The American President And A Little Town Called Obama, Japan

Aug 4, 2014
Originally published on August 25, 2014 10:13 am

Obama Onsen is a small resort destination in Nagasaki, Japan. In Japanese, the word Obama means "little beach," or "little island." In the past several years, though, the name has become synonymous with an American president, and the people of Obama have readily embraced their faraway namesake.

Soshi Nakamura, who works in the town's tourism office, says the town felt an affinity for Obama immediately, and that everyone was really excited when he was elected in 2008. Six years later, they're still excited. Outside of the town's tourism office, visitors are greeted by a life-sized statue of the president, wearing a black suit and big grin.

But while the rise in name recognition certainly hasn't hurt tourism, the main attraction remains a geological one. Hot natural springs are pumped into the baths, called onsen, and soaking in the steaming mineral water is a popular way to relax.

Even here, though, the American president has made his mark; a sign welcoming visitors to the baths shows Obama soaking next to a woman whose face is cut out, so that tourists can put their own in for a photo. When the bathers need to dry off, vendors in town will be happy to sell them Obama-themed towels.

Just up the road from the hot baths, visitors can see the source of the steamy water in the nearby Geopark. The ground boils and bubbles, and the powerful smell of sulfur is thick in the air. It isn't hard to imagine how this place earned its own strange nickname — "hell."

Today, many tourists find this moniker amusing, but Masahisa Sasaki, who works in the park as a guide, says the name is no joke. He explains that Christianity was forbidden in Nagasaki for many years, and Christians were killed on this site for refusing to abandon their faith. For them, he says, it became a real hell.

The hot springs have long since cast off this violent past. Today, the ground is known not for being hot as hell, but for being hot enough to cook an egg. There is a stand where you can buy raw eggs, four for 500 yen, and lower them into a pot in the ground to be cooked by the rising steam.

Somewhat surprisingly, no one is here to sell Obama-themed egg cups.

But back in the tourism office, Nakamura says all of this kitsch is just aimed at getting the president's attention and showing him that this little town is on his team.

Perhaps in a couple of years, when he's out of the White House, Obama will have time to make the trip.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Today is President Obama's 53rd birthday. There will be celebrations in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but also in a small town many miles from the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And of course I could not come here without sending my greetings and gratitude to the citizens of Obama, Japan.

WERTHEIMER: That's President Obama on a visit to Japan in 2009, talking about the town of Obama. On a recent trip to Japan, NPR's Maggie Penman got curious. She went to visit and sent us this postcard.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Obama is like many little resort towns, except a lot more ancient. Hot natural springs have made this place a destination for centuries. But in the last several years, a rise in name recognition has led Obama to try a new branding strategy. Soshi Nakamura works in the town's tourism office.

SOSHI NAKAMURA: (Through translator) Because we are Obama as well, we feel a connection with Obama. So we've always been supportive of him. And we were really excited when he got elected.

PENMAN: Six years later, they're still excited. Outside of Nakamura's office is a giant life-size statue of the president. He's wearing a black suit and one of his iconic grins. But while the statue and the name recognition probably haven't hurt tourism, the main attraction here is still a geological one.

Hot mineral water from springs is pumped into baths called onsen, and soaking in these hot baths is a popular way to relax for tourists and locals alike. Even here, though, the American president has made his mark. A sign welcoming you to the bath shows Obama soaking next to a woman whose face is cut out, so you can put yours in for a photo. And if after steaming in a hot bath you need to dry off, someone town will be very happy to sell you an Obama towel. There's the president again sitting in a hot bath with the caption, we love Obama. To get to the source of those hot springs is a bit of a drive up a narrow mountain road. The air is cooler here, but the ground is hot. The clay boils and bubbles, and the steam coming off the ground smells like sulfur. It's not hard to imagine how this place got its own strange nickname - hell.

MASAHISA SASAKI: Hell, yes.

PENMAN: Masahisa Sasaki works here as a guide. He says that lots of visitors find this amusing, but the name is no joke.

SASAKI: (Through translator) It's actually a little bit of a sad story. Four-hundred years ago, Christians were killed here.

PENMAN: Christianity, explains Sasaki, was forbidden in Japan at that time.

SASAKI: (Through translator) So for them, it became a real hell.

PENMAN: The hot springs have long since cast off this violent history. And while the ground may still be hot as hell, it's better known for being hot enough to cook an egg. There's a stand here where raw eggs are sold, four for 500 yen or about $5. That ground is lined with stone pots where rising steam will cook your breakfast.

KUMIKO YOSHIOKA: (Japanese spoken).

PENMAN: Kumiko Yoshioka lives nearby, and she and her daughter are cooking a bunch of eggs today to bring home to her husband. He loves the particular way that the steam-cooked eggs taste.

PENMAN: How long does it take?

YOSHIOKA: (Japanese spoken) 13 minutes.

PENMAN: 13 minutes?

PENMAN: Somewhat surprisingly, no one is here to sell Obama-themed egg cups. But back in the tourism office, Nakamura says all of this kitsch is just aimed at getting the president's attention and showing him that this little town is on his team.

NAKAMURA: (Through translator) We haven't been able to invite him directly, but we keep sending messages of our support to the American Embassy. And we hope someday he will come visit.

PENMAN: Perhaps in a couple of years when he's out of the White House, Obama will have time to make the trip. A soak in the hot springs might be just the thing he needs. Maggie Penman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.