Japan may seem compact but when you add in the 160 islands of Okinawa it seems to stretch endlessly into the East China Sea. Like Hokkaido, Okinawa is a recent addition to Japan proper and was its own kingdom and trading epicenter until 1879. Feeling more like Hawaii than Honshu, this string of volcanic islands (the Ryukyus) is a place where flip flops replace business shoes, sugar cane grows wild, and the laid-back vibe is as far from Tokyo as it gets. We had the good fortune of spending eight days island hopping the Ryukyus with Okinawa Island as our first stop. Going from buzzing Naha City to the posh Nago Bay (at the Ritz Carlton to be exact!), we started to fall in love with the Japanese tropics.
Having just flown in from our WWOOF Japan at the snow-capped Mount Iwaki, we arrived to the Naha Double Tree in our wool coats and immediately started molting. It was 85 degrees with a tropical breeze and time to change into our best island shirts for a night on the town.
Leaving the hotel, we started following the sounds of violins, guitars, and this charming voice. We stayed and watched this band play in the perfect acoustics of this tiled breezeway for nearly an hour. Have a listen.
Okinawa is famous for its soba noodle soup and Sakura restaurant is said to be the local hot spot. To enter this warehouse-style building, you have to duck through a mini-door, take off your shoes, and crawl under some stairs for the best table in the house. Needless to say, this place was cool. Sakura serves their soba and broth separately so if you want to eat it like the cool kids, you dip each bit into the salty-sweet soup like a sauce. Wash it down with an Orion beer and you have a well-rounded Okinawan meal.
To understand the Ryukyus unique history and style, a trip to the Shurijo castle in the hills of Shuri is a must. Ryukyu is the name of the kingdom that united the archipelago in 1429 and this was the king’s residence and epicenter of power. Having established trade with China, Korea, Japan, and most of Southeast Asia, Okinawan style is influenced by the diversity of people and things that passed through its shores.
Okay as many of you have deduced from our lodging choices, we run the gamut—from shoestring to splash-out places. And when it came to our accommodations in northern Okinawa, this was one of the biggest splashes to date. With the help of our Honeymoons.com partnership, we got to call the Ritz Carlton on Nago Bay home for three unforgettable days.
About 100km north of Naha and set on the shores of the East China Sea, this is the Ritz’s first resort in the country and one of their newest in the world. The open air halls and super chic lobby had an ocean breeze wafting through it, amplified by the serene series of reflection pools throughout the hotel.
No photo, no adjective can fully describe the sheer deliciousness of our dinner at Kise. Specializing in Teppanyaki-style cuisine, Kise is where you sit in front the chef’s grill and watch the artistry of culinary presentation unfold and feel the budding aromas tickle your nose. This Okinawan filet with Wah salad was one of the eight courses that blew our minds and bellies. See the slideshow for a caciocavallo cheese plate that could be a Picasso.
The next morning we went to the gym, followed by a long walk on the beach to work off Kise’s big slice of heaven. The golden sand, rock formations, and views to Nago City made for the loveliest exercise.
The Helios Distillery was just down the road so we stopped in to learn about the Okinawan specialty drink…Awamori. With history dating back 600 years to the Ryukus trade with Southeast Asia, Awamori is a liquor made from Thai rice distilled in copper tanks and aged in oak barrels (three years for most batches and up to 150 years if it’s for the king). This stuff is potent but quite tasty on the rocks.
And as a final farewell to mainland Okinawa and total spoiling, we had a 120-minute couples massage at ESPA. With a private hot tub and patio looking out to the Yamburu forest, we were rubbed down head to toe with hot sea shells and sent into a state of euphoria.
Did you like “Okinawa: The Japanese Tropics” and the luxury side of HoneyTrek? Don’t miss our next blog on our three-island tour.