Back when Barack Obama was the president of the USA, Obama city in Fukui prefecture, Japan, decided to ride that wave of name recognition. The omiyage with the president’s face was popping up everywhere, the lucky coincidence of the two names helping propel the small Japanese seaside town to newfound fame. Now that Barack is no longer president, Obama has proven that it should still be relevant. In fact, this place is not famous because of the former American president, as it has been a place of historic importance in Japan for centuries.
Obama means ‘small seashore’ and it was one of the first ports to be open to foreign culture on the Japan Sea side facing China and Korea. This explains why cultural practices like the Chinese calendar and Buddhism started early in Obama and the surrounding areas, before spreading to the rest of Japan.
So, what’s the story of Obama and why you should visit there? Whether you’re into history, temples, or just love exploring small fishing villages, there’s something in Obama for you.
For those who love hunting for funny meme-able moments, there are still a lot of remnants from the Barack Obama era. Of course, as we’re now in the term of president Donald J. Trump, his face can be seen lurking behind the Obama cookies, but only to approve of Obama. The Japanese in the photo cheekily translates to “Obama is great after all!” as if said by Trump, and ambiguously left to mean that both Obama city and Barack Obama are actually great, despite someone having thought otherwise.
Make sure to check corners where you would least expect to find the former president’s likeness, as after the end of his presidency a lot of it has been removed.
This port and fishing town has always been thriving thanks to fishing, being the main supplier of fish to Kyoto since its glorious days of being the Imperial Capital. There are several roads connecting Kyoto and Obama called “Saba Kaido” (meaning ‘mackerel highway’) used for transportation of fish and salt to Kyoto. In those times, the fish peddlers would salt the fish, put it in a basket and walk all the way to Kyoto for a day or more. When they reached the food markets the fish would be perfectly salted and preserved.
Today, a lot of these roads remain in some form and can be hiked, either with a guide or participating in an annual mass walking event. On the way there are small scenic post towns and villages, almost untouched, but preserved by the locals who still live there.
Kumagawa-juku post town
While in Obama, there’s plenty of fish to eat, with mackerel sushi on the top of the list. It is said that Obama area was one of the first places that was curing fish, which is how sushi originated. You can learn about food culture in the Miketsukuni Wakasa Obama Food Culture Museum, and even make your own fax food, chopsticks, paper etc. And it’s no surprise there’s a small fish market at the port, where you can witness the morning fish auctions.
For a more local flavour, you can stay with a fishing family in their minshuku in Ano area, and of course have the freshest fish available. You can also take a boat and visit their fish farms and feed the fish, if you’re not so keen on feeding on said fish. The seaside views are uncrowded, serene and beautiful.
Fish was not all that Kyoto and Obama traded in the past, and that is evident in the architecture and culture. The streets of Sancho-machi area in Nishigumi are just like Kyoto’s Gion or Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya, but less crowded and calm. All the architecture has been preserved, the majority being residential homes, with some houses being turned into guesthouses and cafes.
You can visit an old teahouse that provided geisha entertainment (still having a sign that minors are not allowed in!), or dine in a machiya house turned in a restaurant.
It’s hard to find a state of zen when in a temple so touristy that you line up to enter. In and around Obama, there are temples where you can spend hours gazing in the ponds or listening to the forest. No crowds in sight.
Wakasahime Jinja and Wakasahiko Jinja
Wakasahime Jinja and Wakasahiko Jinja are twin shrines that embody the female and the male and are often visited by people praying for good marriage and safe childbirth. The shrines are more than 700 years old, while the cedar tree in Wakasahime is older than a 1000 years!
Mantokuji and Myotsuji are Buddhist temples that have stunning nature, covered in bright green moss. 400 years and 800 years old respectively, the temples are treasured by locals and visited by Japanese people from the region.
Mantokuji above, Bukkoji below
Bukkoji temple is popular for Zen training, as both its previous and current head priest have opened their doors to a variety of people, regardless of nationality or gender. Here you can also experience a short Zen mediation session with an English-speaking priest, or pet the most Zen cat on the planet!
Jinguji temple is one of the last remaining places of worship in Japan that has kept its blend of Shinto and Buddhism, while most places were forced to choose one or the other in the Meiji era. The building dates back to the Muromachi period (14th century) and has a unique altar structure with both Shinto and Buddhist deities side by side.
Obama is the closest port to Kyoto and has always had a great transport connection to it. You can rent a car and drive for more freedom of movement, or you can take a bus from Kyoto or a train from Osaka.
Obama is great for a daytrip from Kyoto or Osaka, for a more relaxed and off the beaten path experience. However, since there are so many things to do, a 2 or 3 day trip is an option too, and the city has a lot of accommodation to choose from – hotels, renovated machiya guesthouses, a short homestay with a family (called minshuku) etc.
To learn more about Obama and all that it offers, go to their official website https://www.experience-obama.com/