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From CNN Correspondent Valerie Hoff
NAGANO CITY, Japan (CNN) -- The picture-postcard beauty of the mountains of Nagano, Japan echoes their far-off and more famous cousins, the Swiss Alps. Not surprisingly, this range is known as the Japanese Alps.
In the city below, the Zenko-ji Temple, a Japanese national treasure, attracts a steady stream of pilgrims -- 7 to 8 million a year -- even in a snowstorm. But come February, the city of 350,000 will see another influx of visitors for the Winter Olympics, to be played on the world stage February 7 through 27.
An estimated billion dollars has been poured into the city for new facilities for speed skating, hockey, and figure skating. Little expense has been spared -- the ice rinks even have heaters under the seats to help spectators ward off the cold.
And transportation from Tokyo, 200 kilometers (124 miles) away, will be state of the art, with a brand new express train system. The new bullet train will reduce the trip from three hours to 90 minutes.
Compared to past Olympic cities, Nagano and its people seem rather quiet and humble about the event. Ed Hula, who edits an Olympic newsletter in Atlanta, which hosted the 1996 summer games, says the low-key nature of the Nagano Olympics may also be due to a hangover from the Atlanta games -- and the fact that the winter Olympics traditionally are only about an eighth the size of the summer games.
But the Nagano Organizing Committee expects the empty seats to fill as Japanese citizens arrive by the millions, and travelers from around the world make their way to Japan. Tickets and lodging are still available, but Hula recommends booking through a U.S. tour operator.
"People who venture out on their own trying to find hotel space here in Nagano are probably going to have a very difficult time, one, finding space and two, finding accommodations that (are) Western style," he says.
The good news is that ticket prices are expected to be stable -- price gouging, Hula says, is frowned upon in Japan.
Some tips for visitors headed to the games:
- Carry cash -- in general, businesses do not accept travelers' checks or credit cards, and automated teller machines are not as plentiful in Japan as they are in the United States
- Be prepared for a language barrier -- most signs are in Japanese, and it may be difficult to find residents who speak more than basic English
The games are expected to go smoothly, although there are some fears the weather phenomenon El Niño could diminish crucial snowfall. There's a contingency plan for that: Nagano has been saving and stockpiling extra snow, so the weather won't spoil its time in the sun.
City guides and maps: Japan
Tranquil Japanese city says it will host safe '98 Olympics - August 1, 1996
CNN/SI Olympic sports section
Nagano Organizing Committee (Japanese, English)
U.S. Consular Information Sheet: Japan
CDC Travelers' Health: East Asia
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