The internet headline on the MySinchew website in April of last year declared:
"Japan hula girls to save hot springs from nuclear fallout"
The article reported, "They pulled on their grass skirts to help save their mining town once before, now Japan's Hula Girls plan to save it again, this time from becoming a nuclear ghost town. A spa resort on the cusp of the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant exclusion zone might be a difficult sell to tourists, but a group of Hawaiian-style dancers plan to do just that."
‘Fukushima Hula Girls’
The Japanese dancers' mission to promote the famous Spa Resort Hawaiians in Fukushima prefecture, following the devastating meltdown at the Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, is captured in the documentary, "Fukushima Hula Girls," screening on Friday in the McCoy Studio Theater in Kahului.
"The stark and harrowing implications of the earthquake that rocked Japan are shown in the unusual context of the impact on the Spa Resort Hawaiians, and in particular the resort's Hula Girls," noted a review on ScreenDaily. "Following the story of the resort's attempts at recovery allows a fascinating glimpse into the horrors of the disaster."
Established in 1966 to revitalize the economy of the waning coal mining town of Iwaki, Spa Resort Hawaiians became the inspiration for the 2006 movie "Hula Girls," featuring a soundtrack by Jake Shimabukuro.
"It was a mining town that had to reinvent itself for jobs because the mines were being closed down," explains kumu hula Uluwehi Guerrero, who has performed and taught at the spa for a number of years. "They were planning to build a spa in a geothermal area, but it wasn't just an ordinary spa, they wanted it to have a Hawaiian feel. At that time a lot of people were wanting to go to Hawaii, but it was so costly to travel all the way to the islands, so it was Japan's alternative to coming all the way here."
As portrayed in the movie based on the real life story, the town was put on the map by a nationwide tour of hula dancers from Iwaki, which sparked public interest in what seemed like an outlandish, palm-studded theme park 45 years ago. In the film, which won the 2007 Japan Academy prize for Best Picture, the daughters of coal miners initially drew indignation from their fellow townspeople.
"No one was familiar with hula then and they were very shy," said Takashi Wakamatsu, head of sales with Spa Resort Hawaiians, in a Bangkok Post interview. "Dancers were not regarded as professionals yet, plus hula dancers had to expose body parts."
In time the spa soon became a top tourist haven, attracting an annual 1.5 million visitors.
"Until the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns, Iwaki had been famed for two things, the Jyoban Hawaiian Center (later renamed the Spa Resort Hawaiians) and the Fukushima Hula Girls," noted a Japan Times article. "An exotic flower that bloomed in a cold climate and a heavily traditional culture, Hawaiians is probably the region's most ingenious invention."
"I've been going there for the past five or six years," Uluwehi reports. "They've been occasionally using me as their choreographer for the Hawaiian segment.
"I teach them a few Hawaiian numbers, usually kahiko and some hula auwana numbers.
"My impression of it when I first went there was like this is a Polynesian Cultural Center right in Japan. The moment you walked in there was tikis and tiki torches and Hawaiian music being played throughout the whole thing and people all dressed in Hawaiian. It was like going to a giant Hilo Hattie's convention, with lots and lots of people dressed in the same clothes. Like any spa that you go to in Japan they always give you spa clothes, but because it was a Hawaiian theme, it was spa clothes with a Hawaiian print.
"It's fully self-contained in a dome, so it was climate controlled all year round with tropical weather and it was really humid. They have the biggest indoor pool and part of it is a Spanish galleon ship and that's the stage and the whole show is done on the ship. They have everything from hula kahiko to hula auwana, to Maori to Tahitian dancing and fire knife, the full works like the Polynesian Cultural Center. And the Japanese go to every extent to make it as authentic as possible. So the dances are authentic, but all the faces are Japanese."
"They really embrace Hawaiian culture there," adds Jake Shimabukuro, who has also performed at the resort. "The hula dancers are so dedicated and committed to the art form. They really embrace the aloha spirit and they respect and honor the culture. I was very moved by that."
Jake, who traces his family roots to Fukushima, feels a special connection to the area. "When they approached me to do the soundtrack for the 'Hula Girls' movie I felt so connected to the story," he says. "And I got to learn a lot about my own roots. It was a great experience."
The resort was badly damaged by the devastating tsunami/earthquake on March 11, 2011. Immediately afterwards it became a sanctuary for many local people whose homes were destroyed or were evacuated from the nuclear exclusion zone. The spa is located around 35 miles south of the crippled nuclear power reactors.
Realizing a major public relations campaign was needed to help convince people to revisit the resort, especially with concerns about radiation levels, the Hula Girls were mobilized to conduct a five-month "Hula Girls National Kizuna Caravan" tour to perform and attempt to reassure public concerns.
Hoping to spread smiles and good spirits across Japan, they presented 247 performances, some in a number of the disaster-stricken areas.
"'Fukushima Hula Girls' is a tribute to the history of Hawaiians and the Hula Girls, as well as a celebration of its resurrection," praised The Japan Times.
The same article reported that the documentary's director, Masaki Kobayashi, thought about the dancers when the meltdown happened. "A lot of Japanese know the Fukushima Hula Girls are the treasure of Tohoku," he said. "This is only the beginning of a long, arduous road. But at least they're smiling."
In late June, a nine-member troupe of Maui Taiko drummers traveled to Japan to participate in the Fukushima Taiko Festival in Bandai Atami. They performed at the Spa Resorts Hawaiians and visited temporary housing areas and communities of people displaced by the quake.
What was the experience like for them?
"We had mixed feelings because of concern about the radiation," says Maui Taiko member Kay Fukumoto. "Our tour started at the Spa Resorts and we saw the documentary in May. Knowing how much devastation the spa had endured, we weren't sure what we were going to see. But the resort has come back a lot, parts look almost normal."
The Maui group brought a documentary to show, "Great Grandfather's Drum," which tells the story of how Japanese-Americans forged a life in Hawaii.
"It was really touching because we got together with the Iwaki-Hawaii community," Kay says. "Iwaki is a sister city with Kauai. We took our film and shared it with them. Several Japanese people felt our film was an inspiration to those who are starting from nothing, almost the same story of the Japanese who came here with nothing. It resonated with them."
Touring the area, the Maui folks were shocked by the level of devastation they encountered.
"It's hard to describe," she says. "You see it on television in the news, but there's no way to express how bad the disaster was."
As for the Dai-Ichi nuclear power station north of the spa, workers are still struggling to contain radiation. Japanese officials recently reported that gamma rays from the rubble left by the accident are now a greater concern than radioactive cesium that is still being emitted from the crippled plant.
On a recent business trip to Tokyo, nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen took five random soil samples around the city and all five were so radioactive that they would be considered radioactive waste in America and would need special disposal.
A study just published in the magazine Nature revealed that the nuclear fallout has produced mutant butterflies in the area. And 17 months after the disaster, radioactive cesium measuring 258 times greater than the level Japan's government deems safe for human consumption has been found in ocean fish caught near the damaged plant.