News / Asia

Japanese Town Recovers from Disaster for Third Time in Half Century

Only about one third of those auditioning to join the hula troupe annually are accepted, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
Only about one third of those auditioning to join the hula troupe annually are accepted, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
The sight of audiences applauding hula dancers and performers twirling fire knives are an indication Iwaki has bounced back - again.

The city of 300,000 people in Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan has been written off more than once.

Many residents first thought they were doomed after the coal mines closed in the early 1960's when Japan turned to imported oil to fuel its booming economy. But the company that ran the mines, rather than abandoning its down-on-their-luck employees, vowed to transform the community.

A vice president of Joban Kosan embarked on a global tour in search of ideas and returned home with a radical proposal: Iwaki would become home to a Hawaiian-themed resort - a favorite Japanese destination at a time when overseas travel was still a luxury.

Never mind that the local climate hardly matched the tropics. A dome would be built over swimming pools and water slides allowing a temperature-controlled environment.

Coal miners' daughters would be trained as hula dancers to entertain the guests.

“It was considered a totally ridiculous idea and most people were strongly opposed to the concept,” says Tomohiro Murata, sales manager of Spa Resort Hawaiians.

Business Inspiration from Pre-Feudal Japan

In a way Iwaki was returning to its ancient roots as a tourist destination. Before the mines, hot springs had attracted visitors as early as the 10th century.

  • Japan's first theme park opened in Iwaki in Jan. 1966, (Courtesy, Joban Kosan Co.)
  • The original 'hula girls' for the theme park were coal miners' daughters, (Courtesy, Joban Kosan Co.)
  • An aerial view of the original Hawaiian Center complex in Iwaki, (Courtesy, Joban Kosan Co.)
  • The Joban coalfield in Iwaki was one of Japan's largest, (Courtesy, Joban Kosan Co.)
  • The resorts, 52 kilometers south of the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, has gradually expanded since opening in 1966, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • The resort runs its own complimentary bus to bring guests from Tokyo, a three-hour drive, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • The majority of the third generation of hula dancers still come from Iwaki, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Only about one third of those auditioning to join the hula troupe annually are accepted, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Resort guests join dancers on stage for a hula lesson, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Mutsumi Kudo says after the 2011 disaster she and the rest of the hula dancers no longer take for granted having an audience, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • A performer eating fire on stage at Spa Resorts Hawaiian in Fukushima prefecture, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Besides hula dancers the resort's Polynesian-themed shows also feature local young men trained to perform with fire, (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Line forms prior to the 10 a.m. daily opening of the water park, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • A giant dome maintains the air temperature at 28 degrees Celsius inside the water park, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Water slides are a major attraction at the 46-year-old resort, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • A young woman comes to the end of her ride on a water slide, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Resort safety director Takeshi Namatame is on the grounds daily with a geiger counter, (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • A reading of 0.11 microsieverts per hour on the grounds of the resort is around the level prior to the March 2011 reactor meltdowns, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Preparing a food sample for radiation testing at the Iwaki resort, October 25, 2012. (Steve Herman/VOA)

The Joban Hawaiian Center was opened in January 1966 with swimming pools and hot springs baths- the latter a traditional way for Japanese to relax.

The fledgling resort gradually began to flourish, attracting up to 140,000 guests annually in the early 1970's. Then the “oil shock” of 1973 struck, literally chilling the resort's business.

Soaring energy prices and a shortage of imported oil meant the resort could no longer maintain the environment under the dome at 28 degrees Celsius. As visitor numbers dropped by 30 percent and those who did come for a swim literally shivered, the resort was derided with the nickname “Alaska Center.”

As Japan's economy recovered, the property revived and expanded (it now encompasses 300,000 square meters) and was rebranded as Spa Resort Hawaiians, becoming the largest inclusive tourism property in the Tohoku region.

Visitor numbers began to soar to more than one million per year.

In 2006, a hit movie “Hula Girl” documented Iwaki's unlikely transition from coal town to resort destination, helping to send attendance figures to unprecedented numbers.

Fukushima Meltdown Closes A Tourism Boomtown

The good fortune continued until March 11, 2011.

On that day a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit northeastern Japan. It did only minor damage to the resort but it crippled the region's infrastructure.

Most of the 1,500 visitors at the spa took refuge in the lobby and convention hall. Amid the aftershocks the staff rounded up extra clothes for hotel guests who had been clad in the resort's ubiquitous aloha shirts and muumuu dresses.

Initially Iwaki, 180 kilometers north of Tokyo, felt lucky by comparison. The city is ten miles inland and thus was spared the tsunami, which was responsible for most of the 20,000 deaths from the disaster. But within a few days it was evident the resort again faced an existential battle. The meltdown of reactors at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, 52 kilometers to the north, threw everyone into confusion, if not panic.

