ABUTA, Hokkaido — Lake Toya is silent. The smell of sulfur is heavy in the air.
About this time of year the lakeside resort town usually echoes with the din of visitors. But Mount Usu’s inopportune March 31 eruption sent locals scurrying to shelters and has kept the lifeblood of the economy — tourists — at bay.
Abuta is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park and home to the Lake Toya hot springs district — the area hardest hit by the eruption. Nearly 2,700 residents of Abuta remain evacuees, more than two months after four craters opened up, tossing ash and rocks into the air.
Although the eruption is slowly subsiding, locals are worried about the consequences of Usu’s billowing clouds of smoke and ash.
Tourism accounts for about 70 percent of Abuta’s economy and the eruption promises to impair that significantly, Deputy Mayor Jun Tanemura said.
The deluge of tourists usually begins around late spring, when the first wave of the annual 4 million visitors come to the Lake Toya area. A fifth of the visitors stay overnight.
Perched on the lip of a lake near volcanic craters, the area is beautiful. Normally, visitors savor the stunning scenery, soak in the hot springs, enjoy fresh Hokkaido food and keep the cash registers ringing.
But times right now are anything but normal.
This year, the volcano erupted just before the tourist rush normally starts. Tanemura estimates that less than 2 percent of the annual tourist flood will have a chance to trickle in and out.
Although the amount of physical damage to the area is not clear, tap water, sewer lines and the pipes that keep the hot springs brimming are probably out of commission, Tanemura speculated.
“Right now business is just about zero. And I don’t see the area going back into business this year,” he said. “I can’t imagine anyone coming to stay.”
Until the eruption, 40-year-old Tamaki Sawano worked at a local confection factory, making a well-known local sweet. The facility is closed now.
In her sparsely furnished, newly erected temporary home in the neighboring town of Toyoura, Sawano pulls out aerial photos published by the local newspaper. She points to an ash-blanketed roof with holes in it a few hundred meters below one of the four holes spewing ash and rocks.
“This is my house,” she said. “I don’t know how damaged it is, but with holes in the roof, I imagine that the rain has gotten in and ruined everything.”
The same picture shows the local library — a wooden building — that appears sunken under the ash, half swallowed by the ground. Nearby is the local history museum, which contains exhibitions of past eruptions, also covered with ash and detritus.
Sawano has been away from home for over two months. She fled to her sister’s house on March 28, ahead of the official evacuation order.
Thinking she would return after the volcanic rumbling stopped, she didn’t take much with her, as her bare abode attests. The shelter came with a stove, phone, refrigerator, bath and rice cooker and not much more. She lives with her 77-year-old father.
“The walls are thin. You can hear sounds from next door,” she said.
Even so, it is better than the public shelters packed full of people, she said.
“It was hard to get used to sleeping with hundreds of others. I felt bad if I coughed and lay awake most of the first few nights.”
Now Sawano is in limbo. Although the confectionery where she worked has said it wants to hire her and other former workers again, the manager does not know when it will reopen. For now, she is living on unemployment benefits and says she expects to stay in her new “temporary” home for up to two years.
Apart from tourism, the eruption also came at a critical time for fishermen and farmers.
Local fisheries were just starting to seed the area’s famous scallop beds when Mount Usu blew. Work was thrown weeks behind schedule as fishermen and emergency help hustled to seed what they could.
Although there have been no direct effects yet, the local fisheries union tentatively predicted around a 30 percent fall in the scallop harvest in the next year or two. Fishermen are also worried that the rainy season will muddy the bay with ash runoff, further crippling the scallop industry.
“It took five years for the industry to get back on its feet after the last eruption (in 1977),” local fisheries union head Kazumi Baba said.
Although a smaller part of the economy, agriculture also provides a living for a substantial proportion of the population. Farmers grow rice, broccoli, flowers, bell peppers and beans used mainly in sweets.
“This time of the year (the farmers) should be seeding their fields, growing crops. But many can’t,” said Noboru Watanabe, head of the local agricultural co-operative chapter.
Initially, 170 farmers were ordered to evacuate. By the end of May, around 30 had still been unable to visit their fields, and now is a crucial time in the growing season, Watanabe said.
The amount of damage cannot be estimated because crops planted late might still make it to the market, but Watanabe estimated that local farmers will lose around 160 million yen.
Still cooped up in a shelter at the Date Culture Center are friends Chie Sakai, a former kindergarten teacher, and Yuki Ohashi, a hotel employee. Both retired in the last two years, and have seen Mount Usu puffing away before.
This time the evacuation went smoothly and they agree the government did a good job.
Like Sawano and many others, they planned to return home after a short while and brought a minimum of things — such as only two or three days worth of underwear. But two months, five shelters and countless borrowed clothes later, they are tired and want to go home.
At first, it was one person per tatami mat, they said, but on May 24, more people were allowed to return home and now they have more elbow room.
Still, they can hardly wait to go home. They expect to be allowed to soon, even if only for an hour or two a day.
“The next scary thing will be mud flow runoff. Three people died after the last eruption, when rains washed ash down the hills,” Ohashi said.
Both trumpet the area’s beauty, and like Sawano, said that despite being a volcanic hotbed, the merits of living along Lake Toya — the people, the scenery and the lifestyle — far outweigh the threat of eruption.
“Even if it is going to erupt again, I still want to go home. After a bit of time has passed, you forget about it — until the next eruption,” Sakai said, smiling wryly.