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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?!)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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!
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.
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:
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.
Nago, Okinawa 905-0026
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.