Independent reviews series: Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa

Entrance Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan

Welcome: entryway to the castle, or in the humble and welcoming language of the staff, the “gusuku” (guest house). Photo Ritz Carlton Okinawa

 

It was Ben’s birthday, so what better than Japan’s top resort spot, Okinawa, and Okinawa’s top hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Okinawa?

Our aim was to do nothing more than relax in the hotel all weekend, so our only requirements were top-notch service, great dining, and a spa. (Our American Express Platinum card let us check in at noon and check out at 4:00 p.m. to maximize our stay, plus gifted a $100 resort credit which we bookmarked for massages.) The executive brief? We weren’t disappointed; it was worth every penny.

Frankly, that’s what we expected, and why we chose the hotel. What we didn’t expect was to walk away with an appreciation for the culture that usually comes only from locally based boutique hotels with passionate owners, or extended stays in a single location. The loving glorification of all things local, and the pride and care with which they were presented, elevated even this five-star hotel to a new category.

 

Amenities

 

Spa

When something gets voted the best in its country, that’s the obvious place to begin a review. The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa Spa by ESPA was awarded the 2013 Crystal Award Grand Prize for Japan, as voted by Spafinder’s experts and spa enthusiasts.

Step in to the sanctuary…

 

spa by espa ritz-carlton okinawa

Spa entrance. Photo Ritz-Carlton Okinawa

 

The spa is separate from the hotel, buried deep in a jungle for utmost privacy. If you want even more seclusion there are private suites with a separate entrance, each equipped with a plunge pool.

 

Ritz Carlton Okinawa spa suite espa japan

A spa suite just for you…. Photo Ritz-Carlton Okinawa

 

Each spa treatment begins with a “heat experience” in the tradition of an onsen, or Japanese bath. The nude-only area contains the sitting showers, wooden buckets, and hot soaking pool of a typical onsen, as well as standing western rainfall showers, a second soaking pool with a lower temperature, and both wet and dry saunas.

I could have spent at least an additional hour here as I sat completely alone in a bath as large as a pool, sipping on cool water infused with orange slices and staring out at the jungle as the rain fell steadily outside. Instead, I moved to the relaxation room and then on to my massage, a Swedish / Balinese mix that rendered me blissfully comatose (again, overlooking the jungle and listening to the rain).

The next day we returned to make use of the hotel’s gym and indoor pool, which are located in the spa building. Utilizing the outdoor deck as my own private yoga retreat? Priceless.

 

The deck of the Ritz Carlton Okinawa gym and spa, Japan

Approaching nirvana in a hidden jungle. The outdoor hot tub is flanked by Ryukyu-style cabanas for shiatsu massages. Beyond the trees the terrain drops off into a large valley.

 

Dining & Drinks

The hotel has two restaurants, two lounges, two cafes, and a bar. We made sure to sample as many as possible but missed out on the Library Lounge and the Spa Cafe.

At Kise, teppanyaki has nothing to do with the flying salt shakers that you’ll see at Benihana’s. (Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy occasional culinary entertainment as much as the next girl.) Instead, it’s about the artful preparation of hand-selected ingredients – primarily local – of the finest quality.

 

Teppanyaki Ritz-Carlton Okinawa Japan

Our friendly Okinawan chef proudly describes each of the local delicacies

 

Teppanyaki Ritz-Carlton Okinawa Japan

She artfully separates the fish from its skin…

 

Seafood teppanyaki Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan

…and before long hands over a masterpiece. The crispy skin is more than ornament. She provides three dipping sauces, and the result is like eating a potato chip: salty, crispy and buttery.

 

The Italian restaurant, Chura-Nuhji, was also excellent and also made use of fresh Okinawan ingredients, including salt (there is a store in the capital city of Naha that sells nothing but a variety of salt from the different Ryukyu islands). Even the products that weren’t local seemed to be tied to the local gastronomy; upon presenting our olive oil, a cold-pressed virgin oil with a strong bite, the waiter told us it had been selected because of its similar characteristics to bitter melon (the green vegetable seen in the middle photo above, and revered for its health benefits).

We enjoyed every minute of our dinner here, but the unadorned preparation of the teppanyaki restaurant makes it our favorite still.

