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Wednesday, April 7, 1999

An island wedding idyll


By ROB GILHOOLY
Staff writer

Two rather large Fijian tribesmen, wielding clubs once used in tribal wars to smash enemies' skulls, stand on either side of Yoichi Matsumoto and Kaori Tanaka (not their real names). The young Japanese couple look slightly terrified, but not because of the warriors' threatening pose: It's because they just got married.

Yet the Tokyo-born Tanaka, 24, conceded that the experience "was fun, and much more relaxed than if we'd tied the knot back home."

The number of Japanese getting married in Fiji has skyrocketed in recent years. Juliet Bing of Shangri-La's Fijian Resort, which holds up to 10 weddings a month, said the high cost of weddings in recession-bound Japan is the main practical reason; wanting to do something different for the special day is a more personal one.

"The No. 1 reason is it's a lot cheaper. Also, it's perceived as being very romantic to get married in a tropical paradise. Our most popular wedding is the sunset wedding on the beach," she said.

Prices are indeed competitive, ranging from $F900 (60,000 yen) to $F2,800, about 10 percent of the cost in Japan, according to Rie Imaoka of Thomas Cook Travel in Nadi.

In the last few years, several companies have started to offer wedding packages to Japanese couples keen to escape weddings back home, with their lengthy speeches, multiple costume changes and socializing with "friends" and "relatives" they have never met before.

"(In Japan) there seems to be no cutoff point, so you end up inviting everyone," said Yuko Usui, 27, from Urawa City. "For our wedding in Fiji, we took along just close relatives."

Packages range from "a la carte menus," where couples can choose items they want included in their wedding, to "set menus," which incorporate traditional Fijian touches such as serenading troupes, village choirs and tribal garb.

Fiji is not yet a serious threat to the Hawaiian wedding industry, which attracts about half the overseas Japanese market and offers more sophisticated attractions such as real-time satellite transmission to relatives in Japan who couldn't make the trip. But it is gaining ground, according to Tomomi Kojima of AO Kikaku, Ltd., a Tokyo-based company specializing in Fiji wedding trips (www3.tky.3web.ne.jp/~aojapan/ ).

"From now, Fiji will be the place to go. Japanese like to find new places, where there aren't so many people doing the same thing," she said. Usui confirmed: "In Hawaii you basically line up with other Japanese couples and wait your turn. . . . We didn't see another Japanese the whole time we were in Fiji."

Moreover, couples getting hitched in Fiji can receive an official wedding certificate recognized by authorities back home, which is not available in many other popular destinations such as Hawaii or Australia, according to Usui.

Couples who make the trip can also take home some entertaining snaps. "One of my colleagues at work thought (the club-toting tribesmen) were security guards," laughed Matsumoto.



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