Fukushima #5: Hula Dance (フラダンス)

Hula Dance?! In Fukushima, Japan?! You might be pretty confused as to why the hula girls of the Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki are on a postcard depicting famous things from Japan, but let me tell you the history of the resort and a story, and I think you’ll agree they deserve a postcard too!

Originally called the Joban Hawaiian Center, Spa Resort Hawaiians is a resort and theme park originally built in the 1960’s as a way to utilize the hot springs of a once-prominent coal mine which was becoming obsolete in the face of oil becoming more popular as a major source of energy. The Joban Company came up with the idea of using the hot springs in a resort, and chose a Hawaiian theme. It was the first in the country.

You can’t have a Hawaiian themed resort without hula girls, right? Most places at that time hired outside troupes, but Joban wanted to keep things in-house… so the company trained up the daughters of its miners to perform. The company kept its miner employees and their families instead of hiring outside the company, promoted area ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotels), and bought locally as much as possible to help the town’s economy recover from the loss of the coal business. The hula girls went on a performance journey through Japan to promote the resort, and as a result, the opening was a huge success (The girls’ stories were even made into a popular movie, Hula Girls).

On March 11, 2011 a huge 9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of the Tohoku Region, causing damage throughout the region and the initial earthquake and aftershocks to be felt down through the Kanto region and up as far as Hokkaido. 30 minutes after the first quake hit, a giant tsunami hit the coastline of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures, causing widespread death and destruction to the region. Moreover, due to the proximity to the sea, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant also suffered damage, and one of its cores suffered a meltdown.

The Spa Resort Hawaiians was damaged, mostly by the aftershocks, and had to close. The resort also worried about even being able to reopen, as fear about the radiation from the plant meltdown had people reluctant to visit the entirety of Fukushima, despite the damage being confined to a small area of the prefecture. Remembering their successful tour when the resort first opened, the Hula Girls of the Spa Resort Hawaiians once again toured the country, bringing hope and happiness to people in the aftermath of a devastating disaster. They also visited several evacuation centers to lift spirits of those most affected by the quake and tsunami, and are therefore seen as a symbol of hope to the people of Tohoku. So while it is perhaps a little odd to see hula on a postcard about famous things from Japan, they’ve definitely earned their spot!

The Hula Girls aren’t usually on tour, so if you’re interested in visiting them and seeing a show, head over to Iwaki and The Spa Resort Hawaiians to catch them. You can also enjoy a waterpark, relax at a traditional style Japanese hot spring, and enjoy the resort’s facilities including getting your own hula dance lessons!

Rivalry Part 1: Niigata #3 – Uesugi Kenshin (上杉謙信)

Postacollect Gotochi postcards usually depict famous goods, foods, or places, but of the 282 current cards, 10 feature famous people from the prefectures (11 if you count the folklore legend Momotaro from Okayama).

My next posts will introduce two of these: Niigata’s Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578) and Yamanashi’s Takeda Shingen (1521-1573). These two were both daimyo (warlords) in the Sengoku (warring states) era of Japanese history, and their long-standing rivalry and respect for one another is famous even (especially!) today. Since I’m speaking about their rivalry however, they will both feature in each others’ post, so be sure to read both!

Uesugi Kenshin was the daimyo of Echigo province, and Takeda Shingen the daimyo of Kai Province, which are now the modern-day prefectures of Niigata and Yamanashi. Their rivalry lasted for 14 years until Takeda’s death in 1573, and they engaged in many battles over the years. However despite their rivalry on the battlefield, they seemed to have held a great deal of respect for each other. It is said that Takeda sent Uesugi many gifts over the years, including a very valuable sword, while Uesugi refused to attack Takeda during a vulnerable time while he was being sieged, and even sent him precious salt, saying “wars are to be won with swords and spears, not with rice and salt”. Uesugi’s honorable conduct towards Takeda, despite their multiple meetings on the battlefield, shows his true “samurai spirit”, and the same can be said of Takeda.

Their rivalry and lives catch the imaginations people today, as evidenced by the large number of samurai movies, games, and goods that are produced for public consumption, and there are many places around Japan to learn about the history of these two figures. You can read about and explore some of these places here.

