Game Plans Visitors to the February Olympics in Japan can expect to see a land of surprising contrasts

December 21, 1997|By Barbara Shea | By Barbara Shea,NEWSDAY

There I was, lost amid a maze of street signs I couldn't read and a throng of cell-phone-toting businessmen who couldn't seem to translate them for me -- in a high-rise, high-tech global capital with a taste for hot dogs. If this was downtown Tokyo, what would it be like in the provinces?

I had expected -- and to a great extent found -- a cutting-edge country with a worldly populace. But I also discovered that beneath the three-piece suits beats the heart of an ancient samurai. And therein lies both the charm and the challenge for visitors who will be attending the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano Feb. 7-22.

Forget Japan's infamous high prices. True, even with better exchange rates due to Asia's recent economic woes, it can cost $200 for a cab from the airport into town. But with a rail pass you can zip in for free on the Narita Express. And yes, you can spend $500 for a hotel room -- or a dinner. But I found comfortable $60-a-night inns and "business hotels" with all the usual amenities including TV (rarely bilingual, but local programming was usually more entertaining: I once saw Al Roker speaking dubbed Japanese, and I loved how Tokyo's news anchors bowed deeply to viewers before reciting the day's events). I also regularly dined well for less than $20 (a cup of coffee may have been $2.50, but so was a glass of California wine). And Japan offers a perennial plus for budget-watchers: no tipping anywhere.

The problems for independent travelers are language and logistics. It seemed I spent half my time figuring out where I was, where I wanted to be next and how to get there. And I often had no idea either what I was eating or where.

Many Japanese actually understand a little English, especially if it's written. And when words fail -- which they do frequently -- the ever-polite citizens (where have you ever seen subway commuters wear hospital masks when they have a cold?) invariably go the extra mile, almost literally, walking bewildered foreigners to their destinations.

But the Olympics will sorely test that legendary Japanese courtesy. Workers can't continually keep leaving their jobs to lead hordes of befuddled tourists somewhere. And though the national railroad has an English hot line, it's only for schedule information; seat reservations have to be made in person. When I visited several weeks ago, I could have used an interpreter at many train stations -- notably the one in the Olympic city of Nagano, in apple country at the edge of the Japan Alps.

Commuting

A commercial and agricultural hub 90 minutes from Tokyo via a new "super express" bullet-train line, Nagano City will be the site of skating and bobsledding events, as well as opening and closing ceremonies. Buses will shuttle fans of biathlon, ski jumping, slalom and other sports to venues a half-hour to an hour away -- still within Nagano Prefecture but at higher elevations amid 10,000-foot peaks.

Travelers who buy packages from Cartan Tours, the official U.S. ticket agent, will stay at a deluxe hotel next to a 7-Eleven in nearby Karuizawa. This resort town, which also is the Olympic curling venue, is about 30 minutes before Nagano on the same "Asama" bullet line, named for the local active volcano (all bullet trains, or shinkansen, have a route name as well as a number). Two dozen daily round trips are scheduled between Tokyo and Nagano, so visitors could commute daily to the Olympics, though lodgings reportedly are also available in regional towns.

Package prices

Cartan's eight-day packages -- including airfare from California, tickets to eight or nine events and lodging (including one night in Tokyo) -- still are available starting at $4,880 ($4,250 without tickets, which run from $25 to $400 each, depending on the event), and may be the best option for most Americans.

Travelers who want to make their own arrangements can do so -- probably for much less (my basic expenses of airfare from New York, rail pass, lodging and breakfast for a recent two-week Japan trip totaled about $2,800). But I'd never go again without advance reservations and advice from a travel agency specializing in Japan (which also can offer Olympics tours from Tokyo with an English-speaking guide).

After wasting precious sightseeing time on countless calls to hotels and trips to train stations to check availability for various departures, I learned that spontaneity is out of the question in a country with half the population of the United States packed into an area the size of California and where a continuous string of holidays and festivals keeps trains and hotels full year-round.

The last time the Olympics came to Japan -- more than 25 years ago in Sapporo -- few Japanese even traveled within their own country, and only a rare Westerner would venture halfway around the globe to watch teen-age skaters nail a triple lutz.

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