The Spa Resort Hawaiians, to be exact. Founded back in 1966, the Spa Resort Hawaiians is located in Iwaki, Fukushima - about an hour and half on the road from Fukushima City. It is the first theme park to be built in Japan - an indoor water park built to replicate the look and feel of Hawaii. It wasn't built all for fun and recreation though, it was built out of necessity when the coal mining town of Iwaki faced an economical crisis and people were losing their only source of income. As the Hula Girls and the Spa Resort Hawaiians flourished, the town rejoiced in a new source of income to sustain their lives.
There's actually a movie produced based on their story, titled Hula Girls.
Please watch it, such a properly done film and holds a few touching moments.
Plus one of favourite Japanese actress Aoi Yuu stars in the movie! ♥
Then disaster struck the Spa Resort Hawaiians on 3rd March, 2011. This is their story.
A 9.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Fukushima (and around Tohoku) and the aftershock continued on for three minutes. At that exact moment, there were more than 1000 guests in the hotel area, 1500 guests in the park area and 700 resort employees. At the same time, free shuttle buses just arrive from Tokyo, carrying more guests. Many have seeked shelter at the main lobby, but as the communal bath is located on the 6th floor, employees moved the crowd to the open space parking lots instead for safety. It was a snowing yet many guests stood in their swimsuits on the windy late winter day. Those who came by their own cars left immediately on their own. Phone lines were cut out, but there were still information on the earthquake and tsunami warning in Miyagi on the TV. What about Fukushima? Why were there no information on Fukushima and can guests actually return to Tokyo safely? There were mass confusion everywhere but employees were calm and seeked information as best they could. They sound out that neighbours in the reidential areas nearby didn't have water, electricity nor phone lines. Luckily, Spa Resort Hawaiians had enough water and electricity for 1000 guests to last for five days. Their #1 priority : Take care of customers' safety. Everyone was moved to the lower building hall and employees managed to serve everyone meals in the evening on 3rd March. Any information on the current situation were communicated to the guests immediately by radio and/or personally.
On the next day, people got information from the Internet. 100,000 residents in Tokyo had difficulty heading home and the resort authorities felt it was yet unsafe for guests to journey back to Tokyo. At night, selected employees left the resort to personally check on the two routes back to Tokyo for safety precautions. Unfortunately, one route was too small for busses to pass through and another route would take a 12-hour drive to arrive Tokyo. Even bathrooms and convenience stores along the 12-hour route were checked, as it was going to be a long journey back. On the following morning, 630 guests were boarded on 18 chartered busses to return to Tokyo, fully supplied with snacks and drinks. Two accompanying cars went along in case any passengers got sick and everyone finally reached Tokyo at 10PM.
After that, operations of the Hawaiians were halted. As of the end of March, 800 employees were reluctantly released from employment. The situation was duly explains and despite tears and devastations, the employees understood and expressed hopes to return should operation resumed. Next, the resort authorities thought about what to do for the evacuees in Iwaki. They decided to open the communal baths for public use, and provided busses to and fro for their convenience. On 11th April, another sequence of 7.1 magnitude aftershocks hit Fukushima and caused more extensive damages than the previous earthquake. There were huge gaps on the roads, stages, pools and activity halls collapsed and destroyed. As the future was yet unsure, the resort authorities could not be sure of any restoration plans.
Spa Resort Hawaiians also began to take in evacuees from Hironomachi as temporary shelter in the safer areas of the resort. In total, 31127 evacuees in total who stayed for 112 days. Daily activities like doing laundry brought in different sets of concerns like guests nailing the walls to hang laundry lines across the room, but it didn't matter anymore and the resort authorities allowed the guests to do as they like. The remaining employees continued to clean everyday to the point where they were starting to feel burdened and thus were offered help by volunteer workers from the nearby vicinities who had nothing else to do after the disaster. Restoration slowly begin.
Spa Resort Hawaiians intended to reopen its doors to the public on 11th October and in an effort to cheer up the people, the Hula Girls toured around Japan in a total of 245 shows in 26 different places. They came back to Iwaki, Fukushima on the 31st September and on 8th February, Spa Resort Hawaiians officially reopened its doors with a grand opening ceremony. Damages to the pools and buildings were completely restored and guests who were there during the disaster came back, bought lots of souvenirs for the employees and wanted to pay for their previous stay. One guest so appreciated the resort's efforts that the booked the same hotel room for the following year and wanted to spend 11th March every year in the resort. Evacuees who lived there wanted to express their heartfelt gratitude and painted blooming cherry blossoms trees along the resorts. They also planted several cherry blossom trees nearby as a sign of gratitude and hope for recovery.
That, my friend, is crisis management at its best.
On the 14th June, I had the opportunity to visit the Spa Resort Hawaiians.
Spent some time listening to the above story and lunch was soon served
Then we were guided into the ultimate tropical paradise that is Hawaii ♥
Looks absolutely sunny and gorgeous huh! A step into the spa resort serves you a great big wave of heat and humidity. It was a rather chilly late spring but as soon as we entered, I was like "HELLO MALAYSIA". It wasn't very pleasant for me wtf YOU know exactly how much I don't fancy hot humid weather. It took some time for me to get used to it. Maybe it's because I didn't get into the water like many of them? I'm sure it was mighty fun to prance around in the water in such humidity but I just wasn't (mentally) prepared hahaha surely the contrast would be more favourable if we were in the middle of a bitter cold winter. Next thing I know, Takahashi-san and I were whisked away for a live national radio interview. I could get used to this lifestyle lol
Quickly after the interview, we went towards the stage area as the dances were about the start!
We all enjoyed the colourful and energetic performances so much!
At one point they even invited guests to go up on stage to learn the hula dance but I was too shy for that hahahaha took so many photographs instead, but only these few came up relatively less blurry than the rest, fml. After the show, many left off for the pool and I found myself some some non-swimmers yay! The few of us explored the area on foot and went into the many shops and stalls, stopping by for the occasional ice cream and drinks. Ice cream for me please, take my money. We did bumped into the other groups and had such good times chatting and making fun of each other. Natsuki is so accomodating and super funny lah!
That's Natsuki, Hikaru and Erika with me ♥
With Ribon ♥ She's from Taiwan, flawless Japanese language. Love hanging out with her!
The organizers also reserved a little lounging room for us.
We ordered some coconuts and pineapple juices, true to the Hawaii spirit!
Nah, the day's radiation level readings.
As the day wears on, we were ready to depart back to Fukushima City. So lovely to be back in the cool air again, almost felt as if I had transported between two different countries with just a step. On the way back, we passed by this activity happening on some paddy fields. When asked, the translator explained that this is the process of land decontamination. Basically several inches of radiation-contaminated earth are stripped off and contained to be disposed for safety precautions. Farmers here are not too happy with this though, because their entire hardwork are literally being torn apart and there's nothing they could do but watch. There's no other way around it though, decontamination has to be done throughout the entire area and it's a slow but steady progress.
There were many things we saw and many stories heard throughout the whole week of this program, but it was this evening journey back to Fukushima City that left a significant mark on my memory. We were all in the bus and I was seated on the first few front rows. All the way until Fukushima, the group of us in front were chatting and talking and sharing until we arrived about two hours later. I usually fall asleep right away in moving vehicles but this time, I happily stayed alert as the conversation flowed from Japanese pop culture to learning Bahasa Malaysia to travel adventures to background stories to hopes and dream and many pleasant things. Despite the language barrier, it was all so seamless and easy-going that I never once felt like a foreigner in a group of (mostly) locals. I guess that made it memorable, the fact that I fit in just for that moment and it felt good to be accepted for a bit (✿◠‿◠)