DATE, Japan (AP) _ The volcano spewed plumes of smoke in the distance behind their house, but after five days in a crowded emergency shelter, Shigeharu and Yaeko Kikuchi were glad to be back at their farm.

Some 16,000 people were forced to evacuate over the past six days when Mount Usu began erupting for the first time since 1978. The Kikuchis were among 2,220 who returned after officials decided the area where they live was safe.

``You wouldn't believe how well I slept last night. I didn't wake up until eight in the morning,'' said the 67-year-old farmer. ``It's great to sleep in your own home.''

The damage to the Kikuchis' property on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido was minimal. In the earthquakes that rocked the region last week, a few bricks slipped out of the chimney and a vase fell over inside the Buddhist altar. A dusting of volcanic ash covered their white Toyota.

The Kikuchis consider themselves lucky. Several friends were among the 13,000 still barred from their homes Monday, unsure of what will happen next.

In makeshift shelters, many were beginning to lose patience, frustrated that no one could predict how long the ordeal would last _ not even the experts who were peering daily from helicopters into the volcano's bowels.

``She keeps asking me when she can go back to school and see her friends,'' said Yuko Matsumoto, 35, sitting on a mat in a shelter with her daughter, who was asleep with a fever. ``This is stressful for the children.''

The volcano first erupted last Friday, and it has continued to belch volcanic ash and debris from craters that have opened up on its flanks.

No one has been hurt, but experts have yet to rule out the likelihood of a bigger explosion and were still urging people Monday to stay out of the 6,177-acre danger zone.

Hokkaido University professor Hiromu Okada said an eruption of lava or a pyroclastic flow, a deadly mix of gas and rock that races down slopes and incinerates everything in its path, was still a possibility.

Some 600 evacuees were crammed into a community center in the town of Toyoura. Elderly men and women sat in the entryway watching television, and children _ on spring vacation until later this week _ bounced basketballs and slid down bannisters, their voices echoing through the large, concrete hall.

``It's tight in here, and people are getting annoyed with each other,'' said local school board member Megumi Yamada, as she entertained children with magic tricks. ``Some take all the space they want, while others hold back and just bear it.''

Several washing machines had been brought in so people could do their laundry, and clothing hung along a railing that encircled the basketball court where families slept. Some evacuees had formed committees to help clean up and do other chores, Yamada said.

In the nearby town of Date, the local government set up a special shelter for pets. People were allowed to go collect dogs and cats they had left at home for what many expected would be only a short absence.

Pets, cramped quarters and restless children were not the only problem. Local businessmen wondered whether their shops and hotels would survive the impact of the volcano, which continued to emit white smoke from a crater near a scenic hot spring resort.

``I've already told my employees I might not be able to pay them,'' said Susumu Echigo, who owns a souvenir shop in the resort village of Toya, which has been deserted since the eruption. ``I don't expect to have any customers when the tourist season starts.''


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