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Okinawa innkeeper transforms ‘love hotel’ into castle with a floral view

The Okinawa Times

Hotel Sha La La is one of Okinawa’s newest hot spots, enticing tourists with its castle-like structure.

The hotel owner’s hospitality and the popular night view of the surrounding chrysanthemum fields are also attracting many foreign and domestic visitors, with its room occupancy rate consistently at or about 80 percent in August.

Originally a so-called love hotel, which offers short-time accommodations for couples, it was later converted into a tourist hotel, getting its new start in April.

Two decades ago, Takako Takayama, 66, opened the love hotel in the Ikehara district of the city of Okinawa because she thought it would be easier to run a business that offers basic room rentals without the amenities and services typically offered at regular hotels. She spent ¥400 million to construct the building, which looks like a castle.

Over the past five years, she noticed that more and more visitors were interested in the area’s illuminated chrysanthemum fields, so she decided to focus on families instead of couples.

The chrysanthemums are grown through a unique method called light cultivation. Chrysanthemums tend to grow faster when they received shorter hours of sunlight. Farmers would hang light bulbs over the fields to control the speed of growth so the flowers will mature just in time for harvest.

Many tourists are drawn to the area to see the chrysanthemum fields lit up at night.

In February, Takayama renovated the hotel with 23 new rooms, including a suite large one enough to accommodate 10 guests.

“The Southeast Botanical Gardens are adjacent to the hotel and it is also close to the Okinawa Kita Exit of the Okinawa Expressway,” Takayama said. The reopening of the hotel “can be an opportunity to change tourists’ image of the city of Okinawa from a transitory point to a destination spot,” she said.

The hotel is becoming popular also because of Takayama’s gracious hospitality.

One day soon after the hotel’s opening, she had a guest from South Korea clad in a red dress. As soon as she heard the woman was going to have a wedding ceremony at a resort hotel in the village of Onna, she bought flowers and her staff congratulated the bride.

In July, the Yaeyama Norin High School baseball team from Ishigaki Island stayed at Hotel Sha La La for three days. The hotel only offers breakfast but they wanted dinner as well.

Takayama responded quickly to the request. She asked a neighborhood izakaya (pub) to offer them dinner there with all-you-can-eat rice and miso soup. The manager accepted the request immediately.

“I wanted to do something for those students, and feed their hearty appetites,” she said.

On the morning of the preliminary round for the summer high school baseball tournament, she also made rice balls for the team.

Takayama said she knows how hard it is for parents to support their children playing on school teams with the burden of travel and food expenses. She has a son who used to play on a high school team.

“I know how their parents are feeling,” she said.

The team advanced to the semifinals during their stay at the hotel. The students sent her a thank-you letter later along with newspaper articles about the results of their games.

Takayama said more measures are needed to attract visitors and develop the regional economy.

“I hope to keep my guests happy so that many people will visit the Ikehara district and stay at this hotel,” Takayama said.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major daily in the prefecture. The original article was published on Sept. 3.