Geothermal activites

Today we partook in a popular Japanese pastime, visiting an onsen, or natural hot spring. S-AIR's director Hisashi Shibata took a group of us. Marukoma Onsen is by Lake Shikotsu, south of Sapporo city. In the men’s area at Marukoma (they are separated by gender) there are three indoor baths and two outside: one sat atop a decking looking over the impressive view of the lake and mountains; the other is down by the lake, separated from it by a wall of rocks. The latter shares the same water level as its neighbour, rising and falling with it according to the seasons.

The water that serves the baths comes from geothermally heated groundwater, which is pushed up from deep underground and breaches the earth’s crust. Japan has the world’s third largest reserves of geothermal resources and, as of 2015, only has 2.2% of this capacity installed and utilised for the production of electricity. There are of course barriers that prohibit or make the increase in this capacity problematic. Many onsen are predominantly situated within natural parks and have cultural and spiritual significance. They are also a crucial part of Japan’s tourism industry. 

The mineral composition of the water is believed to have healing powers, which varies across Japan and therefore so does the different ailments it is said to be able to treat. When in Toyotomi we met a woman who came all the way from Sweden to spend time in the onsen there. She went three times a day for three weeks in order to treat her eczema. That hot spring was very different from what we experienced by Lake Shikotsu, it was cooler, slick to the touch with a crude oil aroma. 

We were told that the owner of the Marukoma Onsen, and the hotel in which it sits, is from Fukushima. Traditional crafts from Fukushima prefecture hang from the lobby next to the doll set celebrating the approaching Hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day, on 3 March. Local newspapers from the area are folded neatly in the newspaper stand by the reception desk. Unsurprisingly many reports one reads are in relation to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant from back in March 2011.

At once there are signs pointing to the volatile and costly business - environmentally or otherwise - of nuclear power as well as the activities that bubble up from the earth’s surface, glimpsing the possibilities of other forms of energy production that also point to new problems.