Olympics In Japan: Better Book Now

Walking through Nagano, you wouldn't guess the Winter Olympics this north-central city will host is more than two months away. The streets are already festooned with banners and paper lanterns put up by corporate sponsors such as Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola, and Kirin Brewery. Despite the local excitement, tickets and rooms are still up for grabs. Barring the hockey finals and figure skating, "an awfully good selection of events is available," says Don Williams, a vice-president at Cartan Tours in Manhattan Beach, Calif., the sole U.S. agency authorized to sell Nagano tickets and package tours.

This could be the biggest Winter Olympics ever, with 3,000 athletes from 83 countries. But don't tarry if you're considering a trip to the Feb. 7-22 Games. Some 1.2 million spectators are expected, roughly 200,000 from overseas. While the range of remaining tickets is extensive, not many are left for any given event. The Nagano Olympics agenda includes three new official events: snowboarding, women's ice hockey, and curling.

Nagano will be the southernmost site ever to host a Winter Olympics. That normally wouldn't be a concern in mountainous and snowy Japan. But the weather has been unseasonably warm, and worries are mounting there won't be enough snow. Koji Otsuka of the Japan Travel Bureau's Nagano Olympics Sales Planning Office says the only potential problem is at the cross-country skiing site, which is at a relatively low altitude. But officials have said they'll be ready with artificial or trucked-in snow.

CLACKING. The schedule of events promises some big excitement. National Hockey League players will be eligible to participate for the first time, setting up a ferocious likely final between the U.S. and Canada. Speed skaters, using innovative "clap" skates with hinged blades, could shatter records, albeit at the expense of losing the soothing swish of traditional skates to an annoying clacking sound.

Nagano-bound Americans have three options. One is to buy a package from Cartan that includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles to Tokyo, lodging at the Cypress Hotel in the resort town of Karuizawa, daily breakfast, a set schedule of event tickets, and transportation to the far-flung venues. The all-inclusive deals run $5,400 to $5,900 for eight days and six nights or nine days and seven nights. For details about the packages and add-on trips, contact Cartan at 800 818-1998 or www.cartan.com. The other options are to buy event tickets from Cartan ($25-$289) and structure your own trip, or enlist friends in Japan to make arrangements. Officials at the Nagano Organizing Committee (www.nagano.olympic.org) say there are plenty of rooms at $80 to $400 a night. The Nagano Prefecture Tourism Federation can help with hotel bookings and other arrangements via fax (011 8126 235-7802).

Besides the Olympics, Nagano offers many attractions. Its captivating Buddhist temple complex of Zenkoji is well worth the mile-long walk from the main train station. Nagano is renowned for soba, or buckwheat noodles, which the Japanese believe reduce blood pressure. You won't go wrong at any of the soba restaurants near Zenkoji, where you'll be warmed by noodles in hot broth with mushrooms and wild vegetables.

HOT SPRINGS. For a more substantial meal, try atmospheric Suki-tei (pronounced ski-tay). It specializes in beef fed on Nagano's prized apples. Be sure to have someone reserve for you in advance at 0262 34-1123. Elsewhere, the area offers quaint villages that can take you back to 19th century Japan. Best preserved are Narai, Tsumago, and Magome, accessible by train or taxi.

A trip to Nagano would be incomplete without a visit to one of the prefecture's numerous hot springs. By far the best is the Iwanoyu inn at the quiet Seni spa. It's usually full, so get a Japanese-speaking friend to call for reservations at 0262 45-2453. Expect to pay about $200 per person, wonderful dinner and breakfast included. After a long day at the Games, there's nothing like a soak to get you back in shape for more excitement tomorrow.