Fukui’s Town of Obama | Visiting So-called “Nara by the Sea”

Mantoku-ji is one of many temples to see in Fukui Prefecture’s seaside town of Obama

To understand the allure of Obama, we’re first going to have to take a look at the town’s legacy across the ages. Since the early mists of time, this seaside hamlet has played an important role as a port of trade with mainland Asia. In ancient tombs all throughout the surrounding regions, archeologists have uncovered artifacts and other relics from China and Japan’s other Asian neighbors. As the years progressed, Obama continued to be an important center for nautical trade and eventually was established as the capital of Wakasa Province under the Heian court’s Ritsuryo system.

Due to its commercial connections with China and the rest of Asia, Obama was an important conduit through which Buddhism flowed into Japan. As a result, Obama grew to be something of a temple town in its early years and even today, there’s a staggering number of influential establishments for a rural city of its size. In fact, Obama is home to so many Buddhist enclaves that it is often referred to by the nickname “Nara by the Sea” due to their peculiarly high number. What’s more, one of the more eminent of the temples actually shares a deep connection with Nara’s Todai-ji (but more on that later on).

For a long while, Obama’s role was that of a provider to the ancient capital of Kyoto (then called Heian-kyo). The now small hamlet sat on the starting point of what would eventually come to be called the Saba Kaido which quite literally means “the Mackerel Highway.” As the moniker suggests, this road functioned as a way to ferry both fresh seafood as well as other commodities like salt down from Obama to the inner city of Kyoto. Moreover, this key conduit also helps to channel things like high culture that would otherwise never find their way out to a remote place like Obama.

As the years rolled by, Obama went on to become a bustling castle town. Though it would change hands a number of times over the decades of Japan’s Warring States period (1467–1615), stewardship of Obama ultimately ended up in the hands of the Sakai clan, a family that was closely related to the Tokugawa shogunate. Throughout the nearly three centuries of peace that the Tokugawas ushered in, Obama largely continued its role as a port town and an important source of seafood for Kyoto and the surrounding regions.

These days, Obama is, at least at first glance, little more than a countryside collective that is bigger than a village but not really what one would envision when they hear the word “city” (though that is what it officially is). Alas, looks are almost always deceiving and as you’ll see in the coming sections, there’s a heck of a lot to do in Obama if you know where to look and dig a little bit below the surface. While I wouldn’t suggest that you go completely out of your way JUST for Obama, it is a great add-on if the rest of your trip takes you anywhere nearby.

How to Get There

Before we get too deep into the weeds, let’s take a historical breather and examine some key logistics. After all, as with most of the other off of the beaten path spots on this blog, getting to Obama is not as easy as taking the Yamanote Line over to Shibuya. To reach this coastal countryside, you’re going to need to make a few connections. Luckily, with a little bit of help from the likes of Jorudan or a similar service, this shouldn’t be all too hard for most experienced travelers.

How one actually gets to Obama largely depends on what angle he or she approaches from. In my case, I was down in Kyoto so I had to take the local Kosei Line up to Omi-Imazu Station and then transfer to a bus. All in all, the trip took about two hours from Kyoto when you factor in connections and travel time and was essentially hiccup free. While I was unable to take advantage of it due to being a resident, it seems that both the train and the bus legs of the journey are covered by the Japan Rail Pass. This means that holders can visit without needing to spend an additional yen on transportation.

Given its location on the Saba Kaido, Obama actually combines well with a number of locations. I’ll detail a good many of these in the “Other Nearby Attractions” at the end of this article. For now, just know that your approach to Obama will largely be contingent on what else you plan to see and do. Though the bus worked out to be the easiest for me, those coming from the rest of Fukui Prefecture would do better to approach via train. At the end of the day, it all just comes down to where you’re coming from.

What to See in Obama

Sancho-machi in the Nishigumi district of Obama is one of the best reasons to visit this part of Fukui Prefecture.

Regardless of how you actually get yourself to Obama, there’s a lot to do there once you arrive. That said, many of Obama’s allures are well hidden and you’ll need to know where they are to be able to make the most of your visit. All things considered, I wish I did a bit more research before going as I would have made a number of different decisions about what I did and in what order had I been more informed. Further complicating things, many of the points of interest in Obama are strewn all over the town.

Generally speaking, there are two methods to experience Obama. The first is on foot and will limit what you can and cannot do. Unfortunately, some of Obama’s top locales are found a good ways away from public transportation. Thus, it might behoove you to consider a rental car if you want to maximize what you can see and do. At the same time though, nothing is too far and because of this, rental cycles are a popular means of getting around Obama.

