February 22, 2024

Relais & Chateaux’s first Japanese top member



Guests visiting Otowa Restaurant pass a large window offering a view of the kitchen as they head to the main dining room. For the walls of the kitchen, Otowa’s father, Kazunori, chose to use tiles in the same shade of blue as those in the restaurant of renowned French chef Alain Chapel, under whom he was the first Japanese to train.

In November 2022, Kana Otowa of Otowa Restaurant — specializing in French cuisine in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture — became the first Japanese elected to the executive committee of Relais & Chateaux, a worldwide network comprising 580 hotels and restaurants that have passed a rigorous screening process.

Spanning 65 countries, Paris-headquartered Relais & Chateaux involves numerous star chefs. While most of those on the executive committee have been from Europe, and particularly France, the eight members elected to five-year terms from January 2023 include individuals from the U.S. and Africa as well.

Adding to the committee’s diversity as both a Japanese and a woman is Otowa. She also came under the spotlight for being the youngest-ever member of the executive committee — just 38 at the time of her election.

Relais & Chateaux’s origins date back to France in 1954, when Marcel Tilloy, a music hall artist and owner of a small hostelry, launched an organization that brought together a number of rural inns and hotels in historic chateaux. Operating under the name Relais & Chateaux since 1974, the not for profit organization undertakes activities geared toward its philosophy of cherishing and promoting the diversity of regional hospitality and food culture.

The conditions of entry are rigorous, with candidates required to pass a screening process based on a checklist of more than 500 points. Everything is examined from the guest’s perspective — from first contact when making a reservation, through to interactions on arrival, the meal and hospitality, and even the extent to which the guest continues to feel impressed after returning home.

At the Relais & Chateaux annual congress in Venice in November 2022, Otowa was appointed to the executive committee.

Otowa was a speaker at a workshop during the annual congress in Copenhagen last November.

Otowa was approached about joining the executive committee of this prestigious body by Relais & Chateaux President Laurent Gardinier, who owns with his brothers the venerable Parisian restaurant Le Taillevent, along with another high-end hotel and restaurant in the Champagne region, Domaine Les Crayères. Alongside the organization’s focus on diversity, her experience of working at a resort hotel in the U.S. after studying restaurant management at a British university made Otowa a good fit. Her work as a Relais & Chateaux executive committee member involves investigating and selecting member establishments in partnership with its headquarters, which has a permanent staff of 60. In addition, as a member of the Japanese branch, she undertakes activities in such areas as marine resource protection.

“I was astonished, but saw it as a great honor and also a huge opportunity for me,” Otowa said. She had only just given birth to her third child at the time. The first thing that came to mind was how she should break the news to her husband, she said.

Bringing up three children when both spouses have careers is hard enough, but in addition to the workload, her duties as an executive committee member of Relais & Chateaux require her to travel abroad several times a year. When she tentatively broached the subject with her husband, he was entirely receptive, telling her she had no reason to refuse the opportunity of a lifetime.

“My husband works for a foreign company, and we frequently clashed over my approach to work and home life after our eldest son was born,” Otowa said. “The challenges involved in bringing up young children while working in the hospitality sector are even greater for people at small companies, so the support of one’s partner and others around one is imperative. It depends on the sector, but I’m sure there must be many women who feel forced to put the decision to have children on the back burner while they’re in the midst of building up their career. While marriage and children are just one life choice and aren’t in themselves the be-all and end-all, I’d decided I wanted to forge a career for myself along with having a family. Either way, I believe both working women and their partners and families need to have a strong willingness to make each other understand their position, whatever it takes.”

The couple are approaching their 10th wedding anniversary. She says her husband’s understanding attitude toward her work is the product of numerous marital squabbles and arguments. When she traveled to Copenhagen in 2023 for the annual Relais & Chateaux Rendez-Vous, her 8-year-old eldest son accompanied her. He sat beside her at dinners attended by star chefs from across the globe. She hopes witnessing her work at this annual congress attended by hoteliers and famous chefs from around the world gave him at least a glimpse of a different side of her from the mother and wife he is more accustomed to seeing.

With experience of working abroad, Otowa likely had options for working in other countries or in Tokyo. However, when she was in her late 20s and still single, but with the vague notion that she would one day like to marry and have children while continuing to work, the choice to return to her hometown and follow the same path as the rest of her family was a natural development, she says. Her father, chef Kazunori Otowa, opened his first restaurant in 1981, expanded with a deli and restaurant weddings, and launched Otowa Restaurant in 2007, his flagship establishment focusing on French cuisine and local gastronomy. Otowa Restaurant is a truly family business, employing Kana’s two older brothers as chefs and their partners as pastry chef and server.

In 2014, it was admitted as a member of Relais & Chateaux in recognition of its strong ties to Utsunomiya and the fact that two generations of the same family are demonstrating a willingness to uphold the local culinary culture.

Upon returning to Japan at the age of 28, Otowa began waiting tables at Otowa Restaurant as a server, and has been involved in product development and the planning of weddings and other events at the restaurant for the last 12 years. She has worked with her family and other staff members to improve quality at the establishment. As well as being keen to see their restaurant flourish, they are strongly motivated by the desire to capitalize on cuisine to boost the fortunes of Utsunomiya and, by extension, Tochigi Prefecture as a whole.

Last year, Otowa Restaurant was selected for inclusion in Destination Restaurants 2023, published by The Japan Times. Since then, the number of guests has been on the rise, not only from outside the prefecture, but even from overseas. It would be fair to say that in Utsunomiya, Otowa Restaurant is the leader when it comes to demand for dining among inbound tourists.

“However, Utsunomiya doesn’t have any luxury hotels, so most of the guests who come all the way up here then head back to their accommodation in Tokyo. Issues like this can’t be solved by a single restaurant, so I feel there’s a need for support from society as a whole, including when it comes to women’s work styles,” Otowa said. “In contrast to France, where the food, agriculture and tourism sectors nationwide achieve superb effects by working together, here in Japan everyone is faced with worries, because each government body and individual operator is working separately, without coordination.”

Otowa attends meetings organized by the prefectural and municipal governments, and often puts forward her own proposals. She will no doubt continue her battle to connect Japan’s tourism industry to the rest of the world through food from her base in Utsunomiya.

The Relais & Chateaux network in Japan currently encompasses 13 accommodation facilities and seven restaurants, including Otowa Restaurant.


Otowa was born in the Tochigi city of Utsunomiya in 1985. After working at a resort hotel in the U.S., she returned to Japan in 2012 and joined Otowa Restaurant, where her father, Kazunori Otowa, is owner-chef. She is involved in various aspects of the business, including service, weddings, and product and event planning. Since January 2023, she has been a member of the Relais & Chateaux executive committee and also holds the post of vice president, Asia-Oceania.



『オトワレストラン』は音羽の父・和紀が1981年に独立し、親子2代で宇都宮市に根差した飲食事業を展開。20 14年〈ルレ・エ・シャトー〉に加盟している。現在、宇都宮市では同店が食のインバウンド需要をリードしている。多くの課題があるなか、県や市のミーティングでも提言することも多いという音羽。今後も日本の観光業と世界を繋げるため、奮闘するのだろう。

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