How often do you touch down in a new city and know, almost in an instant, you’re going to get on famously? As you settle into the rhythm of the place, do you ever take time to consider why you click? Do you look round and wonder whether it’s the architecture, the urban planning, the locals, the food or a combination of all of them?
Last Sunday, after an exceptional Easter lunch at the Danish ambassador’s residence in Tokyo, I found myself racing to Haneda airport to catch a flight to Naha. The last time I flew to Japan’s southerly outpost I was scouting for a potential hotel branding assignment and saw very little of the island and even less of the main city, save for diggers, property plans and mock-up suites.
This time it was exclusively a holiday with Mats, Noriko and Mina as my playmates. The original spring-break plan called for a return to Auckland and a few days on Waiheke Island but a combination of flight times and general logistics put a stop to that and I had to think up a new option.
With a series of meetings all over Japan and a Seoul visit also in the diary, I considered Thailand for a brief moment but it was deemed too far. Hokkaido was an option but we all decided we wanted a bit of heat. Kyushu also looked good but we stayed at the Tenku no Mori last year and decided it was time to try something different.
After canvassing a few regulars to Okinawa we settled on some bungalows at the Busena Terrace on the island’s west coast, and by late Sunday evening we were enjoying a shabu-shabu dinner featuring some of the best pork on the island. Naha wasn’t really on the itinerary as we’d parked ourselves an hour up the coast.
The staging post for the G8 summit in 2000, the Busena Terrace caters mostly to honeymooning couples and families from the mainland (Japan, in this case) and has about all the architectural originality of an airport hotel you might find near Chicago’s O’Hare – cavernous spaces, beige stucco and lonely potted greenery. That said, the service was good, the rooms well appointed and the little bungalow plus private pool set-up was a winning combo under sunny skies.
After two full days of sun and a bit of exploring around the north of the island (including the most exceptional pizza in a lovely little joint high above Motobu and perfect burgers at a great place called Captain Kangaroo) we decided it might be worth taking in a bit of Naha, along with some stops for ceramics and visits to a couple of bakeries. (Like the rest of Japan, Okinawa is caught up in the specialist bakery boom, with a sizeable collection of young men and women turning out tasty tarts, croissants and crusty buns.)
A quick scan of our return tickets to Tokyo (very early flights on JAL and ANA, respectively) forced a rethink on the accommodation and we opted to check out of the Busena early and spend the last night in Naha. My expectations for the city were somewhere between middle to low, and first impressions were not helped by a limp drizzle and low cloud cover.
After watching the Japanese afternoon news bulletins about the general excitement surrounding the looming North Korean missile launch, (Okinawa was playing a key role, with Patriot missile-launchers mobilised and many sorties flown by intelligence-gathering aircraft bristling with aerials and unsightly bulges on their fuselage) we ventured out on to the streets to the roar of fighter jets and tankers overhead.
Naha is unlikely to win any beauty contest for Prettiest City in the Pacific but I knew it was my kind of town after about three blocks. For the most part the city is punctuated by top-heavy, brutal concrete four-storey apartment blocks, gently tarted-up with messy balconies of greenery. The pavements are packed with terracotta pots and stuffed with tropical plants, and there are lots of funky-looking locals – a nice mix of super-cool Tokyo refugees and tanned grannies in bonnets who might be anywhere from 95 to 115 years old. By the time we made our first stop for drinks at a chic, dinky stand-up bar I had summed up Naha as being nicely faded, like Taipei but with more tiny eateries in drinking holes.
A few hours later, when the lights went on, all the 1970s signage and ancient cafés reminded me of Hamra in Beirut. Another dinner and round of drinks and then there were shades of old Wan Chai, bits of Bangkok and the cosiness of Fukuoka. By the time we turned into bed, Naha had become the Pacific outpost I could happily spend another week exploring. What Honolulu lacks in intimacy and scale, Naha has in abundance – higgledy-piggledy streets, shops packed with vintage finds from US military staff yard sales, great coffee and delicious food at every turn.
If you’re looking for a spring-time weekender with a bit of grit and edge, you know where to book.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of ‘Monocle’ magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule