Nagano Prefecture is best known for the Winter Olympics and for its popular winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding. Hundreds flock to this prefecture every winter to stay in ski resorts and enjoy the large snowfall that the area sees every year. The town of Okaya is about half an hour by train from the city of Matsumoto, which is famous for its beautiful castle. Okaya is completely different from the metropolis of Tokyo or the national heritage haven of Kyoto, but it, nevertheless, holds its own charm. Locals are friendly and there are places where you can try delicious local food. Here are eight things to do in Okaya!
The pride of Okaya and surrounding towns, Lake Suwa, also called Suwako Lake, is the source of the Tenryu River and the 24th largest body of water in Japan. It takes a few hours to walk around, or only an hour or so by bicycle, which is a great way to spend a warm day. Walking around the lake will take you to neighboring towns such as Shimosuwa, parks, and restaurants. You can also take some stunning photographs of this lovely lake.
Decades ago, Lake Suwa used to freeze every winter, but due to climate change, that doesn’t happen anymore.
Nagano Prefecture is known for its buckwheat noodles. Although soba tastes good in Tokyo as well, experience says that the best noodles are in Nagano. There are a few soba restaurants in Okaya such as Senshu-An-Soba-ten and Akishino.
The larger cities of Japan aren’t the only places to go shopping. Despite being a small town, Okaya is a decent place to get some retail therapy. Lakewalk, formerly known as Apita, was recently rebuilt to be more earthquake resistant and has many shops and restaurants inside. There is a large parking space next to it, and there are many surrounding stores as well selling stationery, books, and household goods.
The nearby town of Chino hosts a spectacular fireworks display in the summer. You can go all the way to Chino, or it’s possible to see the show from Okaya as well. Head to Lake Suwa and take a stroll while watching the display across the water.
Okaya doesn’t have tall skyscrapers or buildings in the way, so you can enjoy the display easily from several miles away if you can’t make it to Chino. I saw the fireworks from Okaya two years in a row, and it was thoroughly enjoyable both times.
ILF Plaza is the center of Okaya and has a lot to offer. One of these is the ILF Douga Museum of Art, a small gallery depicting the works of Takeo Takei, a children’s writer and illustrator. I hadn’t heard of his work before visiting this place, but it was still really interesting and I enjoyed the pictures he drew. This quiet place is really nice to visit if it’s raining or you’re interested in Takeo’s work. There’s also a little gift shop at the end.
ILF Plaza also has an arcade with UFO catchers, taiko drums, and purikura photo booths. Though relatively small compared to large cities, it’s still a lot of fun. ILF Plaza also has some clothing shops and a bowling alley on the higher floors.
Nagano Prefecture is famous for eel dishes. You can try authentic (albeit expensive) unagi at Unagi Suimon, Arakawa, and Tenryu, or you can try Sukiya’s seasonal unagi dishes for around 780 to 1,000 yen.
Okaya has a fascinating museum showing how silk is made and the origins of silk production in Okaya and beyond. Now, it mostly focuses on wallpaper as the silk industry has almost completely died out. For 570 yen, you can get a private tour (Japanese only) and an explanation of the place, which is a mixture of European and Japanese style.
Okaya is a nice town to escape the hectic city life and see some nature. With these eight things to do, you certainly won’t be bored in this pleasant town.