 

Chura-Nuhji Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan

Inside Chura-Nuhji

 

Meanwhile, The Lobby Lounge is the all-day cafe, serving smaller bites as well as Okinawan specialties. Ben ate a chicken Caesar salad there that he said was the best of his life … but I think he accidentally confused it with the homemade version I had made him earlier that week.

My personal preference was the super-sized high tea service, served with a complimentary glass of Veuve Clicquot.

 

High tea Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan Gusuku

Tea for one at The Lobby Lounge. How in the world are thin Japanese people able to eat all this?

 

The Bar is part dimly lit cigar bar, part spacecraft modern. One thing is unambiguous: they mix a mean cosmopolitan, and an even meaner Kise Margarita – the house special – using tequila and awamori, a local sake; the juice of a local fruit similar to key lime, shiquasa; and chili salt on the rim. We loved the private conversation rooms, and snatched one up for ourselves:

 

The Bar Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan

Private rooms are adjoined with doors that can be opened for larger group spaces, or closed for privacy.

 

The Bar Ritz-Carlton Okinawa Japan

The Bar

 

Breakfast, as enjoyable as the other meals, is served in Gusuku, the most casual of the dining establishments. You can look forward to an omelette bar and Japanese, continental, and U.S. buffet areas. (Because Okinawa was under U.S. administration from the end of WWII through 1972, and there are still a large number of U.S. citizens living there, mainland Japanese consider it highly Americanized and look forward to sampling a bit of U.S. culture during their vacations. The fast-food chain A&W is a popular tourist stop. Who knew?!)

 

Other amenities

 

On island, the hotel is best known for its golf course, and in fact is located in the middle of the larger Kise Country Club. (The country club owned the hotel until two years ago when Ritz-Carlton took over.)

 

Golf course Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan

Surrounded by greens … and blues

 

Additionally, there is an indoor and outdoor pool; conference capability; and a myriad of tour possibilities. Check the hotel website for package promotions involving the spa or local attractions such as the Churaumi Aquarium, home of large whale sharks.

 

Churaumi Aquarium Okinawa Japan

Whale sharks at the Churaumi Aquarium

 

Design

 

In Okinawa, all buildings are stone or concrete (the frequent typhoons necessitate hearty materials); the design here calls to mind a sturdy stone palace of the ancient Ryukyu kingdom, complete with traditional red tiled roofs, and kissed with a careful use of open space, glass, and water elements for balance.

 

Ritz_Okinawa_00020_Gallery-001

Water and open-air design. Photo Ritz-Carlton Okinawa

 

As we mentioned in our opening paragraph, the recurring local flavor enhances many details throughout the hotel that might otherwise go unnoticed. A local textile pattern adorns a throw pillow; dishes are served on traditional Ryukyu pottery; local music is piped softly through speakers. In the restaurants, not only are local foods served, but in the teppanyaki restaurant some dishes are prepared in front of you using local cookware. Finally, the Ryukyu glass: normally vibrantly colored and interesting to look at though rustic, here the forms are more sophisticated, and surprise you as centerpieces, beverage glasses, soap holders and more.

 

Ryukyu glass

On the left, typical Ryukyu glass. Next to it, artistic water glasses at the R.C.

 

Location, location, location

 

Taking the expressway (there’s only one on the island), the hotel is about an hour away from Naha Airport, in the hills above one of the premier coastlines. Simply head north until the expressway ends, and then follow signs for Busena. In less than five minutes you’ll see the entrance to the Kise Country Club on your left.

Nearly three hours by plane south of Tokyo, the islands of Okinawa are much different than the rest of the country. In two words: tropical paradise. Although the area around Naha is densely populated, by the time you reach the hotel you’re in another world.

 

Ritz_Okinawa_00011_Gallery

 

Vibe

 

The vibe here is what you’ll likely find in other Ritz-Carltons: subdued and refined. Luckily, that didn’t cross over to stuffy. Most of the guests seemed to be looking for exactly what we were – quiet relaxation (or golf!). Most guests were Japanese in their 30s and 40s, although a handful of fashionable twenty-somethings also made a low-key appearance; only two other couples were foreigners.

