Located on the Sea of Japan, the city of Obama is the closest sea port to Kyoto. In addition to a variety of marine products, goods from Asia (and the cultures that created them) were carried through the mountains along a system of roads now called the Saba Kaido or ‘Mackerel Highway’. A deep connection developed between Japan’s former capital and Obama, making it an excellent continuation of any trip to Kyoto.
From Kyoto Station, take a train to Omi-Imazu Station and transfer to a bus to Obama Station. The ride will take approximately two hours. Drop your luggage off at your accommodations and head out to explore Obama’s Sancho-machi historic entertainment district, which was once filled with inns, restaurants, and tea houses.
Get a taste of the past with a tour through the Hotoro, a ryotei-style restaurant/brothel that has been converted into a sightseeing spot. Sugiyama-san, a retired English teacher, will tell you all about the history and architectural features of this lovely structure, which was built in 1877.
Take your time exploring Sancho-machi and the entire Nishigumi neighborhood, which is now filled with private residences, a handful of cafes, and many temples & shrines. Kuinji Temple is known mostly as the resting place of Happyaku Bikuni, who unknowingly ate a mermaid when she was a child. When she became a young woman, she stopped aging. After being widowed again and again, she became a nun and eventually ended her life here at the age of 800.
Obama Hachimangu is central Obama’s largest shrine. Built in 769, it enshrines Emperor Ojin and Empress Jingu. Directly across the street is Ishigama Pan Cocoro, a lovely bread shop and cafe. Stop in for a tasty cup of tea and a treat baked in a stone kiln.
Be sure to make a reservation in advance for a special lunch or dinner at Suigetsu. This luxurious restaurant serves delicious Japanese dishes with a hint of French influence. If you truly want to splurge, hire Obama’s last remaining geisha to entertain you during your meal.
Obama’s Port is a short walk from the historic district. To learn about the origin of the name ‘Saba Kaido’, visit Obama’s fish market (or make a reservation to watch an auction) and then take a look around the Wakasa Obama Food Culture Museum. If you enjoy hands-on activities, check out Wakasa Koubou on the museum’s 2nd floor. Join a class to make your own washi paper, polish chopsticks, create a stone pendant, or shape your own fake food!
If you are more interested in ocean-related activities, make a reservation to take a boat cruise, go fishing, feed fish raised in pens, try sea kayaking, etc. All experiences require advanced reservations. To book something, check out the Experience Obama website or contact the Obama Destination Management Association, in English or Japanese, at 0770-56-3366.
There are a number of impressive shrines and temples in the countryside not far from Higashi Obama Station. If you enjoy cycling, rent a bike from the station and follow Route 35 to Wakasa-hime Jinja and Wakasa-hiko Jinja, two associated ‘female’ and ‘male’ shrines, founded in the early 700’s.
Further up the same road is Jingu-ji, a very unusual temple where Buddhism and Shintoism are intertwined. If you are traveling with someone who can understand Japanese, the head priest is a fascinating individual who openly shares his unique views on Japanese religion.
If it is time for lunch, or you’d like a cup of coffee, relax for a while at Watoto, a beautiful farmhouse-turned-cafe. On the way back toward Higashi Obama Station, stop to admire the garden at Mantoku-ji, a temple with a history of over 1000 years. Although lovely in winter, it is stunning in other seasons.
*Note: If you do not cycle, it is also possible to take a taxi or walk (albeit a long one) to all of these locations.
If you are interested in meditation, there are two temples in Obama that openly welcome non-Japanese guests. Myotsuji offers visitors a chance to experience Ajikan, a type of meditation originally used by monks to relax and train their minds. The priest who led us could speak some English and, after the session, he did a simplified tea ceremony in front of us. The traditional sweet served with the tea was also handmade by the priest himself.
Whereas Myotsuji consists of a large, impressive complex surrounded by giant, ancient cedars, Bukkokuji is a small, humble temple that does not appear to be anything special from the outside. However, Bukkokuji is actually a Zen Buddhist monastery where people from around the world come to learn. The head priest spoken English in a soothing, confident voice – with simple, clear explanations. It was the best Zen meditation experience I’ve ever had in Japan.
As for accommodations, reserve one of Obama’s four newly renovated traditional townhouses in order to enjoy a real ‘Machiya Stay‘. Although traditional in design, the homes have modern baths, toilets, kitchens, etc. The machiya are especially good for groups, each accommodates up to 6 – 11 people.
All of the accommodations listed above are well located for exploring Obama’s historic district and the port facilities. And, they are within walking distance of Obama Station.
If you travel to Obama by car, there are many more fantastic sightseeing spots to visit. There are also taxis and infrequent bus service to some locations.
If you are a foodie who would like to dine on local marine specialties (mackerel, blowfish, etc), it is also possible to have lunch or dinner (or stay overnight) in one of Obama’s small fishing villages.