And so I assume it was going for the little city of Obama Japan – jobs were being lost, young people were leaving town, shops were being shuttered, places were being run down. Kind of the same story you see in towns all over the Japanese countryside, nothing special, right? And then, sometime around late 2006, something happened that changed (at least for the moment) the town’s fortunes.
During an interview with a Japanese news network, then-senator (now-president) Obama mentioned that upon seeing his name, the official who checked him in through customs mentioned that he was from – you guessed it – Obama, Japan. The mayor of the city, in turn, heard this anecdote and sent Senator Obama a few little souvenirs from the city (chopsticks, I believe) and a good luck letter. It didn’t take long before some enterprising citizens latched on to what admittedly has turned into a pretty good idea, and ran with it, forming a “We Love Obama” support group to cheer him on through his presidential campaign.
As we all know, now-President Obama’s campaign turned out pretty well for him and as he drew closer and closer to victory, the town’s “Obama-mania” (as they called it) grew – not only did the number of members in the support group swell into something quite remarkable, they even printed up T-shirts (I know, because I wrote them to try and procure one for my friend Sabine, perhaps one of the most ardent Obama supporters around), played up the connection on their town’s tourism website, and started enjoying a lot of publicity both on domestic and international news programs (probably due in some part to the “Go Obama” hula-dancing squad they formed to cheer him on (seriously)).
Now, in all fairness, around the same time, some morning soap aired here in Japan that featured Obama city as a backdrop (it was about some girl who wanted to become a rakugo comic, I believe), so it’s not like the whole President-Obama-connection was their only claim to fame. But I think it’d be fair to say that it was in great part responsible for bringing knowledge of the city’s existence to a far larger audience than one would expect. Certainly it’s how I found out about it (and I lived for three years in a place literally only a couple hours drive from there!), and how it would up making its way into our road trip itinerary. That, and after failing to procure a “We Love Obama” T-shirt from the Obama city tourism organisation by mail (I was informed I would have to show up in person and buy one), I vowed I wasn’t going to let my friend down – I would roll into the middle of town and buy up all their Obama goods if I had to.
And so we return to our adventuresome duo where we had last left them – slowly making their way through the meandering, twisting seaside roads that link Amanohashidate to Obama city.
We ended up rolling into town a little bit later than expected, since the roads we had to take were mountainous, treacherous, and twisting – we ended up getting lost a few times (once we accidentally drove into a working fishing port, to be greeted with confusion from old fishermen unsure of who we were or what we wanted). But after making our way in, we parked at the station and headed over to the information booth, staffed by a cheerful old woman.
“Excuse us. Could you please tell us where all the Obama stuff is?”
(we are experts at specificity, as you can see.)
“Oh sure. Just head down this street,” she hands us a map with a long road highlighted in yellow – apparently we weren’t the first visitors with this question – “and then you’ll find it inside this shopping mall.”
And with map in hand, off we went.
Now we weren’t really sure what to expect when walking around downtown (if that’s the correct term to use) Obama – we had heard the hype on TV, so we wondered if we were going to see people walking around in Obama T-shirts, or hula-dancing troupes parading down the street, giant posters on the walls, or something like that. But we soon began to wonder if maybe we had gone down the wrong street, because there wasn’t anything or anyone around. In fact, it looked much like any other small inaka (“countryside”) town around – shuttered shops, deserted streets, a main “shopping arcade” leading out from the station area in desperate need of both tenants and customers. Where were the hula dancing women? The T-shirt clad throngs of citizens?
After about a block or so, Starbucks girl stops.
“Hey look at that!”
I follow her outstretched arm to see where she’s pointing to find a flutter of white just down the street. A flag. But not just any flag – an Obama flag…!
Ahh, this was more like it. As we began to walk a little faster, sensing we were drawing closer to the mythical motherload of Obama souvenirs, we began to notice more Obama flags, posters and decorations along the sides of the road.
Eventually we reached the shopping center indicated on the map, and headed in, only to be greeted by one of the saddest dead malls I have ever seen in my life. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say it was like a cross between the mall in Dawn of the Dead (minus the zombies (unless you count the poor girl at the abandoned information desk counter, who looked like she could have used a cup of coffee)) and the South China (ghost) Mall.
Well okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it was pretty sad to see what I presume was the current economic situation of Obama reflected so directly as in a mall clearly built with much bigger expectations, now with the entire second floor barricaded off with hammered pieces of plywood across the escalator, entire roped off sections across the first floor, and far more “bargain bins” with clothes heaped in haphazardly than actual racks proper. Oh and the toilets? You had to go outside, cross the street, and use the ones on a barely lit second floor of another (also shuttered, save the toilets) business. At least it was clearly sign posted
Putting the sad straits of the mall out of our mind, we follow some paper signs around to the opposite corner of the building to find the fabled “Obama goods headquarters” (my name for it) – the one part of the mall that seemed to be newly built and doing brisk business. Upon entering, we were struck by the largest collection of Obama-themed Japanese products I had ever seen in my life. Or really, just the largest collection of anything Obama themed I had ever seen in my life. (I’m guessing his presidential strategy back home didn’t extend to manufacturing manju, chopsticks and tissue packets that read “Obama is Beautiful World.”)
Starbucks girl went crazy buying up some manju and other tasty Obama-emblazoned treats, and I got to work scooping up some T-shirts, chopsticks and a flag for my friend Sabine. (And yes, I even joined the official “Obama Supporters Network” in order to do so ) I tried to snag this really nifty Obama bobble head doll, but sadly was informed it was only for show and not for sale. Dammit! If only they had had this Obama action figure…
After we finished up, we walked and drove around the town a little bit more, but there really wasn’t that much to see besides a couple of random temples, and considering that we had just spent the last two weeks touring a good 50% of the most famous temples in Japan, that prospect didn’t excite us as much as the thought of getting home, taking a nice long bath and sleeping in a nice warm futon instead of a freezing car. And so, our bags loaded with quasi-japanese presidential souvenirs, we made our way back to the car, hopped in, waved good-bye and good-luck to Obama (both the city and the president), and headed back onto the road for the long drive home.
And just like that, our road trip was done. It almost seemed like two weeks was too short a time to enjoy all the wonderful and beautiful sights the places we visited had to offer – heck, we could have spent two weeks in Kyoto or Shikoku alone! But we were grateful for the opportunity to be able to take that much time off in the Autumn to see Japan during its most beautiful season. Now we just need to start thinking about where to go for the Great Cross Japan Autumn Roadtrip 2010!! *laughs*
Okay, thank you for reading! And seeing as how I just noticed it’s December 31st, 2009, Happy New Year!
Now listening to: Above & Beyond presents Oceanlab – Lonely Girl (feat. Justine Suissa)