Food & Drink

Eat, Drink and Beach Your Way Off-the-Beaten Track in Southern Okinawa

A refreshing exploration of the ancient caves, indigenous culture and local flavors of south Okinawa using the new Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach as our base.

South Okinawa: Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach

Courtesy of Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach

By Jessica Kozuka

Nov 9, 2022

MOST VISITORS TO THE MAIN ISLAND of Okinawa never make it further south than the airport. No sooner have they touched down in Naha than they’re jetting off again to Insta-famous islands like Miyakojima or heading to the beach resorts clustered up north. 

But I’ve been tempted down to the rugged limestone cliffs and sugarcane fields of the southern coast of Okinawa by the July opening of a new beach resort, Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach. The sprawling complex hugs a natural coral sand beach, offering 443 rooms with ocean-facing balconies, nine bars and restaurants, and six pools. It’s only about 20 minutes’ drive from the airport, but with nothing but farms around, it feels like a more far-flung escape.

South Okinawa: Lobby Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach
Two gajumaru trees in the lobby. Courtesy of Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach

“Ryukyu” refers to the culturally distinct kingdom that ruled Okinawa before it became a part of Japan. The hotel design savvily draws on that history without crossing into kitsch. The lobby, for example, is dominated by a water feature that lines up with the ocean horizon, giving arrivals the feeling of walking out into infinity. It is framed by the ropey vines of two gajumaru trees, considered sacred in the indigenous religion, and I spy two shisa, lion-like creatures that protect the home, unobtrusively keeping watch under the branches. 

More recent Okinawan culture is present in elements like an arabesque floral motif nodding to a ubiquitous style of decorative breeze block found around the island. Meanwhile, the dining room and bar of Japanese fusion restaurant Kanazawa is topped with hundreds of panels of whorled Ryukyu glass, a craft that evolved during post-war scarcity by recycling discarded soda bottles from U.S. military bases.

South Okinawa: Kanazawa, Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach
Kanazawa. Courtesy of Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach

I opt for dinner at Kanazawa, curious about the “fusion” aspect. Instead of the tropical kaiseki I was expecting, the menu eschewed the usual emphasis on locality to draw from the entire Japanese archipelago. Local fish were joined by autumn delicacies from the country’s far north like sea urchin, saury and conger eel. A Kyoto-style soup with sea bream, ginko nuts, and  umami-rich daikoku shimeji and maitake mushrooms was a particular standout. Resort restos tend to play it safe, but chef Tomohiro Komatsu isn’t afraid to get avant-garde, as evidenced by an audacious love-it-or-hate-it finale: chestnut rice infused with coffee. 

I’m staying in the Premier Club Twin, which in addition to offering upper-floor views and a balcony spacious enough to really enjoy them, includes access to a lounge with better perks than most. There’s the usual all-day food and free-flow wine and beer (Okinawa’s Orion, of course!), but being a late riser, I appreciate the full brunch until noon, especially with its array of elegant patisseries not available elsewhere in the hotel. The dedicated bartender in the evening whipping up custom tropical fruity cocktails hits just the right laidback sundowner vibe, too.  

South Okinawa: Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach
Premier Twin. Courtesy of Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach
South Okinawa: Club Lounge, Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach
Club Lounge. Courtesy of Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach

Even more exclusive and boozy (and thus near and dear to my heart) is the adults-only VIP pool bar. Access is included with suites, but for ¥15,000, guests 20 and over can also enjoy the private infinity pool, all-day nibbles, and a free-flow bar including eight different Champagnes. On a beautifully sunny Okinawan day, ensconced in a poolside cabana, sheltered from the hoi polloi at the kiddie pool and sipping bubbly, I felt like life couldn’t get any better. Then it did: the attentive staff materialized the moment my flute was empty and asked which Champagne they could bring me next.

South Okinawa: Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach
Courtesy of Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach

Now, if you can manage to pull yourself away from the slice of paradise that is Ryukyu Nashiro Beach, the rest of this less-visited destination offers some amazing off-the-beaten track attractions, so here’s my guide to maximizing your travel experience in the south of Okinawa:

What to do in southern Okinawa

South Okinawa: Chinen Bingata Laboratory
Courtesy of Chinen Bingata Laboratory

Okinawa has a unique dying tradition called bingata. Painstakingly using stencils and hand-dyeing resist techniques, craftspeople create vibrantly patterned cloth that was once the pride of Ryukyu royalty. At 10th-generation Chinen Bingata Laboratory, one of the largest and oldest workshops, the guide showed me every step of the process and explained how they adapted to maintain production even during post-war scarcity, using broken pieces of LPs as palette knives, and human hair for brushes.  

