29 July, Japan – ‘All Over The Place – Asia’
If there’s one thing ‘All Over The Place’ has taught me it’s that if your town is struggling financially, the first thing you should do is set up some sort of wacky annual event. Then at least once a year you’ll get people like us turning up to put you on the map. In the 1960s the people of Furano had the idea of putting on a painted belly button festival. It had 11 entrants, but as the years have gone by it has swollen to become a big event here on the island that people come a long way to see.
As we drove down from our slope side Alpine hotel to the town below I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about what the day had in store. A grey sky was drizzling all over us and the streets, lined with functional grey modern buildings, looked pretty empty. Once we reached the high street things looked a bit more promising. Food stalls lined a couple of side streets and the whole stretch of the main street and been decorated with beautiful neon pink paper lanterns. On a main stage at the crossroads was a band of Japanese drummers enthusiastically giving it some. Only one problem – there wasn’t many people about.
Telling ourselves that things were bound to pick up for the main event in the evening we set about interviewing people and eventually got taken to a garage where a team of belly dancers were preparing for the big night. You’re probably imagining a bevy of svelte women in Middle or Far Eastern dress. It definitely wasn’t that. A bunch of topless blokes of various ages were milling about waiting their turn for a couple of painters sitting on stools to turn their torsos into a face, with the belly button making the mouth and the nipples the eyes. You then tie a kimono round your legs, with fake arms sticking out of it at waist height, stick a huge plastic hat on to cover your head and, hey presto, something resembling a large cartoon character.
Once we’d witnessed these (let’s face it, slightly odd) transformations taking place I was led off to meet my team and have my belly painted with the face of an ugly boss-eyed man (I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it was based on me). Then we headed off to a shopping centre for Cel to prepare with his team, where I amused myself painting the words “Kick Me” on his back (don’t worry health and safety fans, I scrubbed it off shortly afterwards). Once that was done we split off to get set for the parade. Luckily the rain had cleared and I was amazed to see the pavements of the high street packed with spectators. I couldn’t believe the amount of people taking part in the procession either, there must have been hundreds of them. I hurriedly got my costume on and my team soon established that I wasn’t going to pick up their co-ordinated dance moves that they had planned in the 5 minutes we had before things kicked off, so I was stuck at the back and told to freestyle (easier said than done when you have a kimono belt tied around your knees).
Not only was the whole event a lot bigger than I had previously realised, the course was a lot longer too. As the sun began to set, the on stage band kicked in, and the high street began to look utterly magical bathed in bright pink light, I realised that we were expected to shuffle up and down the long road at least 6 times, passing the judges table each time. This was going to be a real endurance test. By the end of the first lap the humid heat and large plastic heat meant that we were all drenched in sweat, and isotonic drinks were being handed to us by volunteers to keep us going. Luckily by the end of our 2nd lap our director Ewan told me I could duck out for the rest of the event as they’d already shot a ton of footage of me and needed to concentrate on filming the rest of the parade. So while Cel battled on up and down the street I went and sat on a kerbstone backstage and started looking through old photos on my phone – a position Cel found me in about half an hour later, standing above me loudly declaring me a cheat. He was justly crowned winner, and not only that – his team were the over all winners of the night!
Once again the behaviour of the crowds amazed me. Everyone was polite, quiet, smiling and took their litter home afterwards. I think the difference between our two countries can be summed up with a conversation I had with our Japanese fixer Ryuzo. I was commenting on the public vending machines that sit on virtually every street corner in Japan and saying how in Britain they would all get smashed up on a Saturday night. He just said “Oh. That doesn’t sound very constructive”.