate within the grounds of a national park, prompting a bitter fight between Nagano organizers and the International Ski Federation (FIS).
After five years of bickering--with FIS President Marc Hodler at one point threatening to pull all ski events out of Nagano--a compromise course was forged earlier this month that will put the first stage of course just outside the rim of the park. Federation officials are still less than thrilled with the new layout; Hodler has deemed the course adequate, too short to be world-class.
In the scenic mountain village of Hakuba, one of the skiing venues, grasses that are the food of the endangered Gifu butterfly were transplanted to save them from the bulldozers, said Kunihiro Kobayashi, a municipal government official.
When Hakuba built a huge new ski jump for the Games--the jump that was used in a World Cup event last January--topsoil from construction sites was carefully removed and then replaced once the construction was completed, Kobayashi said. Schoolchildren have been raising native trees from acorns for replanting.
"We really tried our best to minimize the damage," Kobayashi said.
Only people with designated parking spaces will be permitted to drive into Hakuba; others will have to ride shuttle buses. Organizers say electric cars, 60 natural-gas vehicles and 41 energy-efficient hybrid buses will be shuttling people around Nagano in an attempt to keep smog from fouling the air.