Viv, one of The Luxury Editor’s respected roving reporters has recently moved from Scotland to Japan so is taking advantage of exploring this exciting and diverse island country in East Asia. Read on to discover more about her recent stay in Okinawa.
With Japan as our new home, it was time for a family holiday. We had five nights to fill so after some extensive Googling, it seemed Okinawa was the place to go, closely followed by South Korea which will be next on the list. The two main airports on the group of 160 islands are Naha, on the largest island, and Ishigaki. Ishigaki is a quieter, less developed island, but we were swayed by Naha due to the flights direct from our home city of Kobe. Solaseed Air provided us with a super efficient and pleasant flight, just under two hours from Japan’s seventh largest city. From the metropolis of high-rise buildings, industrial ports and the fast-paced city living, we had found our escape.
Often described as the Hawaii of Japan, the tropical influences are evident everywhere you go. The ideal climate for sun-seekers, the prefecture enjoys 20+ degrees all year round – although like most of Japan, the summer is stiflingly hot. The end of October was perfect with temperatures in the mid-20s and balmy evenings to boot. Okinawa was occupied by the Americans throughout World War II and it retains some influences from that period, however, it is still very much Japan, with the temples, tea houses, cuisine and culture.
Okinawans are known for living long, healthy lives. They attribute this to the ‘nuchi gusui’, meaning ‘food is medicine’. Watch what you put in your body, how it makes you feel and how you eat. Whilst the introduction of a more westernised diet has put pay to their ‘blue zone’ status, the traditional cuisine remains bursting with flavoursome, healthy delights.
To tick off a variety of criteria including 1. not too far from the airport, 2. plenty to entertain the kids (11 and 13) and 3. a definite feel of luxury, we went with a recommendation of the Intercontinental Manza Beach. The website said the two-bedded room would sleep our brood, so we went with it… It was a bit of a squeeze. The two beds definitely did not fit four, but we got an extra bed (at cost) for the room and it was very comfortable. The bedrooms are airy, with an endearing simplicity. Instead of robes, we enjoyed snuggling up together in our matching hotel pyjamas and slippers, which added to the fuzzy feeling of an extended family sleepover. The balcony stole the show. Uninterrupted views to the beach and out to the dreamy clear blue sea, created the perfect start to every day.
Here’s why the hotel was the ideal stay for luxury + relaxation. For parents, relaxation usually involves your kids being well-occupied. And they were. One of Japan’s largest inflatable obstacle courses kicked off our beach fun. For around £20 you can enjoy unlimited access for the day. We had stayed in St Lucia last summer and enjoyed a smaller version at the Bay Gardens Resort and Spa, so knew it would be a hit. The marble, a large inflatable chair, dragged and bumped along by a jet ski provided a burst of adrenaline, while the slower pace of the kayaks, was perfect for tropical fish spotting in the crystal clear waters.
The sandy beach is a very pleasant five-minute walk from the hotel and also has a large pool set back from the shore so you can easily base yourself there for the day. A small on-site cafe providing street food-style sustenance. You can also opt for a poolside spot at the main pool in front of the hotel. It was quiet (we were outside normal Japanese school holidays) and the expansive pool allowed for endless ball games, whilst not interrupting the serious swimmers.
The multi-award-winning spa treatment menu was divine, with treatments to tick every box. Alongside the treatment rooms, we found the Japanese-style bath. Hugely popular in the country, spas, or hot spring onsens, are to be considered a key part of a healthy lifestyle. Like all onsens, there are strict rules, including no clothing at all, and no talk of politics! Something that takes some getting used to if you aren’t a natural exhibitionist.
Travelling off-season can limit options for dining in hotels. The onsite Italian restaurant was closed, and two of the a la carte options were only open for a couple of the nights we were on the island, however we still ate incredibly well. The main hotel cafe, Ocean Cafe, was our go-to for lunches. Salads, burgers, poke bowls, pasta – it had all the favourites. I would denote here that special dietary requirements are tricky in Japan. It is not a requirement to state allergens or whether something is vegan/veggie/contains fish etc. I’m a veggie and eating out has been a challenge. Thankfully at this hotel, while the veggie options in the cafe were limited, they understand the concept and are able to adapt items.
I was thrilled to find that Unkai, the Japanese fine-dining experience and the main Aquabelle restaurant, both had vegan menus, a real treat. At Unkai you can enjoy the traditional kaiseki style of cooking. If you’re thinking of sushi, think again. Kaiseki is a type of artistic culinary experience that balances the taste, texture, and presentation, a refined local tasting menu with floral touches.
The evening buffet was surprisingly good. Over and above the extensive a la carte vegan menu, the carnivores in the party lucked out with beautifully cooked local beef and fish, flavoursome stews and karaage (fried chicken), a staple for my kids since we arrived. Along with an array of patisserie-style desserts – always dangerous in a buffet!
We wandered off-site for one night and stumbled upon one of the finest Japanese restaurants we have eaten at in the last few months. A 12-minute walk from the hotel and we found the hidden gem, Toto Chanpuru. Creative dining combined with old-fashioned Okinawan cuisine, including locally caught sashimi. A stylish layout, 12 ‘dining rooms’ are separated by wooden blinds, or you can enjoy sitting on the floor in the main restaurant. Incredibly friendly and accommodating, with the freshest ingredients, beautifully presented, we only wish we’d found it sooner.
Okinawa definitely got the thumbs up. The hotel was perfect for our requirements, and we will certainly be back to explore some more of the archipelago.