The southern coast is home to some of the most sacred sites in the indigenous religion, including UNESCO World Heritage Site Sefa-Utaki, a jungle shrine where high priestesses were inducted, and Kudakajima, a small island that features heavily in the creation mythology. As the first island the goddess created, it is supposed to mirror the perfection of the gods’ realm. It is indeed a gorgeous place to spend a day cycling to deserted beaches and windswept capes. If you are braver than me, you can try the local specialty: a sea snake called irabu.  

South Okinawa: Valley of Gangala
Courtesy of Valley of Gangala

Another site worth visiting is the Valley of Gangala, a stretch of banyan jungle and limestone caves whose archeological sites prove humans lived here 20,000 years ago. It can only be visited with a guide, but an excellent English handout ensures non-Japanese speakers won’t miss a detail.  Although when it comes to details like why people pray to a particularly phallic stalactite for fertility, there’s not much explanation needed.

What to eat in southern Okinawa

Just a few minutes from Ryukyu Hotel and Resort Nashiro Beach, sandwiched between a Itoman fishing port and an industrial complex, is Itoman Gyomin Shokudo, a seafood restaurant operated by a local fishmonger. The building is made from pale limestone rocks stacked like the walls of Ryukyu’s ancient castles, creating an atmosphere both chic and timeless. I showed up just as they opened and was able to snag a table, but a line soon stretched out the door. No wonder. Their way of cooking up the day’s catch is sublime. They fry the whole fish so it’s crunchy on the outside and flaky-soft within, then serve it up on a hot iron plate in a butter sauce flavored with asa seaweed, fermented tofu, or turmeric – all local specialties. 

South Okinawa: Itoman Gyomin Shokudo and Café Makabechina
FROM LEFT: Courtesy of Itoman Gyomin Shokudo; courtesy of Café Makabechina
Sponsored by Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto

You can find chewy Okinawan soba noodles anywhere on the island, but it’s hard to beat the ambiance at Café Makabechina. The family-run eatery is in a traditional home from 1891, surrounded by a lush garden and rock walls that survived the Battle of Okinawa with just a few bullet scars. Inside, the living area turned dining room is packed with antiques and bric-a-brac, giving it the nostalgic feel of lunch at grandma’s.

Unlike mainland tempura, which is served as part of a meal, Okinawan tempura is sold as single fritters for snacking. Along with fish and other typical fillings, mozuku seaweed and yam dumplings are local variations. The southern fishing village of Ojima claims to be the heartland of Okinawa tempura, with several little shops clustered on an island only about half a kilometer across. Having conducted extensive taste tests, I’ve settled on Oshiro Tempura Shop as the best, both because they serve their tempura piping hot from the fryer and because the outdoor seating area was home to a friendly clowder of cats waiting for fishy crumbs to fall. 

What to drink in southern Okinawa

South Okinawa: Chuko Distillery
Courtesy of Chuko Distillery

Okinawa’s local spirit, awamori, is made from rice and black koji. Despite its infamously high ABVs (generally up to 45%), it’s usually drunk straight, although mixing it with water, soda or tea is also common. Young awamori tends to have brash flavors, but aging it allows mellower tones to win out, often revealing vanilla and brown sugar notes. Awamori is aged in stainless steel or traditional ceramic urns to different effect. To get a sense of the limitless possibilities of this deceptively simple spirit, I headed to Chuko Distillery, where the owner took me through a tasting that compared steel-tank awamori aged five, 10 and 15 years and then the same awamori aged in ceramics instead. Unusually, Chuko makes their own urns, the second-generation owner having decided the only way to get a perfect aging vessel was to make his own. Each becomes completely unique in the kiln, with a patina of black, brown and green developing on the reddish clay as vaporized wood ash melds to the vitrifying surface.; Twins from ¥33,000, Premier Club Twins from ¥50,000.

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