“We didn't know if we were safe or not,” recalls Murata. “The information put out by the government and the media kept changing and no one knew what was really happening.”

Amid the uncertainty the resort temporarily closed.

“We couldn't do anything,” says Murata.

Worried about the fate of the resort and Iwaki, he did have faith “that some day people would be able to return.”

It would be six months before operations partly resumed. During the hiatus the pipes supplying the hot springs water to the resort had to be inspected, the dome's integrity verified and the dancers' stage, damaged in a 6.0 magnitude aftershock in April, repaired.

The resort's 34 hula dancers, four fire knife performers and six musicians were sent on the road in a bus, to cheer up not only those who had evacuated their devastated communities but the rest of the country, as well.

“We were nervous. We didn't know what sort of reception we would get during the caravan,” says Mutsumi Kudo, 27, a sub-leader of the troupe.

Instead the dancers from Iwaki found the audiences, at 125 domestic venues (and one overseas trip to Seoul), trying to raise their spirits.

“They greeted us with signs saying 'Hang in There Hula Girls' and that made us very happy,” Kudo says.

The disaster transformed the troupe, according to Kudo, who joined seven years ago but first dreamed of being a hula dancer when, as a toddler, she saw a performance here.

“Before the Fukushima tragedy we took our audiences for granted. But now we are just happy to perform. It is not related to economics but rather a profound change in our hearts,” Kudo explains.

Her goal now, as part of Iwaki's third generation of dancers at the resort, is for “Fukushima to equal hula.”

Geiger Counters And Food Tests Reassure Visitors

That image has yet to take hold, as for many around the world Fukushima still equals radiation.

In Iwaki the radiation readings show a return to background levels recorded before the reactor meltdowns. It is Fukushima communities to the northeast, not south of the crippled power plant, which continue to see elevated readings. Some towns adjacent to the Fukushima-1 may be uninhabitable for many decades to come.

The resort's safety director, Takeshi Namatame, sweeps the hotel grounds daily with a Geiger counter, part of an investment of $75,000 worth of equipment purchased since last year for monitoring radiation.

“After commencing the testing and posting the results, guests from Tokyo and other metropolitan area began to feel reassured and starting coming back to our resort,” says Namatame. “They have the perception that our information is even more reliable than what government agencies release.”

Namatame has a laboratory where 15 to 20 food items that are sourced in the area are also tested daily for radiation. The water and the hot springs are checked weekly by an outside company.

This has helped Spa Resort Hawaiians fare better than Fukushima tourism in general.

"I thought it would be three years for us to recover to pre-quake levels, but it has only taken less than one year,” says resort general manager Ryuichi Sagi.

Bookings for the spa's 500 rooms are between 80 and 90 percent of pre-disaster levels for this time of year, while in the rest of Fukushima bookings are at about 50 percent.

“Older people don't seem to have much concern about the radiation,“ says sales manager Murata. “But mothers with small children still remain quite concerned about visiting Fukushima.”

Hiroki Hata from Saitama has come for a second visit with his three-year-old son.

“The situation here is not as bad as right after the disaster so I'm not worried,“ Hata says. “As long as we're not right next to the nuclear reactors there is really no concern.”

Resort Bounces Back As Symbol of Japanese Resilience

Some acknowledge they are visiting out of solidarity with hard-hit Fukushima.

“Right after the disaster I definitely wanted to support them and finally today I was able to do it,” says Sachi Konno, a visitor from Yamagata prefecture, which is also in the Tohoku region.

“I came to this resort 40 years ago but it has changed a lot since then,” she says. “It's wonderful. The attitude of the people of Fukushima gives me renewed energy."

Luring back the former regulars, as well as eventually reaching out to overseas visitors from overseas -- especially from China and South Korea - is seen as critical for the local economy.

Spa Resort Hawaiians employs 1,200 full-time and part-time staff and 90 percent are from Iwaki.

The property fully re-opened in February with additional rooms in the newly constructed 10-story Monolith Tower. The water from the natural hot springs is once again being piped into resort (including the world's largest outdoor spa water bath) and under the dome the thermometer again records a comfortable 28 degrees Celsius.

As they would say in Hawaii: just another day in paradise.

Reflecting on everything that has happened since March 11 of last year Sagi credits the people of Iwaki for doing their utmost in the face of adversity. “But we couldn't have recovered without everyone in Fukushima and support from across Japan.”

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Five-Nation Tour to Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary of state will visit Egypt, Qatar, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam to discuss security issues, Iran nuclear deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs