Editor’s Note: Japan is struggling to define its future energy policy. The island nation is at a crossroads. Political sentiment following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami is moving it away from its once heralded nuclear power program. Like Hawaii, efforts to boost renewable energy are in high gear. Civil Beat’s Joe Rubin was in the country on an international journalism fellowship to learn how Hawaii could benefit from Japan’s intensive program to harness renewable energy.

You might think that a conference about the sobering topic of nuclear safety, which I attended this week in Fukushima Prefecture, would be the last place you would find hula dancers. After all, people in Fukushima haven’t had a lot of reasons to dance for joy of late. Thousands died as a result of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. And of course there was the triple meltdown at Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant that displaced over 100,000 people.

But conference attendees from 110 countries also were reminded that there is a lot more to Fukushima than its recent troubles. The event was held in a gleaming conference center in the bustling city of Koriyama. Outside conference sessions on topics like “protection of people and the environment from ionizing radiation” were a few tables with locally produced goods and tourist information. I met a peach farmer who served juice from the recent harvest (certified radiation free). It was delicious. And then there were the hula dancers who were the star attraction of an opening night dinner. You can see some of their performance in the video below.

The dancers hail from the coastal Fukushima city of Ibaka. As you might have guessed there is a story there. Back in the 1960’s Ibaka was an economically distressed coal-mining town. Someone had the bright idea of taking advantage of local hot springs and started a resort, adding the twist of a Hawaiian theme. Spa Resort Hawaiian was born. Palm trees were imported and local girls learned the art of hula dancing. The resort, with the hula girls as the primary attraction, became fabulously successful, attracting over a million guests per year. A popular 2006 movie, Hula Girls, even captured the rags to riches story.

Flash forward to the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster. Spa Resort Hawaiian suffered structural damage and had to close. But the far bigger hit was to the resorts image. Concern about radiation leaking from the Dai-Ichi nuclear plant 35 miles to the north was a major obstacle to restarting operations. Again the hula girls came to the rescue, going on a national tour to generate excitement about the resort reopening and to reassure the public it was safe. It reopened in February and business is reportedly rebounding. I didn’t get a chance to stop by, but if you’re planning a trip to Japan, Spa Resort Hawaiian might be a way to soak in some thermals, a see a unique hybrid of Japanese and Hawaiian culture and support the recovery of Fukushima.

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