Immediately upon exiting Obama Station (which is also where the bus will leave you off), you’ll find the local tourism information center. Here, you can purchase some regional goods but the main reason that you’ll want to swing by is that you can rent a bicycle. With a solid set of two wheels, you’ll be able to cover ground faster and reach some of the more far flung attractions in Obama. All things considered, you don’t need a rental cycle but it makes getting from spot to spot a lot more expedient.

So, where should one go in Obama? That, my friends, is really up to you. Below, I’ll detail all of the spots that you might want to go to along with a link to a Google Map. This smorgasbord-style approach will allow you to craft your own adventure and pick out the spots that best resonate with your interests. Do note that this list is going to be pretty long but that should show you how much there is on offer in Obama.

  • Nishigumi & Sancho-machi
    At least as far as I am concerned, this is one of the primary reasons why one would go to Obama. Thanks to the town’s long connection to Kyoto since antiquity, a lot of the culture of the former capital has flowed up to Obama. Today, this history is most apparent in the Nishigumi district (particularly in the portion called Sancho-machi). Now designated a national heritage site, the scenery pictured above is eerily similar to Kyoto’s famous Gion area. In the days of yesteryear, it was a bit of a red light area but now there are many cafes in the old buildings.
  • Wakasa Hachiman Shrine
    At the start of the Nishigumi district, you’ll find the 1,300 year-old Wakasa Hachiman Shrine. This local and rather small sepulcher honors the war god Hachiman. Given how close it is to Sancho-machi, you definitely should swing by and pay your respects. Though not all that expansive, the shrine grounds are quite picturesque too.
  • Kuin-ji
    Found next to Wakasa Hachiman Shrine in the Sancho-machi part of Obama, Kuin-ji was the family temple of the ruling clan. Why this spot is of note though has more to do with its connection to a folktale. Allegedly, a Buddhist nun by the name of Yao Bukinu wandered across all of Japan before finally returning to her hometown of Obama and disappearing into a cave at Kuin-ji (which you can still see today).
  • Joko-ji
    This temple was founded by Azai Ohatsu (also called Jokoin) who was one of the famed “three sisters of Azai” and the wife of Kyogoku Takatsugu, one of the former regional lord of Obama. After his passing, she erected Joko-ji in his honor and was also later interned there herself. There’s also a small museum on site with artifacts relating to Azai Ohatsu.
  • Wakasa Fisherman’s Wharf
    Out on a strip of land that juts out into Wakasa Bay, you’ll find Wakasa Fishermen’s Wharf. Here, you can purchase all sorts of goods and souvenirs from Fukui Prefecture. There’s also options to feast on some fresh seafood taken right from the Sea of Japan. The Miketsukuni Wakasa Obama Food Culture Museum is also nearby if that’s your shtick.
  • Sotomo Caves & Cliffs
    While you’ll need to catch a ferry at the wharf, the Sotomo Caves & Cliffs are one of the most stunning sights in Obama. The six kilometer-long stretch of rocky coastline was selected as one of the most beautiful places in Japan back in 2015 by CNN. The whole boat ride around the dramatic rock formations will take around an hour.
  • Obama Castle & Shrine
    If you continue eastward past Wakasa Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll soon come to the former site of Obama Castle. Originally completed during the early days of the Edo period (1603–1868), the small stronghold’s former grounds are now home to a Shinto shrine but you can still see the castle’s original stone walls.
Myotsu-ji is one of the most iconic and picturesque temples in all of Fukui Prefecture.

All of the locations listed thus far are found within walking distance of Obama Station. To reach the next set of attractions though, you’re definitely going to want to get a rental car or borrow a bicycle because they are a bit too far away to hoof it.

  • Myotsu-ji
    Thanks to its connection with Kyoto, Obama is home to a number of tranquil temples. Of the collection, it’s hard to beat Myotsu-ji. Allegedly founded by the legendary early shogun Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro, this temple has a beautiful pagoda made of cypress that is designated as a national treasure. It’s located a bit of a ways away from the spots listed thus far so prepare for a bit of a journey.
  • Jingu-ji
    When it comes to the temples of Obama, few are more well known than Jingu-ji. Literally meaning “Shrine Temple,” this spot is rife with hints to Buddhism and Shinto’s syncretic past. What makes Jingu-ji so well known though is its ties with Todai-ji down in Nara. Every year on March 2, water is taken from a well near Jingu-ji in a fiery celebration known as the Omizu Okuri. This is then symbolically sent down to Nara for Todai-ji’s Omizu Tori ritual which heralds the arrival of spring.
  • Wakasahiko & Wakasahime Shrines
    Dating from the early 700s, this pair of Shinto shrines are integral to Obama. They can be thought of as a dyad of lower (Wakasahime Shrine) and upper (Wakasahime Shrine) sanctuaries. The set of shrines honors Hikohohodemi-no-Mikoto and Toyotama-hime, two gods that are deeply connected to the sea. Along with Jingu-ji, Wakasahiko and Wakasahime Shrines also play a role in the Omizu Okuri ritual.
  • Mantoku-ji
    Had enough temples yet? Well, here’s another! Matoku-ji is a temple that was founded in 1265 and has been through a number of changes. Over the years, it has moved its location, changed its name three times and even switched Buddhist sects. Supposedly, the gorgeous grounds were once a refuge for women who were fleeing from the horrors and atrocities of a country amidst civil war.
  • Fukui Prefectural Wakasa History Museum
    Found but a mere stone’s throw away from Higashi-Obama Station, the Fukui Prefectural Wakasa History Museum exhibits a ton of displays that tell the tale of the region’s history. Note that English support could be better here so this one is really only recommended for the Japanese speakers out there.

As you can see, there are a ton of places to consider in Obama and that doesn’t even include attractions within the greater confines of the Wakasa-Wan Quasi-National Park like the Takarasu Rice Terraces. I completed many of the above spots in a very aggressive day trip but you might want to budget for additional time if you want to see them all at a more leisurely pace.

The Barack Obama Connection

A statue of former US president Barack Obama in Fukui Prefecture’s seaside town of Obama

No mention of Obama would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room — that the coastal town shares a name with a beloved former president. What’s more, the city’s leadership also tried to make extensive use of the coincidence to put this part of Fukui Prefecture on the radars of international travelers. While these efforts ultimately didn’t bring the promised legions of tourists that the townspeople hoped it would, it did at least create some mild awareness that yes, there is a place called Obama in Japan.

The story begins back in the year 2006. Then senator Barack Hussein Obama II was interviewed by Japanese television network TBS when in town for some official happening. Allegedly, a staff member working at immigration was actually from Obama in Fukui and made a one-off comment which was then repeated by the 44th president on national Japanese TV. Seeing an opportunity, the mayor of Obama sent Barack Obama a set of the city’s famous lacquer chopsticks along with an informational DVD and a letter wishing him well.

Fast forward to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and a lot of local businesses in Obama started to root for the man who shared a name with their place of residence. All across the town, merchants were putting up “Go Obama!” posters, selling “I love Obama” T-shirts, and producing manju with Barack Obama’s face on them. Cringe factor aside, it seems that the craze actually reached the ears of the former president who said in return “I look forward to a future marked by the continued friendship of our two great nations and a shared commitment to a better, freer world.”

Since being elected as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama and the town of Obama have had a number of back and forth exchanges, albeit not always directly. For example, in 2013 the lacquerware craftsmen of Obama produced a pen using the regional techniques for the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to give to Barack Obama. These days, you can still find a few homages to this Obama furore here and there but it has largely subsided as Barack Obama’s presidency came to a close back in the year 2016.

Other Nearby Attractions

The lakeside torii gate of Shiga Prefecture’s Shirahige Shrine, an attraction that combines well with a trip to Obama

Honestly, with all of the spots that I’ve listed thus far, you really shouldn’t need anything else in or around Obama. At the same time though, a place like Obama is not a destination that one does in a vacuum and the other allures nearby really matter. As noted in the logistical section of this article, I traveled to and from Kyoto so options like the post town of Kumagawa-juku on the aforementioned Saba Kaido or lakeside Shirahige Shrine (pictured above) down in Shiga Prefecture would have been easy additions for me for me.

If you’re going to come all the way up to Fukui Prefecture though, I highly suggest that you continue on northeast from Obama and check out some of the other amazing spots. From the rugged cliffs of Tojinbo to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum and the Echizen Daibutsu, there’s literally days’ worth of content in this part of Japan. To not make this piece on Obama any longer than it already is, check out my ultimate guide to Fukui Prefecture if you’d like to spend a bit more time exploring.

One other possibility for those of you who have already done Fukui is to head in the opposite direction. Normally, you’d want to head towards the port town of Tsuragu to see more of Fukui but Obama also has decent access to so-called “Kyoto by the Sea” via JR’s Obama Line. The most famous allures on the coastal side of Kyoto are Amanohashidate and Ine but those coming from Obama can also check out Maizuru. During World War II, this port was an important center for the Japanese navy and you can still see a lot of this historical legacy today.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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