It seems that Japan hardly needs a reason to throw a festival, which is fine because I hardly need a reason to attend one! I recently visited the nearby city of Shibukawa for the Heso Matsuri, also known as the Bellybutton Festival. While there are a fair number of ancient fertility festivals held around Japan, with some rather suggestive floats, the bellybutton doesn't seem like a body part worth celebrating.
The roots of this particular celebration are much more recent and have to do with the fact that Shibukawa is located close to the geographical center point of Japan. The bellybutton of the country, so to speak. Nothing terribly sacred, the festival is more an attempt to drum up visitors and economic opportunities. Which is fair enough. These days even the most ancient festivals, steeped in Shinto lore are becoming much more about eating, drinking, and having a good time than celebrating anything profound. Not that I find anything wrong with walking around with a beer in one hand and fried chicken in the other while admiring ancient floats.
Sadly, there are no floats or portable shrines at the Heso Matsuri. There were some pretty entertaining taiko performances though. The main attraction is a pair of parades with shirtless people dancing by with faces painted on their bellies. The first parade was small children, and most of them were not having any of it. I don't know if I have ever seen such a group of youngsters who were so upset at their lot in life. Some were outright bawling. Though a few had a pretty big smile.
The adults certainly had a bit more fun. Their improved mood may be due in part to the beer carts that followed each group of dancers to provide refreshment in the summer heat. While the whole affair was interesting, I would hardly call it compelling. Really the Heso Matsuri was a fun way to spend an afternoon with friends, but it wasn't much more than that.