Facebook Twitter



Shimamura, still warm from the train, was not sure how cold it really was. This was his first taste of the snow-country winter, however, and he felt somewhatintimidated. - Yasunari Kawabata, "Snow Country"

Snow Country, in Japan, isn't just any place snow happens to fall. It's a specific stretch of high country on the main island. And - to borrow from Steinbeck's description of Cannery Row - Snow Country is a poem, a quality of light, a grating noise, a tone, a habit and a dream.Like Utah, Japan's Nagano Prefecture is bidding for the 1998 Olympics. Japan is the only Asian country with enough snow and facilities to play host for the winter games.

Unlike Utah, however, there's no debate on the issue. In typical Japanese fashion, every man, woman and beast has rallied behind President Katsuji Shibata of the Japanese Olympic Committee. The games would be held in the distant Shiga Heights, but the base of operations would be in towns like Nozawa, Matsumoto and Nagano City. And they're pouring millions into promotion.

The truth is, by combining the best of Utah's ski resources with the best of Nagano, you'd have an unbeatable bid. As it is, both places must deal with striking advantages and more than a few drawbacks.

So if you've thought about visiting Japan's Snow Country - to ski or just to relax - here's what you're in for:

MONEY (minus): No ifs or buts, Japan's expensive. A BLT sandwich runs about $12. Soft drinks are $2. Golf? It's $200 a round on weekdays, $300 on weekends. (But as one promoter said with a straight face"You do get lunch with that.")

The Japanese yen is so strong few Western tourists visit here. Instead of down-playing the expense, the Japanese choose to play up the beauty and grandeur of their ski country, hoping Americans will feel it's well-worth the cost.

ACCOMMODATIONS (plus): Dining is a delight in Nagano. You can find cuisine for most tastes. Small coffeehouses, restaurants and cafes fill the narrow winding streets of the town, though most feature only Japanese food, of course.

There are Western-style hotels, but also Ryokans. The Ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel room with futon mats on the floor for sleeping and slight and simple Japanese decor and structure. Like all of Japan, the Ryokans usually set off tradition with state-of-the art conveniences and digital devices.

Western-style hotels are also available.

SKI FACILITIES (plus and minus): There are 100 ski resorts in Japan. At Nozawa - where the Olympians would train - it's high-tech machinery, but getting to the place can be difficult and the runs are cramped by Western standards. You won't find the wide-open spaces of Park City and Alta. You will find a resort that is well-run and up-to-date.

Getting to the out-of-the-way areas takes time and a bit of caution - imagine driving Utah's canyons for 30 miles.

Nagano Prefecture has a lot of experience in the international arena, however. The 1989 Alpine Ski World Cup is held here. In the 60s, the World Speed Skating Championships came to town. National snow events are staged here often.

There are also plenty of other activities. Skating rinks are prominent. And the famous hot spring baths are open year round. (More on those later.)

SIGHT-SEEING (plus): If you visit Nagano, the Zenkoji Temple is a must. It is a Shinto temple that has burned down 12 times and been rebuilt 13. There are guides to take you around. There are also hundreds of traditions and rites, many open and accessible to Western visitors.

Matsumoto Castle is impressive. And there are dozens of side trips to saki breweries, museums and natural landmarks. The Japan Alps, for instance, are dotted with seven national parks.

Specialties of the region include apples, dairy products and the cool climate makes it perfect for the manufacturing of precision instruments.

> THE ONSEN (you decide): These are the Japanese public baths. And more folktales and rumors - some true, some bogus - have been passed between Americans about the baths than any other aspect of Japan.

In short, the men's and women's baths are separate. And the baths are clean, since everyone is required to take a rigorous shower before climbing in.

The biggest spa in Nagano is in Nozawa Village and is called The Kurhaus. There's a "bathing zone" (with various bathtubs), a training room, a warm water pool and other facilities. The place offers 10 types of baths, ranging from steam and bubble baths to showers and "contrast" baths - a two temperature deal.

Some visitors from the West wouldn't miss the chance to take a public bath in Japan, others wouldn't take one on a bet. Follow your heart.

PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS: The feeling in Nagano is that the 21st century will be Japan's, and the 1998 Olympics will kick off a century of success and prosperity for the country.

The country would love to lure more Western tourists to the provinces, so visitors will find themselves courted and appreciated for the most part.

Bring plenty of warm clothes, however, and over-estimate your expenses. There are no books called "Japan on $5 a Day." But there are books - and dozens of Nagano publicity brochures - that will stun you with the beauty and grace of Japan's Snow Country.