Belly Up! Furano and Its Unique Summer Festival
Furano, located smack-dead in the center of Hokkaido, is probably most famous for its winter ski resorts and its beautiful flower fields (see the Farm Tomita page) open in summer. However, there is another sightseeing option which is less well-known and potentially twice as fun as these crowd-drawing sights. This is the Belly-Button Festival (Heso Matsuri) of Furano.
In late July of each year, the towns of Furano, Naka-Furano and Biei are overcome with tourists eager to see the beautiful lavender fields, taste the lavender and melon soft-whip ice-cream, and perhaps enjoy a bike ride down 'Panorama Road' or 'Patchwork Road' to enjoy the picturesque tumbling hills, and the famous 'Parent and Child Tree'. Shikisai Hill is also a popular spot, and has been featured on TV a number of times. However, only a small percentage of visitors in July perhaps even realise that they are right on time to experience Furano's biggest event of the year, the two-day Heso Matsuri (Belly-Button Festival).
The Heso Matsuri was created in 1969 when the Furano locals decided to create an event to attract more tourists to their area. Using the fact that their town was smack-bang in the middle of Hokkaido (in other words, the belly-button of Hokkaido), they decided a belly-button-centered festival was the way to go. And thus, just this easily, the Heso Matsuri was born. According to the Furano Tourism Association, the number of participants has been steadily rising since the original 11 (!!!!) participants in 1969 to now nearly 4000 dancers in 2014. That's right, the main point of the festival is to paint your torso like a face and dance around the streets with other belly-bearing participants. Nothing weird here.
The basic idea of the belly-painting is to make your stomach seem like your head (your belly-button needs to be the mouth), your head seem like a hat (you must crouch under a large hat-like structure to cover everything from the arms up), and your hips seem like your arms (fake paper arms will be attached to your shorts). All in all, you will become something of a much shorter, wider, strange-faced version of yourself. Be creative with your belly painting- participants from previous years have often favoured anime or game characters (Mario seems to be a particular hit), but many also simply go with a long moustache and droopy eyes for a comical effect. If you don't want to bear all that flesh, feel free to wear a t-shirt and paint a face over that. The dance moves are simple enough, and video instructions can be found on the Furano Tourism website.
If you're around for a couple more days, be sure to check out the famous Squid Dance of the Hakodate Port Festival and Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri (only a ferry-trip away from Hokkaido), both on in the first few days of August. While you cannot participate easily in the Nebuta Matsuri, you don't even need to register to get your groove on in Hakodate's main festival.
You can also participate in the Heso Matsuri – however, it takes a little more preparation and effort. First of all, one must apply to participate with the Furano Tourism Association (see the instructions here), however this is very simple, free, and the Association will even lend you the traditional yukata needed to participate. They will not, however, paint your belly! If you can, go with a group of friends and get someone to paint your stomach for you!
And check out a video of the dance:
Getting to Furano
If you're in Hokkaido just for the festival, consider jumping on a flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Asahikawa Airport and then catching a bus to Furano straight from there (we do suggest at some point you nip in to Asahikawa to see the zoo though!). This will, however, put a strain on your wallet.
Alternatively, fly into Chitose Airport, spend a few days in Sapporo, then catch a train to Asahikawa. From Asahikawa Station you can catch the same airport bus listed above straight to Furano. This is probably the cheapest way to get to the festival, as there are lots of cheap flights from Tokyo to Chitose (ANA also sells 'Experience Japan' tickets if you can't find a good price – these are tickets valid for almost any internal flight, and only cost about 10,000 yen!).
Finally, if you want something a little more interesting/challenging for your travelling, there are also trains which can take you straight to Furano from Tokyo – with a lot of transfers. It's also a twelve-hour trip and can be painful if you have heavy luggage with you, so this trip is not for the faint of heart.
In any case, make sure not to miss the opportunity to get your belly out this summer in Furano, Japan!