Unswayed by disaster, Iwaki spa hulas anew

by Monami Yui and Mariko Ishikawa

Bloomberg

A Hawaiian theme park that has propped up the economy of a rural town in Fukushima Prefecture for 45 years was forced to shut down after the March 11 disasters, but a little less than a year later the hula girls have returned.

Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki has opened its indoor pools and will start hosting wedding parties and luaus in a new hotel.

The resort — a half-covered complex six times the size of Tokyo Dome and surrounded by rice fields and hot springs — closed due to structural damage from the 9.0-magnitude temblor and concerns about radiation leaking from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant 60 km to the north.

The spa, which was featured in the award-winning 2006 film “Hula Girls,” offers a rare example of a community bouncing back from the Great East Japan Earthquake.

“The spa’s return to business is a symbol of recovery in a sense that it can cheer up the local community and provide huge economic support,” said Hiroyasu Ishikawa, chief researcher at Mizuho Research Institute Ltd. “If folks from around Japan visit the (Spa Resort) Hawaiians, it might spur Tohoku’s regional recovery.”

The resort contributed ¥1.7 trillion to the region’s economy during its 40 years in business, according to Ishikawa. While not economically significant to the nation as a whole, the resort is a symbol of resilience in a pocket of the country that has been in decline for decades.

Iwaki was a coal-mining town until a shift to oil-fueled power generation led to mines closing in the 1960s, threatening its existence. With few other options, the municipal assembly voted to transform the town into a tourism destination by using natural hot springs to supply a spa. The facility opened in 1966 and was initially called the Joban Hawaiian Center. It is now managed by Joban Kosan Co. and employs about 700 staff.

The town could be a model for other rural communities facing possible extinction. While Tokyo’s annual gross domestic product grew 2.2 percent to ¥89.7 trillion over the 11-year period that ended in December 2008, Fukushima Prefecture’s shrank by 7.2 percent to ¥7.7 trillion in the same period, according to Cabinet Office data.

Fukushima was the nation’s fourth-largest rice-growing region in 2010, but accounts for less than 2 percent of national GDP.

“A shrinking population means we need to attract lots of people from outside or sell local goods outside for growth,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Insurance Research Institute in Tokyo. “All of rural Japan faces this problem. With a lower birthrate and aging population, we have to rely on tourism or agriculture. Fukushima would be a good model and will be watched closely.”

Almost 2,800 villages may be in danger of disappearing, according to a report released last March by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry about migration and the aging population. In the same report, 16 percent of the villages said more than half their inhabitants were aged 65 or above.

The number of people in Fukushima Prefecture fell to 1.9 million as of Jan. 1, down from 2.1 million in 1990.

Another report released in July by the internal affairs ministry showed the number of towns and villages threatened with depopulation stood at 44.9 percent in 2010, up from 32.3 percent in 1972. The megalopolises of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka accounted for 15 percent of Japan’s population in 1960, but more than half the population was living in the three cities as of 2010. The number of people in Tokyo, meanwhile, rose to a record 13.2 million as of Jan. 1, according to census data.

The troupe of hula dancers, many of them from Iwaki, went on a five-month nationwide tour after the March calamities to reassure the public that the city and resort were safe from radiation.

In the four months since the leisure complex opened partially in October, visitor numbers are down 60 percent from levels a year ago. But Eisuke Suzuki, a spokesman for the resort, said he expects visitor numbers to return to the predisaster level of around 1.45 million a year by 2014.

In anticipation of a rebound in business, the resort is recruiting wedding planners, cleaning staff and beauty stylists, who can earn as much as ¥4,000 per hour, according to an ad posted on Livedoor’s website.

The first wedding since the closure is scheduled for Feb. 25, the spa’s website said.