Tourists gone, bikes back in once-popular Japan town

Sat Mar 19, 2011 3:12am EDT

* Tourists desert town after earthquake

* Bicycles replace cars due to fuel shortages

* Local economy under threat, as across Japan's northeast

By Chang-Ran Kim

TONO, Japan, March 19 (Reuters) - More than a week after an earthquake and tsunami smashed much of Japan's northeast coast to pulp, a small tourist town tucked safely between mountains has ground nearly to a halt.

Tono, a city of 30,000 about 30 km (20 miles) from the Pacific, usually enjoys a steady flow of visitors attracted to the birthplace of much Japanese folklore, including ghoulish tales of mountain spirits and mythical creatures.

"Since the earthquake on March 11, we haven't had a single visitor," laments local tourism board official Shinichi Tachibana at the city's main rail station. It closed for service after the tremor damaged train tracks.

Instead of renting its 120 bicycles to visitors, the city-run tourist office now lends them for free to locals forced to keep cars parked due to the sudden shortage of fuel.

Petrol stations on the main street are roped off.

Not even emergency vehicles can obtain fuel without a special permit by the regional government, and even then sometimes only five litres at a time, says an attendant.

Across much of the northeast, which is reeling from the double impact of an earthquake and tsunami, two-hour waits are common at the few fuel stations open to individuals.

While Tono's population is relatively small, the city covers an area bigger than all Tokyo's 23 wards combined, so getting around without a car is difficult.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Without tourism, this sleepy town -- like many others in the northeast -- could be in for a long and heavy blow to an economy that had already declining due to the shrinking population.

"It's probably going to get worse now," says Eiko Niisato, 69, who runs a small tofu food business with her husband and son.

She is under no illusions that the government will step in to help, knowing the devastated coast and crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant demand more attention.

"The government itself has no money, and the whole country is in crisis. We'll do what we can to survive, because what else is there to do?"

Niisato is, however, among the lucky ones right now in Tono. Her family business is at least enjoying a temporary boom since out-of-town wholesalers are unable to deliver to the big supermarkets.

Elsewhere, though, small businesses on side streets are mostly shuttered, and the streets are empty of pedestrians and cars.

A handwritten sign at a dimly lit butcher shop advertises it is open for business, but only two blocks of meat remain.

Major supermarkets are open, but shelves have been emptied of frozen foods, milk and many other products.

"Three days ago I bought a bicycle and I'm using it for commuting," says Katsuhiro Tada, a 32-year-old builder who cycled to the supermarket from his workplace.

The home depot centre where he purchased his bicycle is now out of stock, he says.

A nearby barber shop is also open but proprietor Fujiko Segawa is watching television with a friend rather than cutting hair. "I guess it must be the earthquake," she says.

The tourism board's Tachibana says he has no idea when Tono might return to normal. "I guess we're stuck until the trains start running. Who knows when that'll be?" (Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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