The free foot spa in the village of Inakadate, Aomori Prefecture, tempts visitors to dangle their toes in the natural onsen hot springs. Sulfuric steam rises over the bucolic scene, with rice paddies in the near distance and the prefecture’s tallest peak, Mount Iwaki, on the horizon.

But the geothermal heat is more than just a balm to the weary body: It also adds a touch of sweetness to life in the bitterly cold north in the form of plump, year-round strawberries.

Strawberries have been grown in Inakadate — a farming village primarily known for its elaborate rice-paddy art — for about 30 years. A local farmer brought strawberry-growing knowledge back from Tochigi Prefecture after a stint migrant farming down south. Back then, agricultural greenhouses received assistance from the village’s revitalization fund, says Tetsuya Takeuchi, an agricultural commission secretary from Inakadate village.

But Aomori’s harsh winters and deep snow make outdoor farming a non-starter when the temperature drops, and greenhouses require running a boiler to keep the inside temperature conducive to growing crops. A spike in fuel costs has put many strawberry farmers off the fruit entirely. “So then we thought, instead of a boiler, why don’t we use the heat from onsen?” Takeuchi says.

Enter Kanko Ichigo En, a year-round pick-your-own strawberry farm that grows its berries with 100% hot-spring heat in winter. The farm is a great example of using existing knowhow and resources with a bit of ingenuity to try to solve a problem.

The network of pipes running under the strawberries keeps the fruit warm with onsen (hot spring) heat. | RYOKI SATO
The network of pipes running under the strawberries keeps the fruit warm with onsen (hot spring) heat. | RYOKI SATO

“We run the pipes directly under the beds… thus having the hot water flow through and creating warmth in the soil,” explains Ryoki Sato, CEO of Agri-na Rice Paddy Art Village, which manages the farm. At 41 degrees Celsius, the water is run through the pipes twice and then deposited in pools next to the greenhouse. The houses have gently curved roofs, which allow the heavy snow to slide off into the pools and melt in the still-warm water, thus alleviating the problem of piled-up snow, which could crush the plastic structures.

“If we were to use kerosene, a fossil fuel, it would cost about ¥1 million (per winter season),” Sato says. “With (the onsen) method, we cut two-thirds of the cost. And there is no production of greenhouse gas, so it’s clean energy. It’s double the benefit.”

According to IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, renewable energy accounted for 6% of Japan’s total energy supply in 2017, of which 9% was geothermal, despite Japan having the world’s third-largest potential for the sustainable power source. Geothermal farming is still limited in Japan, but producers in cold places across the country are now harnessing onsen heat to grow mangoes in Hokkaido, moyashi (heirloom bean sprouts) in Owani, Aomori Prefecture, and aquaculture prawns in Fukushima Prefecture.

Kanko Ichigo En grows three varieties of strawberries from June to November: a large, high-quality berry with a low yield called natsu akari; a large, solid berry called suzuakane, which is easy to cultivate in Aomori; and a small, sweet variety called natsu no tayori. Two varieties are grown from December to May: the well-known tochiotome and a new variety called yotsuboshi. “The latter is a new type that came out around 10 years ago. It’s easy to cultivate, so the harvest is stable,” Sato says.

Inakadate, like many rural places in Japan, is facing depopulation as young people flock to the country’s urban centers. The village has had some success in attracting tourists with its Instagrammable rice fields, and is looking to build on that momentum. What else could be done, locals asked, using local resources in a village of under 8,000 people, to appeal to more visitors?

Kanko Ichigo En grows three kinds of strawberries in summer, and two in winter. | RYOKI SATO
Kanko Ichigo En grows three kinds of strawberries in summer, and two in winter. | RYOKI SATO

The farm opened as a tourist attraction in tandem with Inakadate’s rice paddy art installation just before the onset of the pandemic. Despite COVID-19, Sato says the farm has been gradually gaining notoriety, attracting local visitors as well as many from other parts of the prefecture and neighboring Akita Prefecture. The farm has run a few strawberry-centric events, and hopes to hold even more once the pandemic eases.

It’s critical for rural areas to play to their strengths when trying to attract tourists, says Keijiro Sawano, founder of Heartland Japan, a company that focuses on promoting rural tourism. As long as projects like this are authentic, he says, it can work to their advantage.

“They have their story, their insight and their passion for their hometown,” he says. Visitors want to see things that are unique, and rural areas shouldn’t just try to copy urban centers, but rather embrace their rural way of life.

But Sawano doesn’t discount the appeal of a beautiful or interesting hook. “Of course, it’s good to have that photograph,” he says, recommending that visitors should dive deeper than the social media-driven bucket list. That means communicating with local people and learning about rural issues. “You can stay overnight, maybe have dinner and strengthen connections.”

If you want to try these strawberries for yourself, you’ll have to head up to Inakadate, since the fruit grown at Kanko Ichigo En isn’t sent to market. “When strawberries are packed for shipping, they have to be picked before ripening, which means we’d have to change our cultivation system. We harvest our strawberries when they are fully ripened, so we have limited ourselves to just two methods: pick-your-own strawberries and strawberries sold at the store inside the strawberry farm.”

Sato and Takeuchi hope the allure of the ruby-red berries will entice visitors to stay a little longer and learn more about what Inakadate has to offer.

“After all, it’s about making a connection with people,” Sawano says. “There are things you can’t discover from a photograph.”

For more information, visit agri-na.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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