“We’re crazy,” I remarked, looking up from my Apple Maps as we passed yet another town on the Japan Rail West. “Yeah, I know,” my friend agreed as we both let out a sigh. We were headed towards Obama, Japan. Spring in Japan is perhaps the most touristy time to visit. Our group, like many others, flocked to the country to see the famous Sakura in full bloom. Yet that was not the most memorable part of our trip. In fact, the Cherry Blossoms didn’t bloom till the very end. When we went on our viewing day, the trees were barren. Locals we spoke to simply said, “Spring is coming late.” 

Midway through the trip, we were in our hotel room in Kyoto. We discussed our plans for the next morning–shrines, temples, and castles we’d go to see in the cultural capital. But as I sat there looking at the map, something caught my eye. “Obama, Fukui.” A small city of less than 30,000 people on the northern coast of Japan. I jokingly said, “We could just go to Obama.” We all shared glances, and it was decided.

Obama, Fukui.

Obama, meaning small beach in Japanese, is a humble city around three hours from Kyoto. The town isn’t very well known outside of its name. In fact, during Obama’s presidential campaign, the city treated him as somewhat of a celebrity. Signs were posted around town with “I Heart Obama.” Locals sold t-shirts and goods with the former U.S. President on them. This was partially in an attempt to turn Obama into a tourist destination, an effort that has largely failed. But despite this attempt some ten years ago, it led two Americans to a city we’d never have gone to. 

Getting to Obama was the first hurdle. We left from Kyoto station, where we needed to take the Japan Rail West Special Rapid Line. This does not require a Shinkansen, the high speed rail ticket. But if you’d like to spend more, you can buy one for the faster option of the JR Thunderbird. This train ride is absolutely stunning; it goes right by the water along Lake Biwa. With views of small towns, mountains, and water, I’d argue the ride itself is worth the journey. 

A Stop in Katsuno

Although this is optional, directly on the JR line is a stop in a quaint water town. Katsuno is largely notable, aside from its one and only tourist attraction. This being Shirahige Shrine, one I’ve read online to be related to longevity, so might as well visit, yeah? Well for me, it’s a bit different, I’ve gone around Japan with what’s called a Goshuincho. This is a small booklet that you take to different shrines to collect specialized stamps called Goshuin; most shrines will sell these stamps for around 500 yen. No English was used in this town; it was far from the tourist haven of Kyoto. After trying to get a taxi on three different apps, we saw a small stand by the station. It read in a few languages, “Tourism Information.” There was a nice woman who helped us call a cab and even gave us a phone number to use when we had to return. Entering the taxi in pouring rain, we were taken to a sight by the sea. The shrine was lovely. I received my Goshuin and even a limited edition Goshuincho. The real sight was not the shrine but what was in the water. 

The Shirahige Shrine, captured that day. (Sam Edwards for On Magnolia Square)

Looking out into the stormy horizon, was the Shirahige Shrine Torii. This is the less popular cousin of the Itsukushima Shrine Torii in Hiroshima, known for its water gate. This one was of similar size but with far fewer people there. With that breath of fresh air, we trekked onward. 

Taking a taxi back to the station, we continued on the JR West Line. We continued to watch the lush scenery go by until we made it to Omi-Imazu station. We said goodbye to our train and went to a small “American” style diner. We had coffee whilst we waited. When the time came close, we lined up for our next mode of transportation, the bus! You can take the hour-long bus from Omi-Imazu to the famed Obama Station. This bus went up and through a small mountain range, with again, more breathtaking scenery. When we finally saw that sign, the excitement was immeasurable. 

We got off the bus to marvel at the city before us. Conveniently placed was a cut-out you could put your face in! Which we of course did right away. I’d done some research beforehand on Obama, so I had some idea of what we were getting into. After a brief trip to the tourist center, where we picked up some Obama cookies, we left from the station and into the city. 

Sam Edwards for On Magnolia Square

So what is there to do in Obama anyway?

If you’re planning to follow in our footsteps and make a pilgrimage to Obama, there’s a surprising amount waiting there for you! Obama is a coastal town with a few beaches. Unfortunately, we couldn’t swim due to the stormy weather. Obama is home to many famous shrines and temples, and there are some great hiking trails around it. So to list some of the best things we both did and didn’t do, we’ll start with temples. One we personally visited was the Kuuinji Temple, a Zen Buddhist one dating back to the 1700s. However, like most temples, this one was rebuilt more than a few times. There’s another Buddhist temple we visited close by known as Jokoji Temple. Both were empty aside from us, due in part to the heavy rain. Both of these temples are located in the Obama “old town,” Sanchomachi. The old town was filled with wooden buildings, temples, and a few newly renovated cafes. It was once a Geisha town, but now they seldom walk the streets anymore. It’s directly modeled after the famous Gion District in Kyoto, and that traditional feeling is very present. 

Of course, there is perhaps the most famous landmark in Obama. Instead of a shrine, temple, or even the ruins of Obama Castle, the most famous landmark is the Obama statue. Having been sculpted during his presidential campaign, right next to an office building is a small busk of the former U.S. President.

Moving more toward the coastline are a few delicious seafood restaurants and the Obama Food Culture Museum. Unfortunately, this was closed when I visited, but I have high expectations for it because of what we ate in Obama. Having stumbled upon a small restaurant by the beach, we decided to check it out.The restaurant was a part of a family home, where an old man and woman led us to a side room. With what limited translation I could get out of Google Translate, I picked out an option in the very large menu. “Omakase.” This being a term for preset meals decided by the chef. We had no idea what we were going to eat, but for 2000 yen, just shy of 13 dollars, I didn’t need to know. What we were served was delicious: a dinner of seafood. We received baby squid, sashimi, soup, and what I was most excited about, Obama Mackerel. Saba Mackerel is Obama’s local specialty! After a delicious multicourse meal, we left the restaurant back into the rain, and into a beautiful sight. 

Sam Edwards for On Magnolia Square

The sun had set behind the clouds, painting the whole area in a faint blue. We stepped onto the beach of Obama Bay one more time and took it all in. 

The quaint city, the ocean breeze, the delicious food, the culture, and of course, the kind people are what made me fall in love with Obama Fukui, the city almost exclusively known for having the same name as a U.S. President. 

The Aftermath.

We solemnly said goodbye to the Obama statue, the beach, and the town that had taken our hearts. We walked through the harsh rain and darkness to reach Obama station. Here we boarded the last train, narrowly avoiding an unwanted overnight stay. Arriving back in Kyoto and our hotel by midnight, we made a vow.

Doing some research reveals one major event in Obama. Every March, there is a fire festival which dates back hundreds of years. This festival involves the collection and sending of holy water to Nara. It’s a major event not only for Obama but the Fukui prefecture as a whole. Thus, as we ate our Obama cookies, we decided then that we would return the following year, even if just for two days to Japan to witness this ceremony. 

Obama may have been a joke trip originally, but it became the highlight of my spring break. If you have the drive or curiosity, take a trip there yourself! Go and see this small city, if only for the name and pictures. However, I am positive that you will fall in love with it as much as I did. Till next time, I’ll see you in Obama.

An Obama Cookie we purchased at the Tourist Center.
(Emily Tran for On Magnolia Square)