A few years ago, when a U.S. presidential candidate sharing the same name as this little-known port city in Fukui Prefecture was approaching the last leg of his campaign, the city of Obama was seized in the grip of a powerful fever. It was one akin to the kind that turns ordinary people a little dizzy when they discover a gold seam or oil field beneath the family vegetable plot.
Much of that euphoria has since evaporated. The expected windfall of visitors never quite landed, despite some amused attention from the media. Most of the “I Love Obama” and “Go Obama” posters and T-shirts have been flogged off, placed into storage or spirited away into private collections, along with the town’s hastily manufactured portrait eggs and Stars and Stripes serviettes. The Obama-themed rice crackers and red bean pies with the president’s face on I glimpsed in the supermarkets had mostly passed their expiration dates.
Formerly the capital of the province of Wakasa — which existed until the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) — this pleasant, sea-facing city’s historical credentials were burnished early on when it became one of the ports for the arrival of continental culture. Sadly, the city was one of several locations along this windswept coast where North Korean agents abducted local citizens in the first days of July 1978, an issue that is yet to be resolved.
The name Obama means “little beach.” My accommodation, the Hotel Urban Port, was located right opposite a spotlessly white strip of sand, visible from the breakfast room. The influence of continental Chinese culture was evident a short stroll from my hotel, in some of the architectural touches visible in the town’s oldest quarter, Sanchomachi. Mostly, though, I saw the pervasive Kyoto style in the district’s latticed exteriors, old geisha teahouses and private residencies. A mere one block back from the sea, the air in these narrow lanes was breezy and salt-impregnated.
The quarter boasts several attractive boutique souvenir and craft shops, some inhabiting converted merchant houses. Among its more enduring items, ones now being offered to the city’s small but appreciative number of visitors, are near-translucent, red agate accessories; Wakasa lacquered chopsticks; elegantly dyed craft paper and ornaments made from locally fired clay.
The Wakasa region, of which Obama is part, has a well-deserved reputation among foodies. A local food map, if such a thing existed, would include generic Fukui items such as Echizen oroshi soba noodles, giant crab, amaebi shrimp, sea urchin, cooked pickled radish and momiwakame, a high-quality, sun-dried seaweed. And it seems that almost everyone in Japan has heard of hamayakisaba, an Obama specialty, where fatty mackerel is slowly and evenly grilled, then served with ginger and soy sauce.
Traditionally, heshiko was a preserved winter food, made by private households as an emergency dish for days when snow and rough seas prevented small fishing boats from trawling the notoriously temperamental Sea of Japan. Pickled and salted in bran, this strong, briny tasting mackerel preparation, rich in animal protein, goes down well with locally made sake.
It is no coincidence that, in maintaining a prosperous salt and seafood trade during the Edo Period (1603-1868), the port was the commencement point for the Saba Kaido (“mackerel highway”) linking the then relatively remote Sea of Japan coast with the Imperial city of Kyoto. Because mackerel is said to spoil faster than other fish, it was gutted and grilled on the shores of Obama before being dispatched to the capital.
Obama’s connection to the sea is in evidence at the prestigious Research Center for Marine Bioresources, which studies preservation methods, fish embryogenesis and ways to promote aquaculture stocks. Attending an early morning auction in a warehouse located in the main dock area confirmed the abundance of the Wakasa Bay fishing grounds.
The late travel writer Alan Booth passed through the town during the extended walk that formed the narrative for his book, “The Roads to Sata,” a remorselessly cynical account that produced writing of great beauty. Booth’s Obama appears “spectrally visible against the gray of the sky and the cloudy coastal hills.” Departing the city, he chances upon a dance performance taking place on a “grubby piece of wasteland between a petrol station and a barber’s shop,” the focus of veneration a “tiny unpainted shed-like shrine perched inaccessibly on a wooded slope behind a hoarding that advertised Toyota Motors.”
A trip to the Wakasa History and Folklore Museum gave me pause, making me realize that my two nights in the city were woefully inadequate when placed against the number of heritage sites. I had already visited Hosshinji, a Zen monastery within the city limits, but was eager to explore a number of temples in the countryside, so I rented a bike from the tourist information office, where enthusiastic members of staff, some with English language skills, were on hand.
The splendor of the city’s temples and gardens may explain the tagline “Nara by the sea,” a rather optimistic tribute to its nonetheless very real cultural legacies. One of the most photogenic shrines is Wakashime, which dates from 714. The Shingon school of Buddhism is practiced at Mantokuji temple, a 40-minute or so cycle from the center of Obama. A celebrated statue of Amida Nyrorai, an Important Cultural Property, can be found in the recesses of the temple, along with ancient mandala. A broad dry landscape garden, viewed at its best from the shoin, a large study room, places its white gravel expanse, a spatial plane bereft of ornamentation, against a lush, rock-studded hillside planted with azalea bushes, sasanqua, pine and juniper trees. The effect is masterful.
At Enshoji temple, the head priest’s wife was expecting me. Word had been passed on from a couple with a rental car I struck up a conversation with at Mantokuji. “You’re the English photographer,” she announced. “Let me show you the green tree frogs.” The amphibians were in full throat to the side of the temple, where a little-known, but superlative rinsen-teien-style garden stands. A dynamic rock arrangement, full of well-conceived scalene lines, acts as a sloping backdrop to a small water lily pond. My obliging guide was good enough to unlock two large iron doors of a storeroom at the front of the compound, letting daylight surge over the sublime features of a Dainichi Nyorai Buddha.
The current incarnation of Hagaji temple dates from 1447. Tucked into a forested hillside at the edge of a village, the temple is hard to find. Perhaps it was my pronunciation, defective or too eager, but the locals just weren’t hearing the name. It was only after I bellowed it out at decibels exceeding the live commentary of a sumo tournament spilling from a transistor radio clipped to the waist belt of a man standing at the edge of a radish field, that recognition set in and, swiveling like an animated scarecrow, he fixed the direction with his outstretched arm.
You can feel the presence of Hagaji’s ancient wooden statues before you see them. As your eyes adjust to the shadowy interior, forms take shape: the face of a trance-like bodhisattva, the hands of a supplicant, flecks of red paint illuminating the shoulder blade of a saint. Without any faith to talk of, but coming from a European religious culture — soaked in images of torment and agony, a Christ with violated wrists and sanguineous crown of thorns — the more beatific iconography of Buddhism is always soothing to me.
Hagaji possesses the beauty Junichiro Tanizaki wrote about in his long essay on aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows.” His declared preference for a “pensive luster to a shallow brilliance” was realized in the dimly lit room of an old Kyoto building, where he discovered in the gloss of lacquerware objects, a “depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond.” If darkness is an indispensable component in maintaining the beauty of lacquerware, the muted light and shadows of a temple, its crevices covered with a film of altar dust, is vital to the sustaining of religious mystery.
You could sense wormholes in time running through Hagaji’s old timbers, which had become, at least in my mind, a fork in the road, offering two directions. The first, to linger and sink beneath the leaf mold of history, the decaying wood and fading gold, in search of the temple’s resident spirit; the second, to step out from the shadows onto the sun-dappled path that led back to the village. I chose the latter.
With a change at Tsuruga Station onto the JR Obama Line, Obama Station can be reached in roughly two hours from Kyoto Station (from around ¥4,000 one way). The Wakasa Obama Tourist Information Center (English spoken) opens every day. Many of the sites mentioned in this article are within cycling distance of the station. Bicycles can be rented from the Wakasa Obama Tourist Office in Obama Station.