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.
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