We had read a couple of reviews mentioning rowdy children and a hotel staff that seemed reticent to approach their parents, and we did experience that once in the Lobby Lounge. Luckily, we didn’t see them again throughout our stay! The rest of the children were, like the majority of Japanese children, extremely well-behaved.

 

Resting your head (rooms)

 

Each room faces the same direction and, except for the enclosed cabana suites near the pool, has a view over the golf course towards the sea. They are all spacious…

 

Room Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan

 

… but ours was a little extra spacious thanks to a free upgrade (whether that was because of Ben’s birthday or our Amex membership, we’re not sure). They are fully modernized, with buttons controlling the lights, the curtains, the air. The beds are huge – larger than a king – and comfortable, with Western-style pillows. As an especially cute amenity, the iPod dock comes with an iPod that has been pre-loaded with several jazz playlists. Best of all, we didn’t hear a peep from neighbors or the hallway the entire time. It’s enough to make you want to hole up and order room service!

 

Bathroom Ritz Carlton Okinawa

A bathtub with a view

 

Each of the rooms also has a deep bathtub with a view, and to accompany the Asprey products you have a variety of scrub towels and sponges, bath salts, and a bath pillow. Double sinks, a rainfall shower and the requisite fun Japanese toilet – heated seats, the sound of running water, and different bidet functions – are other nice touches. My favorite bathroom amenities, besides the bath pillow, were a little stool that turns the sink area into a vanity, and the wonderful decorative touches of Ryukyu glass.

 

View from the Ritz Carlton Okinawa Japan

 

Heart (service)

 

There is little that can rival the sweetness of most Okinawans. Stay in a one-star hostel here and you’ll likely be rewarded with service to rival your four-star back home.

While it’s true that certain groups in the West shine with boisterous friendliness or deep generosity, the serene, happy, humble disposition of these islanders tugs at my heart strings to the point that I find myself imagining a utopia where little pockets of Okinawans are scattered throughout the world as an immediate reminder to the rest of us of how humans should interact. Add to that the service-orientation of Japanese society, where each customer is royalty, and the Ritz-Carlton management was primed to find a staff made in heaven.

Underlying each interaction is what seems like an earnest desire not just to comply with your expectations, but to please. There is a direct, personal investment, evidenced by the way they present you with their business card before their service begins. Take the bowing, for instance. It has nothing to do with the stiff, reverential bows you might see elsewhere (except when you drive away from the building; that is always accompanied by a deep, slow bow all the way from the hips to a flat back). Here, each is preceded by a contagious smile and an instinctual lowering of the eyes, as if they are too humble to receive your thanks with anything but shyness. You slept well in their hotel? Oh, that is so gratifying to hear. You admire their handmade glassware? Wow, they are so happy that you have taken an interest in something they also appreciate. You say your meal was excellent? What relief! The chef will wish to hear that, too.

On the morning of our final stay, we were surprised by a special treat at breakfast. In addition to the decorated cappuccino and candles, each person in the restaurant had signed Ben’s birthday card:

 

IMG_0765

Conclusion

 

Those who have been travelling with us for a while now know that we don’t dedicate full articles to hotels unless we have something really, really nice to say. In a nutshell, here is what we have to say about this property: It now ranks as one of our three favorite hotels worldwide, along with Croatia’s Villa Dubrovnik and Sicily’s Villa Ducale. Each of them resides in a stellar location, but what truly sets them apart is their animated staff and deep pride in local products and culture. These are the venues that feel less like a hotel, and more like a (very exotic and lavish) home away from home.

 

Arming ourselves with bibs in preparation for a great teppanyaki meal

Arming ourselves with bibs in preparation for a great teppanyaki meal

 

1343-1 Kise

Nago, Okinawa 905-0026

Japan

Phone:  +81 980 43 5555

 

Website: http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Okinawa/Information/Default.htm

Email / Contact: http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Okinawa/Contact/Default.htm

 

*We will always disclose sponsorships when applicable in any of our reviews (though opinions are candid, regardless). In this case, we stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Okinawa anonymously and received no sponsorship. The same is true with our American Express Platinum membership.

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Comments

  1. My goodness, what a wonderful description of the hotel and all it’s special amenities. I’m glad you had such a memorable time. I was taken with the so many of the unique touches like the bathtub with a view and Ben’s thoughtful birthday breakfast.

