One month after a minor eruption was confirmed on Mt. Hakone, visitor numbers to the hot spring resort in Kanagawa Prefecture remain low even after the start of the summer holiday season.
As the town struggles to find a balance between taking precautions against a possible larger eruption and trying to entice tourists back, experts are unsure how long the ongoing volcanic activity could continue.
"White fumarolic gas is billowing from those openings," Yoshihiro Ishizuka, an expert in volcanic geology at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said as he observed the Owakudani area of Mt. Hakone from a Yomiuri Shimbun helicopter on Wednesday afternoon. "I can't see any signs the emissions are slowing down."
About 10 openings were visible from the helicopter, the air inside choked with the smell of sulfur even when it was about a kilometer from Owaku-dani.
Mt. Hakone became more active from late April this year. On June 29 and 30, and on July 1 and 2, two small eruptions here emitted slight amounts of volcanic ash. On May 6, the Japan Meteorological Agency had raised the volcanic alert level for Mt. Hakone to "2" on its five-point scale, warning people "not to approach the crater." A no-entry zone was established over a 300-meter radius around Owakudani. When an eruption was confirmed on June 30, the alert level was lifted to "3" cautioning people not to approach the volcano and the restricted entry area was widened to a roughly one-kilometer radius.
About 600 volcanic earthquakes were recorded in the area on June 30, but the daily number has steadily declined since then and now hovers in the single figures. Nevertheless, the Hot Springs Research Institute of Kanagawa Prefecture is urging continued caution.
"The shape of the mountain continues to bulge deep underground," an official of the institute said. "It's difficult to predict what might happen over the next one or two months."
Tourist town feeling pinch
The impact of the volcanic activity has been massive for the nearby town of Hakone, which attracts about 20 million visitors every year.
August is the busiest time of year for Hakone, but a survey by town authorities showed that reservations made at local hotels and ryokan inns as of July 1 was down 46.3 per cent from the same time last year. Sales at restaurants and souvenir shops in May and June were also down about 40 per cent from the same period in 2014.
To try and mitigate the impact, the Hakone city government on May 25 called for greater consideration to be given when warnings were issued by emphasizing the volcanic activity was not affecting all of Mt. Hakone. The following month, the agency changed the expression used in its descriptions from "Mt. Hakone" to "the Owakudani area [of Mt. Hakone]."
The decision was made because only a handful of hot spring resorts and tourist facilities were affected by the establishment of a restricted access area due to the volcanic activity. Even so, the agency has continued to use this terminology in an apparent nod to concerns about tourists staying away.
On the afternoon of June 29, a white sandlike substance was confirmed to be falling at a spot about one kilometer from the volcano's crater. Though this satisfied the criteria for deciding that an eruption has occurred, the agency instead determined this was not an eruption, but that it was "highly likely" a landslide had taken place.
On the afternoon of June 30, after agency officials surveyed and confirmed conditions at the crater, the agency announced an eruption "had occurred from the evening of June 29 through until June 30." The agency has insisted it made the correct decision, but some experts have criticised its response, saying it was too slow to declare an eruption had happened.
The agency and municipalities across Japan that are home to volcanoes have been strengthening preparations to prevent damage from volcanic disasters.
From Aug. 4, the agency will start a new alert system providing "prompt reports on volcanic activity" for 47 active volcanoes that are constantly monitored. They will be issued more quickly than its current announcements.
The agency has installed more monitoring devices on volcanoes showing signs of activity, including Mt. Hakone, since Mt. Ontake on the border between Nagano and Gifu prefectures suddenly erupted in September 2014 and left 63 people dead or missing.