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Nagano Is Ready For The Spotlight

Have you ever heard of a man named Robert Zimmerman? No? Well, don't feel bad. Most people have never heard of Robert Zimmerman. But have you ever heard of Bob Dylan? Of course you haveÂ… and guess what? Same person.

Back in the early 1960's when an obscure young guitar player named Robert Zimmerman wrote his first songs, he decided to adopt a non de plume, and it was his new moniker - Bob Dylan - that soon became a household name. Well, something like that has happened to the city of Nagano, Japan in the last few years.

At the start of this decade, Nagano was almost totally unknown outside of Japan and its neighboring Asian countries. Then in 1991 the International Olympic Committee announced that Nagano had earned the right to host the XVIII Olympic Winter Games by edging out Salt Lake City on the final ballot.

In effect, the IOC handed Nagano a guitar and gave it a stage on which to perform. And what a stage it will be.

On the morning of Saturday, February 7th (Friday evening back here in the states) the curtain will rise on Nagano, a city 120 miles northwest of Tokyo, in the middle of Japan's largest island, Honshu.

Surrounded by a majestic mountain range that has been dubbed the "Japanese Alps," Nagano is known as the "Roof of Japan."

Before now, Nagano was best known as the home of the Zenkoji Temple, the third largest Buddhist temple in all of Japan. The temple is Nagano's most famous attraction; over seven million visitors make the pilgrimage to the Zenkoji Temple every year.

Legend has it the temple was built more than 1,300 years ago to house the first image of Buddha brought to Japan.

Over the centuries, as Buddhists began descending on the city, Nagano grew from a small agricultural region, known for its production of silk, to an industrial city known for its high-tech electronics, precision machinery and food industries with a population of nearly 360,000, roughly the size of Miami, Florida.

This is quite a contrast to the 1994 Winter Olympic host city of Lillehammer, whose charm came from its small ski village atmosphere.

Nagano's charm, on the other hand, lies with the maze of narrow streets lined with small shops and restaurants where visitors can explore a Japan far different from Tokyo.

If you still have an urge to see Tokyo, you can travel into the city and return in an afternoon thanks to the completion of the U.S.$700 million Shinkansen (Bullet Train), which reduced the three hour train ride in half.

Nagano officials are hoping such developments will increase the region's tourist flow and bring visitors to see some of Nagano's other leading tourist attractions like the Wild Monkey Park, and the ski areas in Hakuba and Shiga Kogen.

This will be only the second Winter Olympic Games to be held in Japan. Nagano made two unsuccessful bids for the 1940 and 1972 Winter Games which eventually went to the Japanese city of Sapparo. (The 1940 Olympics were canceled bthe outbreak of World War II.)

Because of the 1998 Olympics, Nagano has a chance to step out of the shadow it has been in for so long.

As Robert Zimmerman once wrote and sang, "The Times They Are A Changing."

Written by James Hutton

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