By Matt Schoenfelder
NAGANO, JAPAN - As the rolling thunder from the closing ceremony fireworks slowly dies away, I'll try to put down some observations as an American living in Nagano.
Having been here since July, I've seen the city of Nagano transformed.
It was a feeling of anticipation that I sensed upon arrival in July, with more than 180 days on the countdown clock in front of Nagano station.
The city was quietly preparing for its chance to be seen by the world.
Over the course of fall and the beginning of winter, the signs started to appear in earnest. Restaurants began to show proof they had an English menu with a sticker on their front door.
Street signs were changed to having Japanese and English on them.
The corporate sponsors erected huge billboards at both the east and west exits of the train station, welcoming everyone to the games.
Three hotels shed their green construction canopies to open their doors only weeks before the visitors began to arrive.
The number of foreign (anyone not Japanese) faces began to increase. I would see them walking down the street, exiting the station with their local company guide, eating at the previously quiet restaurants and shopping in the local department stores.
Returning from my Christmas vacation was the biggest shock in the pre-Olympics countdown: all the support people were flooding into town. IBM and CBS (the official computer and television companies, respectively) had more staff here than there would be athletes.
CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.), Australian Channel 7, German TV and radio, and people working at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) were everywhere.
Nagano was beginning to look like New York City, or any other cosmopolitan city in the world. My favorite restaurants and bars, where I could always get a seat, were now filled.
Amidst all of this, I could see the people of Nagano already staring in amazement at the influx of "gaijin" (foreigners), whispering to their friend, "Look how big they are" and "Oh, there's another group of them."
I even found myself surprised to see western faces on the train I took home at night. Usually I was the only foreigner, but it was becoming a frequent occurrence to see another person or group of people that looked different.
In the days just before the games began, the pace reached another level. It was a pace that swept us all into the Olympic spirit and turned the city into a giant melting pot.
Spectators, fans, athletes and thousands of others were moving about the city like a river of humanity.
I was working a part-time job at Nagano station and the station was more crowded than I had ever seen it before. The streets were jammed with ticket scalpers, pin traders and all the interested people standing around them.
Chou-dori, the main street in town, was often at a standstill because pedestrian traffic was overflowing the sidewalks into the roadway.
But, in all this apparent chaos, the calm, quiet reservedness of the Japanese carried through. The crowds were still mostly Japanese and they endured the stress very well.
There was no yelling, and only a little pushing, mostly done by the little old Japanese ladies who were unbelievably strong from years of work in the rice fields.
From the morning of the opening ceremony, it was a thrill every moment to be here. The sight of the Japanese emperor and his wife cheering the Hawaiian born Sumo wrestler Akebono as he performed the cleansing ceremony was a once in a lifetime experience.
Seeing the nation celebrate with unrestrained joy the victory of Shimizu-san in the 500 meter men's speedskating event, only to be followed by a national delirium at Japan's gold medal in team ski jumping was to see a side of Japan not seen very often.
They were openly happy - albeit group happiness. People were moved to tears of joy because gold medals were expected in Lillehammer in 1994, but that didn't happen.
Now the medals were secure and the victory took place in their home country. For people who don't smile for pictures because "it doesn't show your true self," they were overflowing with emotions. From tears to laughter, Japan was showing their happiness as only an entire nation can.
Central Square, where medals for outdoor events were awarded, was filled to capacity and overflowing onto the street whenever a Japanese was on the medal stand.
It looked like a giant disco with a million strobe lights going off all at once, because every person in the place was taking flash pictures.
Then, after events each day, the people would pour back into the station, filling the trains, taxis and buses, heading wherever they were going to stay for the night.
Some attempted to go to the bars and restaurants that were still open. Between Central Square and the station that was almost impossible.
Everything, every place was filled, this time beyond capacity. Again, spilling onto the streets, it all added to a feeling of excitement and frivolity.
The last night of the Olympics a group of eight of us tried to stay out all night. When the band quit at our starting place we were faced with finding another location.
It couldn't be done because, of course, everything was full. We tried Thirty's Pizza, we tried the Pink Elephant, we tried Liberty's, Kahn's and the Kirin Beer Hall. All were full or closing at 1 a.m., so we caught two taxis and took the 25 minute ride to my house.
The taxis cost 8,000 yen (about $64) but the trip allowed us to sleep on our futons (mattresses on the floor) rather than waiting room chairs at the train station.
I had a ticket to the closing ceremonies, but the crowds had become too much for me. I sold it to a scalper for 90 percent of face value and headed home to watch the ceremony on tv.
Seeing the celebration on the screen made me wish I was there, it was only 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, but I was content to relax under my kotatsu (a heated table that you sit under to relax and keep your legs warm) and see the event via NHK, Japanese National Television.
As the festivities reached their climax at Olympic Stadium, I opened my deck door and I could hear, from 40 kilometers away, the explosions of thousands of fireworks and the deep, rolling thunder of the end of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.