Aloooo-ha, ladies and gentlemen, and variations thereof!
Sing along, y’all, “Dreams do come true in Blue Hawaii and mine might all come true on this magical night of nights with you…”
Hawaii, a postcard image of hula girls, luaus, sun and surf in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Or, um, in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. With a little imagination, that is.
Formerly known as the Joban Hawaiian Center, it is now Spa Resort Hawaiians, a theme park featuring Japan’s tallest waterslide, hot springs, live entertainment, restaurants, hotels and shopping.
Coal was discovered near the foot of Mount Abukuma in the mid-18th century, and by the 1940s, Joban Mine became the largest coal mine in Honshu. The country’s core industries were coal fueled in the 1950s when coal began to dwindle as the world began to switch to oil and the writing was on the wall.
The Vice President of Joban Mine decided to do something drastic – create a Hawaiian-themed resort in the frigid rural town of Iwaki. If that wasn’t some crazy, absurd, ridiculous idea, then I don’t know what is.
And it was a Herculean feat to get local conservative and skeptical Tohoku people on board!
The heartwarming Japanese film “Hula Girls” follows the successful transformation of the working-class mining town into one based on hospitality and entertainment. Amazingly, the Hawaiian theme park, which opened in 1966, is still thriving today.
Visiting Spa Hawaiians who knew this setting made me appreciate it far more than if I had just stumbled across another water amusement park.
There is a daily free shuttle bus to and from Tokyo, Yokohama, Saitama, and Chiba for people staying at any of the on-site hotels, but I wasn’t staying the night so I drove.
Two hours after leaving Tokyo by car, I showed my QR code at the entrance and entered Hawaii. It was crowded, like Waikiki during Golden Week.
I walked around to get my bearings, checking out the water parks, gardens, live theaters and stages, chill out areas, gift shops and more.
I decided to plan my day over lunch at the Palm buffet restaurant. The fare was nothing special, but it was fun to dip mini puff pastries in a chocolate fountain and make cotton candy.
My favorite spot, which seemed to be the least popular, was the excellent Hula Museum considering how empty it was. No time for the real thing? Fukushima is waiting.
* * *
This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born, Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the October 16 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the Lisa’s Wanderings Around Japan series, which depicts various locations across the country from the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.