SAPPORO – Fleeing residents near Mount Usu watched as the volcano erupted on Friday, sending a huge column of smoke into the air over southwestern Hokkaido and raining ash on their homes.
Evacuees at public facilities hurried outside at 1:10 p.m. after television coverage had shown the smoke growing thicker.
The sky turned gray and the odor of sulfur permeated the air within an hour of the eruption.
Residents who had avoided the shelters hurried to the facilities, their noses and mouths covered with towels as fine volcanic ash began falling.
Around 11,000 people had left their homes as of Friday evening.
The eruption of the 732-meter volcano poses a serious danger to nearby communities a few kilometers away.
A sightseeing spot, Lake Toya, and a hot spring resort are perched at the foot of the volcano, which is about 70 km southwest of Sapporo.
At Date City Hall, southeast of Mount Usu, Hokkaido Gov. Tatsuya Hori and municipal government officials watched footage taken from a helicopter showing smoke billowing from the volcano, while town hall officials at Sobetsu, east of the mountain, began preparing helmets and goggles as a precaution against lava and hot rocks.
The town of Abuta, west of the volcano, expanded the areas to be covered by its evacuation directive immediately after the eruption, ordering nearly all residents to leave their houses.
“I knew the volcano would erupt. My worries have turned into reality,” said health worker Yukari Sasaki, 36, one of about 100 evacuees at a shelter in Abuta.
Some teachers were put on alert at an elementary school in Abuta. Hiroshi Saito, vice principal of the school, said he is relieved that residents have been relatively calm and orderly.
Yutaka Kato, 56, a resident of Date, feared the eruptions would continue and inflict more damage. “I cannot relax until the situation is declared safe,” he said.
A total of six flights linking Sapporo with other cities in Japan were canceled Friday following the eruption of Mount Usu in southwestern Hokkaido, the Transport Ministry said.
The six flights included All Nippon Airways flight 67 from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport and Japan Airlines flight 518 from New Chitose to Haneda, ministry officials said.
The eruption forced planes departing from and landing at New Chitose Airport to partially change their routes, causing delays of up to 90 minutes, the officials said.
Meanwhile, Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido) said trains running between Higashi Muroran and Oshamambe stations on its Muroran Trunk Line had been suspended as of 6:30 p.m.
The Do-o Expressway was partially closed to traffic between the Muroran and Oshamambe interchanges, ministry officials said.
National Route 37 was partially closed between the city of Date and the town of Toyoura, while a section of National Route 453 was closed between Date and the village of Otaki, the officials said.
National Route 230 was also partially closed between the town of Abuta and the village of Rusutsu, they said.