* 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 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.
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
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)