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

    Saudi Arabia’s New Female Politicians in the Other Room 

    Many in Saudi Arabia say elected representatives should share unsegregated spaces; according to a recent survey, more than half the Saudi population, both men and women, prefer to work in a segregated place

    Russia Not ‘Apologetic’ for Syria Airstrikes

    With Moscow criticized for targeting armed opponents of President Assad, Russia’s UN envoy says his country ‘acting in a very transparent manner’

    Pakistan Warns of Islamic State's Growing Reach

    Aftab Sultan, General Director General of Intelligence Bureau (IB), briefed Senate Committee in closed hearing, saying that IS-linked groups have been expanding in Pakistan

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.