It’s not looking good for rural Japan. The population will decline to just 88 million by 2065. Villages and towns are disappearing as young people move to live and work in big cities, leaving their homes behind with an aging population. The government has been trying to help by offering tourists alternative rustic or traditional experiences outside Japan’s golden triangle, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
I recently visited Obama in the Kansai Region’s Fukui Prefecture to see firsthand what rural Japan can offer. It’s one of Japan’s countryside towns vying for a slice of the tourism pie, and recently dialed its efforts to 11 by promoting their history, culture, and the kinds of activities visitors aren’t likely to find if they stick to typical “Top 10” destinations.
What’s in a name?
Obama means “little beach.” You might have noticed it also happens to be the name of 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the town of about 30,000 capitalized on the coincidence with President Obama themed souvenirs such as rice crackers, manju, and “I love Obama” t-shirts.
They expected a tourism boom—quickly erecting crude statues and painting murals of the president around town.
Today, the hype of sharing a name with the president has long passed. You can still find a handful of presidential themed souvenirs in the town’s information center, and the only statue of the president that I could find looked like it stepped out of the ‘80s claymation cartoon Gumby.
That left me asking what is there in Obama besides… President Obama?
The Saba Kaido
Obama’s economy largely depends on commercial fishing. Particularly saba (mackerel), the town’s specialty. Saba is everywhere. Pre-packaged, raw, cooked, on posters, on billboards, on television, in museums— there’s even an official anime-girl mascot named saba-chan.
Saba has been sustaining Obama since at least the Nara Period (710-794) when traders would run as fast as possible from Obama to Kyoto with loads of raw mackerel and salt strapped to their back before it could go bad. It was like a saba-themed version of Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.
Today, these roads are called the saba kaido (mackerel highway), and Obama is banking on saba to boost tourism.
Thus, several stops on my four-day trip were saba-themed, and nearly every meal featured saba as the main dish. My brain has been ingrained with saba trivia. I have eaten saba prepared in every imaginable way.
Obama recognizes Japan’s aging population problem, and the kids are not exactly racing to take over their family’s farms and fishing boats. To drum up excitement in these careers, Obama indoctrinates students through day courses where they learn to catch, clean, and cook fish. It’s popular enough to have been recognized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
That’s part of the plan, but does it work for tourism?
Would I recommend Obama as a saba-packed adventure tour? Probably not. The city isn’t going to blow your mind, but there’s more here than just fish.
It’s a community effort. At one point, I visited an elderly gentleman who has devoted his life to naresaba, which is saba fermented for months or even years in a barrel and considered the progenitor of modern-day sushi.
I listened to a 20-minute lecture on something that looks, smells, and tastes terrible to me because the guy was so dedicated to his craft that I’m surprised he doesn’t already have a Netflix deal. He even had slides prepared.
That being said, I doubt I could convince friends and family to travel to Obama for saba. I was there for barely a week and will have mackerel-themed night terrors for the rest of my life. The idea of a fishing trip could be fun, but Japan has cleaner waters and much cleaner beaches in other parts of Japan, like in Shizuoka and Wakayama.
Another piece of Obama the town is hoping will wrangle in tourists is its historical entertainment district, Sancho-machi. It’s a well-preserved neighborhood featuring Edo era architecture and was once the port town’s red-light district.
Today, it’s filled with cafes, shops, and houses. If it looks familiar, that’s because it’s a sister city to another old school town—Kawagoe in Saitama.
This place was definitely a brothel.
Obama has done a great job keeping the traditional aesthetic. People are even jumping in the Airbnb game by renovating high-end townhouses in the neighborhood.
But let’s be real. Japan has plenty of other historical towns in more accessible locations. You can walk through Sancho-machi in 15 minutes or less. How many people are going to spend ¥20,000 per night for a room in Obama when they can get the experience conveniently in Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka?
It was also funny that no one wanted to talk about the red light district part of Sancho-machi’s history. The largest building in the neighborhood, Houtouro, was once a “restaurant,” but has been converted into an interesting museum. I use quotations because it became very clear this place was definitely a brothel, but no one wanted to mention it.
When the guide showed us the Edo era toilets and casually mentioned the peepholes before moving on with the tour, everyone just sort of glanced at each other.
Nara by the sea
Being the midpoint for travel between Asia and Kyoto, Obama was seen as the “gateway” to Kyoto. However, fish wasn’t the only thing passing through. Along with different forms of Japan’s regional culture spreading through the Saba Kaido, travelers, and returnees from China brought back art, architecture, and a whole lot of Buddhism.
Many temples and shrines sprung up because of this. So many, in fact, that Obama was compared to another temple town, Nara, and earned the nickname “Nara by the sea.” A rustic temple tour could definitely be appealing to tourists. There are hundreds of temples in Obama, but the most interesting was Jingu-ji.
Jingu-ji Temple is both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple, and the architecture reflects this. This form of religious syncretism was banned during the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Nationalism still runs strong in Japan, and some people are still not ok with Japan-born Shintoism mixing with foreign-born Buddhism.
When I asked the head of Jingu-ji whether he’s a Buddhist monk or a Shinto priest, he replied that he is simply human. His liberal take has caused him to be barred from some religious gatherings, and the temple has even been threatened with arson, which is kind of ironic seeing as it hosts the town’s fire festival.
We swing back and forth, but eventually, we find our center.
He carried deep convictions, saying that the temple was his home and he wouldn’t be scared away by extremists.
“People are like a bell,” he said.“We swing back and forth, but eventually, we find our center.” It was one of the most sincere moments of my decade in Japan.
Kaminegori, the semi-abandoned town
One of the last stops on my trip, about 30 minutes from Obama proper and up a winding, barely kempt mountain road is the settlement of Kaminegori. The hamlet, with its traditional thatched roofs and terraced fields, once had a community of about 300. Due to Japan’s shrinking population, it is now abandoned. The last resident left nearly six years ago.
What has stopped it from being overgrown and decrepit like other abandoned villages, is that Obama refused to let Kaminegori be forgotten. It has been maintained largely through volunteer work. The houses have running water and electricity, the grass is mowed, and a rest stop was established for hikers following the saba kaido.
It’s endearing that a city fearing the fallout from an aging population would fight to keep its village alive after it suffered that very fate. Moreover, they’ve turned it into a tourist attraction. It’s not the first village to do so. The village of Nagoro in Tokushima Prefecture replaced its declining population with hundreds of scarecrows.
As for Kaminegori, it’s a beautiful village, and it’s worth the visit for a deep dive into what rural Japan was like.
Obama should be respected for its community endeavors to promote tourism and its active cultural preservation, and Jingu-ji and Kaminegori are unique outliers well worthy of being on a Kansai itinerary.
Would I recommend Obama as a saba-packed adventure tour? Probably not. The city isn’t going to blow your mind, but there’s more here than just fish. Its small-town charm is complemented by locals with big ambitions.
If you need more convincing, just look at this cute video of the entire city of Obama performing the Koisuru Fortune Cookie dance meme.