The American President And A Little Town Called Obama, Japan A small town in Japan is celebrating the American president — with lots and lots of kitsch. But Obama Onsen has a rich history in its own right.
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The American President And A Little Town Called Obama, Japan

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The American President And A Little Town Called Obama, Japan

The American President And A Little Town Called Obama, Japan

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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.

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