For the final portion of our visit to Asia, we flew over to Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa feels, in some essence, like what Hawaii is to the United States — the islands have its own culture, climate (it’s warm or hot year-round), strategic location for the U.S. military, and the food is a little bit different from the mainland.
During our visit to Okinawa, we stayed at the fabulous Ritz Carlton Okinawa. If I had to sum up this hotel stay in a few phrases, it’s a stunning property surrounded by shallow pools, ocean and country club and the hotel as a whole, glorifies of all things local with so much pride and care.
Located an hour drive north of Naha Airport (OKA), a short 1.5 hours away from Taipei, The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa opened in 2012 after taking over the 2009-built property from a Japanese hotelier. Set on the grounds of the Kise Country Club, the hotel features a fantastic par-3 course right in front, with the green perched just past a lake. While not located directly on the beach, it’s a only a two-minute drive down the hill to a pristine beach shared with the Bankoku Shinyro-kan convention facility — the site of the 2000 G8 summit.
Partially open to the outside, the lobby and its public spaces encircle huge, shallow pools studded with lights and trees. This unique water feature created the best first impression I’ve ever had at a hotel.
The hotel feels intimate with 97 guest rooms divided into five room types. With 78 rooms, the Deluxe category dominates here. Bay Deluxe versions are set on higher floors with better views of the adjacent bay, while Premier Deluxe rooms are a bit larger and set on the top floors, along with the Presidential and Ritz-Carlton suites. On the hotel’s ground level, each of the eight Cabana rooms has its own terrace and private outdoor whirlpool, as well direct access to the outdoor pool.
We arrived late at night by taxi but the staff were expecting us. A front desk agent greeted me with a cool towel and Okinawan sanpin tea believed to promote longevity (we requested to be taken to our rooms since we’re running late for dinner). After a quick check-in process, a bellman took our luggage and escorted us to our room on the ground floor.
The lobby and restaurants are actually on the third floor of the property, so we rode the elevator down; after I checked out the view of the golf course right outside my room, my escort explained the many high tech features of the room and the hotel’s plush pajamas, then wished us a pleasant stay.
Dinner at The Bar
We headed to dinner at the private room at the back of The Bar. It was very late (if memory serves me correctly, it’s around 11:30 PM) this was the only dining venue that’s open. The Bar looks part dimly lit cigar bar, part spacecraft modern.
One thing for sure is they know how to mix a really good cocktail. We ordered the seasonal drinks, inspired by the sunrise and sunset of Okinawa called Alba and Tramonto. The pink cocktail made of hibiscus flavored jelly and Champagne drink and the blue cocktail made of Awarmori (a local Okinawan spirit, similar to shochu), pear jelly, peach and Champagne. I preferred the cocktail mixed with the Awamori as it added complexity to the fruity drink and balanced the sweetness.
We started off with traditional Okinawan dishes that were expertly cooked. The perfect chunks of tempura of pig trotter that the meat just melts after the initial bite and delicate crackle of tempera. The tempura of fresh baby corn and Japanese bittermelon were lovely textural contrasts to the silky meat. Goya champaru (ゴーヤーチャンプルー), a stir fry of bitter melon, tofu, shredded carrot, scrambled egg and sliced pork was insanely delicious despite the fact it’s humbly plated. The bowl of Okinawa sea grapes is a common dish or snack to have (they are sold at all the Naha airport shops and in the city of Naha). These sea grapes are briny seaweed that has the texture of grapes when you eat them.
We shared an 8-piece sushi platter that’s made with local Okinawa fish: lean tuna, prawn, makuku (it’s how it’s pronounced but not sure what is the fish exactly), Madai, torched conger eel, scallop, squid, and ikura maki. All were delicious but I really enjoyed the madai.
Bowl of marinated grouper, sesame dressing with a side of hot bonito soup was comforting and delicious. The bonito soup itself was tasty and briny and fish.
The dish I was looking forward to this entire trip in Okinawa was the Okinawa soba with sliced pork belly. The soba noodles are made with wheat flour, not buckwheat like soba noodles in Japan’s mainland with springy chew. The soup had great depth with pork.
We finished our meal with the Tiramisu Soil, a deconstructed version of tiramisu and instead of having a dusting of cocoa powder, it’s chocolate crumbles tossed with mint, and hazelnuts covering the creamy, coffee custard. The cups of soothing sencha tea to calm our stuffed stomachs.
Breakfast at Gusuku
Breakfast was buffet style at Gusuku. The food served is expansive serving both Western and local Okinawan fare and both kitchens, so to speak, were cooked equally great. (I should note that their made-to-order omelette is the best we’ve had in the longest time. Most cooks tend to make the exterior of the omelette golden brown which he should not do; it’s just cooked with a beautiful custard-like center.)
The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa Spa by ESPA is an offsite spa but it’s a short 1 or 2-minute golf cart drive away. It’s a gorgeous spa that felt like a calm sanctuary. When we checked in, we were greeted with cups of warm green sencha tea and we’re escorted to the ladies locker room.
Then indulged ourselves at the Heat Experience Room and a massage to melt our stress away.
Afternoon Tea at The Lobby Bar
Right after our spa treatments, we headed to The Lobby Bar for afternoon tea. This airy and spacious room offered views of the golf green and the ocean.
There were two teas offered here are the English style tea or the Okinawan style. No surprise that we opted for the latter. We learned and experienced buku buku tea, named after the sound of the thick bamboo tea whisk that froths up the jasmine tea. (I’ve inquired if we could purchase such a tea set but we were told no because it’s not meant to be exported outside of this island.) This tea was wonderful and we chose cold since it’s still warm in early November in Okinawa. The floral flavors of the jasmine tea were not overwhelming and the froth gave it some light and creamy texture for each sip. It doesn’t hurt to take in all of the beautiful views from our seats here, either.
Then the rest of our tea arrived…
The dainty bites of food were very good. What really stuck out in mind were the turmeric flavored scone for its distinctive bitterness; the skewers of steamed ham, Okinawa purple potato and octopus set in a tart shell; the sublime mango cream tart; and the Okinawa lemon scented Swiss cake roll (the lemon is distinctive and not like any lemon I’ve ever had tried – it tasted like a Meyer lemon crossed with a lime).
While the Japanese are generally known for subdued but solid service, Okinawans proudly maintain their own culture, different from that you’ll find on mainland Japan. The staff struck the perfect balance of hospitality by displaying a sophisticated, respectful warmth that made me feel that each staff member truly cared about us.
(We had afternoon tea at The Ritz Carlton Okinawa but this will be a separate post.)
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Ritz Carlton Okinawa
Okinawa, 905-0026 Japan