Few countries prize a long soak in a hot spring like the Japanese. Yet for months after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, no amount of publicity could persuade the usual crowd of Tokyoites and overseas tourists to the popular springs in the three hardest-hit prefectures – Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.
The hot spring tourism industry there was devastated, with some inns and hotels completely washed away and the rest going belly-up, with guests abruptly cancelling reservations still months away. “Hardly anyone was going to hot springs for months,” says the Japan Spa Association’s Hirokazu Nunoyama.
Although the industry has shown signs of recovery, it is now facing another trial. In Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s seat of government, there is talk about spending more on geothermal power, as the country looks for a low-carbon alternative to atomic energy following the calamitous nuclear accident in Fukushima. At the Environment Ministry, officials have recently started debating the possibility of relaxing rules that ban companies from setting up geothermal facilities on national parkland.
Backers of geothermal plants say it would give resource-poor Japan a more stable supply of renewable energy to power car factories, office towers and retail shops. The country now sources just 0.24 per cent of its energy from geothermal plants and no new facility has been built for more than a decade. Cost will remain an issue in geothermal energy’s future, but experts say the sector has huge potential. “Geothermal plants could supply 20 to 30 per cent of Japan’s energy in the next three to four decades,” says Tetsunari Iida from the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies in Tokyo.
Yet many hoteliers and innkeepers are dead-set against having geothermal prospectors drilling in their backyards. They worry that a power plant nearby would harm the environment; worse, it might deplete the heat that keeps the local springs warm, they say.
Two years ago, in Kusatsu, a town in central Gunma prefecture where hot springs were discovered more than a century ago, local officials successfully fought to prevent a neighbouring town from pushing ahead with plans for a geothermal plant. “Without the hot springs, this town would be nothing,” says Hideo Yoshida, a Kusatsu town official.
Despite similar protests in other locales, a few projects suggest that conflict can be avoided. In Hachobaru, in southern Oita prefecture, a small-scale geothermal plant uses the local spring’s 130C water to run a turbine and sends the overflow to inns and bathhouses a few hundred meters away.
The technology will need more success stories like that to avoid being branded as the villain. Geothermal energy won’t likely to win the sympathy vote if the public has to choose between a niche technology and a leisure activity that has been around for centuries.