'We feel like dancing naked': hula girls aim to save tourism

They pulled on their grass skirts to help save their mining town once before, now Japan's "hula girls" plan to save it again, this time from becoming a nuclear ghost town.

A spa resort on the cusp of the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant exclusion zone might be a difficult sell to tourists but a group of sexy Hawaiian style dancers plan to do just that.

"People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation," said dancer Ayumi Sudo. "I want to get rid of that image.

"We have felt like dancing naked to show that we are not contaminated."

Sudo and her hula girls twirled their naked waists outside a Tokyo train station this week to promote safe farm produce from their Pacific Coast hometown of Iwaki, in Fukushima prefecture.

The seaside getaway is located just 50 kilometres south of the Fukushima plant, which has leaked radiation into the air, ground and sea since it was hit by a powerful quake and giant tsunami on March 11.

Iwaki was made famous in the 1960s when the declining coal town was revived by an elaborate Hawaii themed spa resort thanks to its hot springs, a story immortalised in the 2006 movie Hula Girls.

The tourist attraction, now called the "Spa Resort Hawaiians", was largely left unscathed by last month's giant seismic disaster but has been closed since.

"Our facilities got cracks, and windows were shattered. But the major reason why the spa is still closed is rumours surrounding Fukushima," said resort marketing official Takashi Wakamatsu.

The only guests have been disaster evacuees who were offered free bathing in its soothing hot pools.

Since the 9.0-magnitude quake hit, emergency crews have struggled to prevent a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima plant, while shipments of farm, fishery and dairy produce from the region have been restricted.

But commuters flocked to buy tomatoes, strawberries, mushrooms and other produce from the disaster-hit region at the Tokyo event.

Veteran dancer Sudo, 45, said she had been told that evacuees from areas near the nuclear plant had faced discrimination elsewhere, and that cars with Iwaki licence plates had trouble buying petrol at filling stations.

"Three attendants took turns filling one of these cars for fear of exposure to radiation," she said of an incident in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo. "In the worst case one such a car was blocked from entering a filling station."

Sudo is one of a stream of Iwaki dancers who have kept the spa running since it was established in 1966 to revive the mining town amid the country's shift from local coal to foreign oil as its main energy source.

There was an abundance of hot spring water from the mining grounds and the Hawaii theme struck a chord and the spa soon became a top tourist haven, attracting an annual 1.5 million visitors in recent years, mostly from Tokyo, 200 kilometres away.

As portrayed in the movie based on the real life story, the town was put on the map by a nationwide tour of Iwaki hula girls, which sparked public interest in what seemed like an outlandish, palm-studded theme park 45 years ago.

In the film, which won the 2007 Japan Academy prize, the daughters of hardened coal miners initially drew frowns and indignation from their fellow townspeople when they put on hula dresses and bared their skin.

"We are in the similar situation again," said Sudo, who runs a hula dance school under her stage name of Linolani. "So we and younger dancers should all gather together to help bring life back to the town."

"I would like to see tourists come back and help revive Iwaki as it was before -- with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view."

Meanwhile, new figures show number of foreign visitors to Japan suffered its biggest ever decline in March, falling by 50 per cent, as the massive earthquake and tsunami scared travellers away.

Just 352,800 foreigners arrived in Japan in March, 50.3 per cent fewer than in March 2010 and the largest decline ever recorded, the Japan National Tourism Board said.