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

Changing Under Pressure, IS ‘Potent’ as Ever

US intel officials describe Ramadi's fall as concerning, but say it isn't emblematic of larger effort to degrade IS capabilities More

Nigeria Fuel Shortage Shows Fragility of Africa’s Oil Giant

Although it is the largest oil producer in Africa, country has nearly ran out of fuel it needs to power its generators, cars and airplanes over the past week More

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Cari
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
May 27, 2015 9:31 PM
Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs