Coal-miners’ daughters lure tourists back to Japan’s ‘Hawaii’, writes Santha Oorjitham
THE hula girls, backed by a Hawaiian band, are performing to an almost full house of women, in bright orange muumuus, as well as men and children in identical aloha attire.
It wouldn’t be an unusual scene in Honolulu. But this is Iwaki city in southern Fukushima prefecture — a year after an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear crisis struck Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region.
In March 2011, Spa Resort Hawaiians was shut down due to structural damage from the magnitude-9 quake and fears of radiation leaking from the Dai-Ichi nuclear plant 50km to the north.
Two of the dancers’ family homes were swept away by the tsunami and six of their family homes were within the exclusion zone around the plant. “They were forced to evacuate,” recalls sales planning manager Takashi Wakamatsu.
Since they couldn’t dance at the resort, the 34 hula girls, six band musicians and four fire knife dancers hit the road with a nationwide kizuna (people-to-people) tour. Their first show was at an evacuation centre for Fukushima residents. “They were victims and yet, they were dancing for other victims,” says Wakamatsu.
“We wanted to show we were fine and to encourage other Japanese people with our dancing,” adds Mai Yamagiwa, one of the troupe.
After performing at 125 venues across the country, they held their final concert in Iwaki city in October. While they were away, Spa Resort Hawaiians had sheltered evacuees from the exclusion zone around the nuclear plant. At the peak, it hosted 500 of the 160,000 who were forced out of their homes.
The last of the evacuees left in September last year and the resort, which is 200km north of Tokyo, reopened partially in October. In February this year, there was a grand opening of its hotels, theme parks and golf courses.
In the traditional Japanese rooms, guests sleep on a thick futon on tatami mats. On a low table are traditional buns and a tea set with all the makings of maccha (green tea). And in the bathroom, water from the Iwaki Yumoto hot springs feeds directly into a deep bath — which guests scoop out with a dipper.
Five and a half tonnes of water gush out every minute. Patrons believe the sulphur, salt and sulphate heal back ailments and “feminine disorders”.
The hot spring also supplies the world’s largest open-air bath, separated by gender. And at the water park, palm trees and hula girls sway under a dome which keeps the temperature at 28 Celsius all year.
The past year is not the first time the area has reinvented itself. Iwaki used to be a coal-mining town, but by the mid-1960s, power producers were switching to oil and coal also became too expensive to extract.
“We found we had to excavate 40 tonnes of hot springs water in order to get one tonnes of coal,” recalls Wakamatsu. So the Joban Kosan Co decided to exploit the hot springs instead.
The resort opened in 1966, targeting Japanese tourists whose favourite foreign destination had been Hawaii. The first group of hula dancers were daughters of coal-miners. Yamagiwa herself is the granddaughter of a miner.
Last year, the city was devastated not only by the earthquake but by what the Japanese call fuhyo higai (harmful rumours). Because people had not been given accurate information about radiation, explains Wakamatsu, after the disaster struck, drivers were afraid to come to Iwaki. Residents had to drive to other towns to buy petrol, food, drink and other supplies.
Today, he reports, radiation in Iwaki city is 0.2 microsieverts or less at all hours in the city centre and northern parts of the city closest to the nuclear power plant, and lower elsewhere — levels which “all experts agree are absolutely no threat to health.”
Almost the entire infrastructure in Tohoku region has been repaired — including most of the roads, railways, airports and ports.
About 61 per cent, 48 per cent and 36 per cent of reservations made for March-April last year were cancelled in the Tohoku region, Kanto area (Tokyo and the surrounding area) and the whole of Japan respectively after the triple disaster last year.
But the numbers are picking up this year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation. For example, the number of Malaysian visitors to Japan dropped by 19 per cent in February 2011, compared to the year before. But this year, the preliminary February arrivals show a slight increase of 2.4 per cent.
During the March school holidays in Japan, Spa Resort Hawaiians was almost fully booked. And elsewhere in the Tohoku region, local tourists are also returning.
Hiraizumi in Iwate, the second largest prefecture in Tohoku, received a huge boost last June when the ancient capital was inscribed as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage site.
Since it is far from the coast, it was not affected by the tsunami and suffered little damage from the earthquake. Its temples received evacuees from elsewhere in Tohoku and held special services for the dead.
Today, visitors are flocking again to the historic town’s main attraction, Chuson-ji temple — founded in 850 by Ennin, head abbot of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. In the early 12th Century, the first Oshu Fujiwara lord, Kiyohira, began construction of a complex with more than 40 halls and pagodas, and over 300 monks’ residences.
Its Konjikido (Golden Hall) is registered as the country’s top national treasure. Completed in 1124, it houses a statue of the Buddha of Infinite Light, amidst walls and eaves decorated with some 30,000 pieces of gold leaf.
Typical of the Heian period, the mausoleum for four generations of Fujiwara lords features Southeast Asian rosewood with mother-of-pearl inlays and African ivory. And the nearby museum contains over 3,000 treasures — including the Chuson-ji sutras, the complete transcriptions of the holy canon of Buddhism on dark blue paper in gold and silver ink.
Ennin founded another temple, Motsuji, in Hiraizumi and Kiyohira’s son Motohira began building a similar complex. But several fires at the end of the 12th Century burned all the buildings. The only original feature remaining today is its Pure Land Garden — depicted through reproductions of the region’s mountains, cliffs, beaches and islands.
AH, AH MATSUSHIMA!
Over in Miyagi prefecture, Matsushima is billed as one of Japan’s three most scenic sites — with more than 260 islands, studded with pine trees, in the bay. The islands acted as a buffer during the tsunami and there was little damage.
Matsuo Basho, a famous poet of the Edo era, is said to have written this haiku when struck speechless by the view:
A-ah, Matsuhima, ah!
Tohoku region is famed not only for its scenery but for various delicacies. Matsushima, for example, is known for the flavour of its oysters — which have been exposed to the rough currents off the Sanriku coast, considered one of the world’s three best fishing grounds.
Sendai, in Miyagi prefecture, is recognised for its award-winning sake. One of the best comes from the Urakasumi brewery, founded in 1724.
For an offbeat treat, there is Tohoku’s unique take on the Kit Kit wafer — edamame (soy bean) flavour. Many other regions in Japan have their own special editions such as wasabi, cheesecake, tofu, strawberry, cinnamon cookies, apple and even the seasonal sakura maccha (cherry blossoms with green tea) in spring. And this spring, hope is returning to the region with the tourists.
“I have faith in the future,” declares Yamagiwa, the hula dancer in Iwaki. “We are doing our best in this recovery. I hope many people will come to enjoy our city.”
The writer’s visit was courtesy of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.