    Thank you for a beautifully descriptive and thorough review.

  2. Yamileth Horwitz says:

    I already told Sam that if we make it there, we will have to do this hotel for my birthday!!! He agreed, without questioning because every time I read a new blog I tell him all about it.

  3. One word: sumptuous!

  4. Wow! A well-deserved respite for you and Ben. What an incredible experience! Your writeup really puts me there. What a wonderful time you must have had. Keep up the great work!

  5. Thanks for the great review :). Just one question though, what did you mean by the Amex Platinum membership possibly having something to do with the upgrade? I’m thinking of getting a Platinum (now Gold) and was just wonderring if it could help me with our honeymoon reservations :).

  6. Hi Jerry, congratulations on your marriage! Where will you be honeymooning?

    When you book through the Amex Platinum “Fine Hotels and Resorts,” which is different than the normal Amex travel site, the hotels are supposed to give upgrades if upgrades are available. However, I always write the hotel ahead of time if we’re celebrating something special (and hey, there’s a lot to celebrate in life, right?), so we frequently receive really wonderful surprises.

    Go for the platinum upgrade! The value that it provides in the first year is worth far more than it costs. We immediately became gold members with hotel chains and car rental companies, saving us so much time and money on things like internet fees, not to mention room upgrades; speed through airport security thanks to our comped Global Entry (be sure to file the paperwork and go for the interview well before you leave on your honeymoon!); take advantage of airport business lounges and the fantastic Centurion lounges; get reimbursed for luggage fees for an airline that we fly once in a blue but with whom we don’t have status … and I know I’m forgetting others. Then there are the perks we don’t use, but should (like the concierge).

    I will caution you, though: Once you have it for a year, you’ll want to keep renewing it! We can’t go back to the way things were.

  7. Thanks, Jenna :)! We live in Finland, but are travelling to Tokyo and Okinawa for our honeymoon and will probably be staying at the Ritz Carlton, so that is why I’m especially interested in this post. I’ve already kinda made up my mind on this hotel, but I’m just searching for confirmation from bloggers that I’m making the right decision (which is now apparent) ;).

    Oh! You meant that! Now I understand, thanks for the answer. Do you normally get better, worse or same prices than straight from the hotel, if you get the rooms from Amex? Platinum upgrade is a lot better for people living in the States and elswhere, because the benefits aren’t as good for us Finns. There are still some similarities, but we can’t take full advantage. Also it costs over 700 dollars a year and we don’t get any sign-up bonuses :P.

    I’m normally that way. If I get used to a particular standard, it’s impossible to go down anymore :P.

  8. Hey Jerry, ooh, sorry to hear that the perks aren’t the same and the cost is higher. Rooms are always MORE expensive through the Fine Hotels link than they are through the regular Amex travel agency, which is often higher than booking directly 🙂 However, the luxury link can be worth it for the perks (like potential free upgrades, and usually a $100 resort credit to use during your stay – which is great for short stays, but often not worth it for longer stays). Just to let you know, all of the rooms at the R.C. are lovely. Our upgrade gave us a slightly bigger room, but when we returned and stayed in their most economical room on another occasion it was identical but slightly smaller.

    I can’t resist adding a plug for Kyoto, if you’re going all that way. We didn’t post about it yet, but here is a link to photos on our Facebook page. Also, Miyako Island (Miyakojima) has the prettiest beaches of the Okinawan islands in my opinion, and the best snorkeling is on Zamami Island at Furuzamami Beach.

    Enjoy!

  9. Thanks for all the great advice again :). We have been thinking of going to Kyoto, but haven’t decided on that yet. We have visited Tokyo 3 times, so it might be nice to see the older Japan also and Kyoto is definitely on our list. I will keep all of this in mind when travelling to Japan later this year and also when considering the Amex Platinum membership.

  10. Hello again!

    Just wanted to let you know that I finally started my own blog in English and will be writing about our honeymoon in Ritz-Carlton sometime this year once the trip has been done. So if you are interested, go check it out at some point :). I normally don’t send messages like this, but I just thought this might interest you. Have a great day!

  11. Fantastic, Jerry! Good for you 🙂

    So glad you enjoyed it!

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