This segment originally aired Nov. 1, 2016, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
“Somewhere in Japan, a Japanese person is always in an onsen,” onsen owner Shunji Shibatani told VICE News correspondent Isobel Yeung, referring to the country’s traditional hot spring spas. “Onsen is an inseparable part of Japanese culture.”
Hot spring spas are cultural institutions that have been around for more than a thousand years. Today, there are more than 3,000 onsens across the country, which service 120 million people every year, or roughly the entire population of Japan. The owners are facing pressure to share the geothermal reserves that heat their spas to help power the country.
After the Fukushima meltdown, the Japanese government faced significant pressure to shut down all of the country’s nuclear reactors. Without nuclear power, the country gets almost 87 percent of its energy needs from expensive and polluting fossil fuels.
“We have enough to power 20 big nuclear power plants,” said professor Sachio Ehara, chairman of the Geothermal Information Institute. “Japan is a land full of volcanoes.”
With nearly 200 volcanoes, Japan has one of the largest geothermal reserves in the world. If this naturally occurring heat were to be harnessed and converted into power, it could generate 10% of Japan’s energy needs right away.
“Geothermal energy and onsens will never co-exist because geothermals would take these resources, ” said Masao Oyama, chairman of the Japan Spa Association, a powerful collective of spa owners who lobby for the $26 billion industry. “This energy source will be gone in 30 or 50 years.”