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Nagano would celebrate a blizzard

What if they held a Winter Olympics, and it never snowed?

When the 1998 Olympic Games open in the Japanese Alps in February, will ice hockey become field hockey? Snowboarding become surfing? Alpine skiing become water-skiing?Those are the nightmares here. Japan's Meteorological Agency offered a long-range forecast this month and concluded that because of El Nino's warm ocean currents, the weather this winter will be warmer and drier than normal.

The forecast hit a raw nerve in Nagano, which is the southernmost city ever to be chosen as host the Winter Olympic Games and has been promising skeptics ever since that there really will be snow by the time the Games open.

In fact, it seems almost certain that there will be plenty of snow in the places that really count, in the mountains outside Nagano where the skiing events will be held, but officials are busy preparing emergency plans.

"We're going to go to the shrine on New Year's Day and pray for snow," quipped Ko Yamaguchi, the press director for the Olympics.

Yamaguchi acknowledged that the Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee had worked out its contingency plans just in case the nightmare came to pass. Snowmaking machines will spew out snow on the courses, and the army will truck snow in from nearby mountains.

Japan's penchant for worrying and contingency planning seems to be serving the Olympics in good stead in the final months before the Games open. Japan is about the least happy-go-lucky country in the world, and Japanese have a habit of seeing a cloud in any silver lining - but the result is that they are much less likely than Americans to be caught in a shower without an umbrella.

These days, the people of Nagano are fretting with characteristic grimness, brooding about whether foreigners will tolerate Japanese-style squat toilets, will like soba noodles or will be able to tell which door leads to the men's public bath and which to the women's. A result is a rush to put up signs, install seat toilets and do whatever else will make foreigners feel like honored guests.

"I feel so responsible," Akemi Maruyama murmured as she sat in the entrance of the traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, that she runs with her husband. The Maruyamas hardly ever get foreign guests at their inn, but during the Olympics they will be putting up the Swedish team, and that has left them profoundly anxious.

"If the athletes' performance is disrupted by the differences in life styles, then we'll just feel terrible," Akemi Maruyama said.

As a result, the Maruyamas are working with the Swedish Embassy in Tokyo to bring in a Swedish chef for the duration of the games, and they are thinking about buying hot plates so that they can keep food out for athletes who want to eat at odd hours.

"It may be a burden for us to buy hot plates, but we want to offer the athletes the very best," said her husband, Takehiko Maruyama.

The Maruyamas are also outfitting rooms with beds for the Swedish athletes. As a result, the Swedes can sleep as they are used to, instead of on a futon on the floor.

The family is also thinking about other steps they need to take. "Maybe it'd be best to put up a sign explaining that they should scrub first, before entering the public bath," Takehiko Maruyama mused, reflecting on Japanese bathing etiquette. "And we should have a sign explaining that you should not get into the bath with your bathing suit."

Some new signs, in English, may be necessary to avoid misunderstandings at the entrances to restrooms and the ubiquitous public baths in the area. In one inn, the entrance to the men's and women's baths are marked "Lords" and "Ladies" in elegant Chinese characters that would look alike to most Western visitors.

While there is some mixed bathing in Japan, it is on the wane, and bathers might steam as much as the baths if a team of confused American athletes stormed into the wrong dressing room.

Despite a huge shortage of rooms in Nagano during the Olympics, the inns and hotels seem not to be charging extra. And about 680 local families will be opening their homes to the families of foreign athletes in a home-stay program.

"When I was 24 years old I went to Denver, and everybody was so kind and generous to me," recalled Tomoyuki Hirabayashi, 50, a plumber. "They let me stay in their homes, so I decided to open my home as well."

This is an unusual step in Japan, where overnight houseguests are rare and even inviting people over for dinner is much less common than in the West.

"My wife is very Japanese," Tomoyuki Hirabayashi added, as his wife, Miyoko, cringed meekly beside him. "So she was afraid. Japanese feel very fearful about letting strangers into their homes."

Miyoko Hirabayashi acknowledged that she had been against the idea at first, but she said it was not so much fear of crooks as apprehension that she would not be a good hostess. That seems to be a common worry, and it may be why fewer people have signed up for the home-stay program than expected.

Police are making similar preparations, forced to plan for everything from snarled traffic to hit men pursuing North Korean defectors. A few fugitives from Aum Shinri Kyo the cult that dispersed nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, are still on the loose, so police are also planning for countermeasures against bombings and poison gas.

"We can't say that there's no possibility of an Aum attack," said Katsuhiko Miura, a senior police official in Nagano, but he and everyone else seem to think that is very unlikely.

A more likely problem is what to do with people who ask police for money. In Japan, the easiest people to steal money from are the police, because anyone can go up to a police box and claim to be broke and ask for $10 or $20 to get home. No identification is necessary, because the assumption is that the borrower may have lost a wallet, but the money is almost always returned.

So what will happen if foreigners start asking for these loans?

"If people are in trouble, we're ready to lend them some money," Miura said. "But if the money never returns, it's a big shame to us. So we'll have to ask about their situation first."