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Furano City, Hokkaido, Japan 北海道富良野市

The claim to fame of this sleepy collection of Hokkaido farming communities, amalgamated and renamed into a city, is that it is arguably in the geographical center of Hokkaido. We all know that the northernmost island of Japan is the first place alien archaeologists will start digging.

Geography

The name "Furano" is derived from the Ainu name of the plains area. Reportedly, the original meaning is "smelly valley", due to its situation downwind from the sulfurous volcano Mt. Asahidake. The kanji selected for the name mean "bountiful" (富), "good" (良), and "field" (野). Furano's nickname is Hokkaido no Heso, the Bellybutton of Hokkaido.

With a population of just over 25,000 people, Furano isn't quite as inaka as a lot of Hokkaido. Furano City is located in the middle of the Furano plains, just west of Taisetsuzan National Park. Furano City consists of the areas Furano, Kitanomine, Torinuma, Furebetsu, Rokugo, Nunobe, Yamabe, and Higashiyama. The Furano area includes Kamifurano Town, Nakafurano Town, Furano City, Minamifurano Town, and Shimukappu Village. In recent years, discussions of merging one or more of the outlying areas into Furano City have been held.

Attractions

Furano attracts over 2,000,000 tourists per year.

Furano, like any even barely respectable Japanese city, is famous for a good number of things. Furano's yearly festival, the Heso Matsuri, or Bellybutton Festival, celebrates Furano's geographic centrality through drunken revelry, navels, and dance.

Furano was also the location and setting of Kita no Kuni Kara, one of Japan's most beloved TV dramas. (The semi-official English title is "From the North Country". Think Little House on the Prairie in Japan.) The drama features the struggles of a motherless family from Japan's mainland as they make a living in Hokkaido's frontier. The writer, Sou Kuramoto, has since established a drama school, Furano Juku, as well as a theatre, Furano Engeki Koujo, in the Furano area. Recently, he wrote another TV drama series, Yasashii Jikan (A Gentle Time).

In addition to traditional farming, Furano also has a well-developed winery and mountain grape horticulture center. Furano's meisanbutsu are wine, grape juice and jellies, melons, watermelons, corn and cheese. Furano's continental climate allows lavender to grow in the summer season -- it is both farmed into massive ocean-like fields and now grows wild in some areas, and is the Furano area's most ubiquitous summer tourist attraction. Other weeds are rumoured to grow wild in the area, though it's highly recommended that you avoid them unless you like jail.

All Japanese tourists will want to sample the local ramen noodles. Furano's ramen is manufactured by Sasaki Noodle Company of Furano, but unfortunately, is not tremendously popular in shops. Effectively, Furano has no distinct style of ramen, although Furano Cheese and Furano Butter are used locally to flavour other styles, such as Sapporo and Asahikawa Ramen. Thankfully, Furano Lavender Ramen went out of business in 2001 and was replaced with a Mos Burger. The Mos Burger also went out of business, but Furano still has the western amenities to prove its success as a developed municipality -- a Mr. Donuts, McDonalds, and KFC.

Furano's major winter attraction is Furano Ski Hill, site of the 1988 World Cup Ski Games. With two gondolas, over a dozen smaller lifts, and copious snowfall including extreme powder conditions in mid-February, there are excellent runs for almost any skier. Two ungroomed black runs in the middle of the ski hill, the Kumagera and the Challenge, provide the bulk of legitimate powder. Off-course skiing, however, is completely forbidden, and the local ski patrol is notoriously strict for enforcing the rules. The Furano Ropeway was recently renovated in 2002 and can now move 101 skiers up 2,330 meters of snow in 5 minutes, 30 seconds.

There are not many good onsens in Furano City itself, your best bet is the Tokachi / Fukiage area near Kamifurano. For a bit less authentic but more convenient experience, the family onsen and hotel Furano Laterre, located in Nakafurano town, has a variety of interesting theme baths.

Miscellany

Furano's sister cities are Schladming, Austria, and Nishiwaki, Gunma Prefecture, Japan.

Furano also has a very bad traffic fatality rate, especially during tourist season, so if you come to visit, for God's sake be careful.

There is a very good okonomi-yaki / teppan-yaki shop, Masaya, on 5th street, four blocks north of the hospital.

Very few non-Japanese people live in Furano City -- although this is now increasing. The figure is rumoured to now be in the double digits.

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