Interestingly, while Uesugi is considered to be “from” Niigata, his actual birthplace and the seat of his lands was actually in Yonezawa, Yamagata prefecture, not Niigata. I’ve been to the site of the former castle that housed Uesugi, and the shrine that now stands on the castle grounds. It is a really interesting shrine that honors Uesugi, and there is an Uesugi Kenshin festival held there every year in late April/early May, where thousands of “samurai warriors” parade through the streets. Here are some pictures from the shrine during the preparation for this festival:

These boards on the way to the shrine have information on Uesugi, Takeda, and some of the other figures of the time.

Banners with each daimyo’s name, family crest, and picture lead up to the main shrine buildings

Close up of two of the banners

There is also a museum and a mausoleum in Yonezawa containing information, artifacts, and the burials of the Uesugi clan.

Following this post is another with more information on Takeda Shingen.

Fukushima #4 – Okiagari Koboshi (起き上がり小法師)

Okiagari Koboshi are dolls with rounded bottoms, so that when you push them over, they don’t fall but roll back up into standing position. Dolls such as these are made all over Japan, with different styles and looks depending on where they come from. In fact, two other prefectures also feature dolls that wont knock down, Gunma’s Daruma dolls and Ishikawa’s cute Okiagari dolls. I’ll be writing about Gunma Daruma soon, but today let’s focus on Fukushima.

Okiagari dolls across the board are considered good luck charms of perseverance and resilience, and are usually made of paper mache. Fukushima dolls are painted most commonly in red and blue, with white and simplistic faces.

These were bought at Ouchijuku, but they can be found all over Fukushima

Mini Okiagari Koboshi with a matching mini postcard!

The most famous time to buy these dolls is during the Tokaichi (10th Day) Market in January in Aizu-Wakamatsu. You should throw a handful on the ground to check how well they stand back up, and buy the ones that do since those are considered lucky! Be sure to purchase one for each member of the family, plus one for future growth!

Fukushima 2 – Akabeko (赤べこ)

Fukushima Prefecture’s second postcard is a cute little red cow called “aka-beko” in Japanese. “Aka” is the word for red, while “beko” is a local dialect word for cow (usually “ushi”). Legend has it that during building a temple called Enzoji, a local village donated timber for its construction, but had a hard time transporting the large amount to the area. Somehow a red cow was involved, though whether it appeared out of nowhere to help, or was used to transport faithfully then died when the temple was completed, is contested. Whatever the original story, the cow is considered a symbol of good fortune and devotion to Buddha, and is popular for all ages today.

The cows are usually made out of paper mache and string. The head is connected to the body in a way that allows it to move side-to-side and up-and-down. It is very cute!

You can find them at many places in Fukushima for sale. I bought mine at Ouchijuku, but they are available around the prefecture.

My own akabeko with the mini Akabeko card!

If you arrive at Aizu-Wakamatsu station, there is a giant akabeko on display outside for more picture-taking opportunities. You can also visit Enzoji Temple to see an akabeko there as well, along with a cow statue and to hear the story. Read more about Enzoji here.

Fukushima 6 – Ouchijuku (大内宿)

Ouchijuku is a post town isolated in the mountains a little south of Aizu-Wakamatsu City, Fukushima Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan north of Tokyo. In the Edo period, post towns were frequent along major roads connecting different areas of the country, as not only were samurai required to visit their lords often, non-samurai classes were regulated to traveling only on foot, necessitating frequent stops along the roads for food and lodging. Ouchijuku is located along the Aizu Nishi Kaido route, connecting Aizu with Tochigi Prefecture’s famous Nikko. Although many post towns along this and other routes are still there today, very few have been preserved to look and feel like they did in the Edo period. Ouchijuku, therefore, is one of the few that take visitors back to a bygone era.

Ouchijuku can be reached by train to Aizu-Wakamatsu and then by bus, or by car. The town has several restaurants and shops, a museum, a small shrine, and an even smaller temple, but no places for tourists to stay, so overall not much time is needed to explore the area, making it a quick and fun day trip from other places. You can read more about it at Japan Guide here.

Postcard and post town

Another view from the small temple lookout

Looking up toward the small temple

There are many shops selling food and souvenirs along the way

Many famous souvenirs can be bought there, two of which are also featured on Fukushima’s postcards: Aka-beko and Okiagari Koboshi, both of which I’ve also written about here.