Saturday, July 11, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: Hula Girls!

(I wrote this more than a month ago!)

I'm sitting in the parking lot of Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki City, Japan. Why sit in the parking lot writing a blog post while the rest of my wife's family enjoys themselves inside? Well, let's just say the place is climate controlled. For tropical weather. It's the kind of place where street clothes are actively discouraged, and unfortunately, I wasn't ready to get my bathing suit on. I'll spare you the photos of the sweat stains and the goofy American guy walking around in Doc Martens while the rest of the place goes barefoot. (Honestly, though, I wasn't the only guy there who was overdressed.)

So why the hell did I come here in the first place?

For the Hula Girls!

One of the goofy Japanese chick flicks my wife coerced me into watching was about this place. As usual, I think I ended up liking it better than her, even though it's totally manipulative and sappy. Still, it really was a true story - pretty much all of it, apparently - and that makes it a little easier to take at face value.

This used to be an isolated coal mining town, until the coal ran out and the mining company moved away. The government's bright idea to save the town was to build an indoor theme park modeled on Hawaii. The showpiece would be a hula dance troupe made up of girls from around the towns of Joban and Yumoto. Given that nobody in this conservative little area had any experience doing anything except mining coal, a lot of people obviously thought this was a crazy idea. But, well, it wouldn't be a very good movie if it ended there, right?

So a cosmopolitan but otherwise washed-up dance teacher arrives from Tokyo, at first much too diva-ish for this little town full of men and women who still think showing a little ankle is taboo. But eventually her group of spunky wannabe dancers wins her over, and with her help they convert the rest of the town into believers. And waddaya know, it works. The Joban Hawaiian Center (as it was called back then, and is still colloquially called now) saves the town, with the Hula Girls drawing massive crowds.

More than 40 years later, they still do.

Here's the kinda lame trailer to the movie:

I'm not sure if the girls are all still from around town. They don't really look it - they look Polynesian, although some of that's obviously just makeup and hair style. But they're clearly professionals now - I mean, this has been a famous dance troupe for decades at this point.

There are two big dance shows per day, plus a few smaller ones sprinkled throughout (there's one just for kids). We went to the early show, which probably isn't quite as elaborate as the later one, but it was just too hot to even consider staying. I mean I know I talked about it already, but walking in there from outside is like a slap in the face every time. It's like hitting a wall of humidity. Honestly, I've been to Hawaii, and Hawaii is not like this. I wasn't sure I'd even make it through the show. I had to prepare - we bought a Chinese-style fan ($16), a towel ($5), and a bottle of water ($1.50) before I could sit in any semblance of comfort. My wife wasn't quite so bad - I did fan her a bit too, but it's like this in late summer everywhere in Japan, so she's kind of used to it.

It was worth it, though. Hula is one of those dances that's hard to really get until you see it live (though the movie version's pretty good too). It is amazing how those girls move. It is a sexy dance. And actually really graceful too; it's not all booty-shaking like you usually see on TV, though there was plenty of that in the finale. It's kind of like a combination of ballet and pole dancing.

I have to mention the fire guys too, who may well have been in the movie for all I know, but I don't remember. But they were amazing, doing the whole fire baton twirling thing, really really fast, without making any mistakes whatsoever. Totally perfect, all three of them, and each also doing crazy stuff like licking the fire, or grabbing the fire on one end of the baton and setting fire to the other end with their bare hands.

If you do actually come better prepared than we did, there's a lot of other stuff to do at this place - water slides, wave pools, etc. There's also a real spa, as the name suggests, an arcade, various restaurants, and a hula museum, most of which is more specific to the Hawaiian Center than hula in general. They've got a big exhibit on the movie too - these are some of the real costumes the characters wore:

Oh, one thing - the movie apparently wasn't filmed here, but it looks really similar. They've changed the configuration since the 1960's anyway, and the photos in the museum from that era look almost exactly like the movie. It's uncanny. Watching the show really felt like being in the movie, even with the stage facing the opposite way. I highly recommend the movie, and I even more highly recommend seeing the show live if you can.

If you do go, you really need to stop at Papa bakery on the way out. Japanese bread is a whole post unto itself (hmmmmm...) and this is some of the best I've ever had.

That's a melon pan, a curry pan, a cream puff, and some other stuff for the family. Really, really yummy.


  1. Hula Girls; Swing Girls; we love all this modern sentai stuff :-)


  2. I just love goofy Japanese entertainment in general, ever since when I saw the Power Rangers fighting the cross between an octopus and a pine tree (seriously!).

    Then there was the drama which set a dramatic fight scene to Matsutoya Yumi's "Mannatsu no Yoru no Yume", with its jovial and almost calliopean instrumentals.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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