My love of travel and photography has pulled me in many directions, to numerous destinations and allowed me to meet incredible people and visit many countries and their incredible cultures. The country that keeps me coming back for more though is Japan.
Japan is a country of paradox, rooted in tradition as it is in modernization. The culture, the language, the people keep pulling me back, a sort of my happy place. Luckily, my loving wife feels the same way. We have been to this incredible country four times now, and the most common misconception is that Japan is expensive. As with any trip you undertake, it can be as expensive as you want it to be, or as inexpensive as you wanted it to be. We decided to make it as inexpensive as possible, every trip. Does that mean we sacrifice comfort, privacy, ease of getting around, and cooking our own food instead of eating out for all our meals, absolutely. Hostels, public transportation, walking and supermarkets meant that those high ticket portions of hotels, restaurants and car rentals were out. The backpacker way of travelling as we like to call it, but the people we met, friends we made, and living inside the culture made me appreciate the country and culture that much more.
My past two trips have been dedicated to my passion, aviation photography. The last trip I undertook with two of my friends who share my "avgeekery" was 12 days of absolute aviation paradise. We undertook planning the trip about 3 months prior to our January departure. Having been to Japan previously, I knew for the type of photography we were doing, we wanted to avoid late spring, all of summer and early fall.
I have done a lot of research, and my previous visits have given me much insight. One incredible reference though is Andreas Zeitler's website. I read and reread his incredibly insightful blog posts of visiting Japan, in particular about his trips in 2005, and 2008. Another is the now defunct Japan Spotters Association website which listed spotting locations around a vast array of both civilian, military and joint use airports. Learning from others experiences, and being typically Canadian, one thing that became very obvious from my research and experience is to be prepared, plan ahead and most of all respect the country and customs.
One thing that will be obvious is having a huge respect for the environment and photography you are doing. Japan is an extremely tolerant country for photography, and has a huge plane spotting and aviation photography following in particular. Unknown to most, it has one of the most active military airshow lineups in the world. Almost all civilian and some military airports boast spotting decks and parks from which you can freely take pictures. Photography along the perimeter fences is tolerated, as is photography in adjacent locations. Sadly though, in recent years, many foreigners have taken it upon themselves to ruin it for us, damaging property, and cutting holes in fences for lenses, etc. As any aviation photographer knows, security is paramount, if you see something suspicious, report it immediately to the authorities. From experience, particularly military installations, all foreigners will be controlled at one point or other. Make photocopies of your passport prior to going in country, will be appreciated by the authorities and immediately show them you are prepared and willing to cooperate with them. They will ask you where you come from, where you have been while in Japan, why you are taking pictures, and of course where you will be going. Some people I have spoken to were alarmed by this, but remember, you are a visitor, and as much as you are partaking and enjoying the incredible privilege that is in front of you, it is by no means a right. Although it has never happened to me personally, if asked to leave, do not argue, leave. The role of the military is first and for most the defence of their incredible nation, the role of the people protecting the installations is to safe guard it.
To aid in our travel and logistics for this trip as half the travelling party would leave from Toronto, we would depart from Toronto-Pearson International Airport aboard Air Canada to direct to Tokyo-Haneda airport. This is a change because previously we had flown through New York or Boston aboard Japan Airlines from Montreal. I highly recommend using Air Canada if you have the choice, we had stellar service both ways.
For travel in country, many people have rented cars to travel between sites. I prefer to exploit one of the treasures of Japan, their incredible rail network. To do so, we use the JR Rail Pass (http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/). They will be the the single largest expense after your airplane ticket and believe me when I say they are worth every penny. They allow for unlimited travel during your stay (available in 7, 14 and 21 days) on all Japan Rail Group trains including the famed Shinkansen bullet train. No need to drive hours on end, it gets from one destination to another in comfort and you can even work while you travel.
We knew we had 12 days (10 days of spotting). Prior to travelling, we gathered and decided on a list of aircraft and aerodromes we would like to see, with a good mix of military and commercial facilities. The list we came up with generated this list of airports that would see us travel through the northern portion of the main Japanese island of Honshu.
- Misawa Air Base, Misawa, Aomori Prefecture (MSJ)
Joint United States Air Force (USAF) Base/United States Navy (USN)/Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) facility
- Home to the 35th Fighter Wing and their F-16 Wild Weasels (WW tail code)
- JASDF 3rd wing flying their F-2, as well as E-2C
- USN detachment of P-8 and EA-18G Growlers
- Narita International Airport, Narita, Chiba Prefecture (NRT)
Main commercial international gateway to Japan
- Atsugi Naval Airfield, Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture (NJA)
Joint United States Navy (USN)/Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) facility
- Home to the US Navy Carrier Air Wing 5
- JMSDF P-3C Orion, P-1, and C-130 Hercules
- Hamamatsu Air Base, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture (RJNH)
- JASDF 1st Air Wing flying the T-4 training aircraft
- JASDF fleet of E-767 AWACS
- JASDF Museum
- Komatsu Air Base, Komatsu, Ishikawa (KMQ)
- JASDF 6th Air Wing flying the F-15J/F-15DJ Eagle
- Osaka Itami Airport, Itami, Hyogo Prefecture (ITM)
Main domestic airport servicing Osaka
- Osaka Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture (KIX)
Main international airport servicing Osaka built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay
- Hyakuri Air Base, Ibaraki, Ibaraki Prefecture (IBR)
- JASDF 7th Airwing flying the F-15J/F-15DJ Eagle and home to a fleet of F-4J Phantoms
- Komaki Air Base, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture (NKM)
- JASDF 1st Tactical Airlift Group flying C-130 and KC-767 tankers
- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries main aircraft facility (H-60, F-4, F-15 overhaul and home to the Mitsubishi Regional Jet Program)
- Haneda International Airport, Tokyo (HND)
Main Japanese Domestic Commercial Hub, increasing international traffic
Once this was decided, we began looking at accommodations, and where to base ourselves. I am a firm believer of centrally locating yourself and planning day trips where possible, and Japan makes this very easy. Using the amazing site Hostel World allowed to prebook our accommodations. Travelling during winter also meant that in almost every case (with the exception of two airports which I will talk about in their own post), we were at the aerodromes at or just before first light. We decided to stay and use Misawa (because of the distance from Tokyo), Tokyo, and Kyoto as our points of operation. Each Hostel allowed us easy access to the trains, and were centrally located to offer us all the services we required.
That all decided, I pre-booked my personal mobile wifi hotspot for internet. Personally I have always used Global Advanced Communications for my personal internet needs while in Japan. Professional obligations means I have to be connected. It also allows me to check train schedules, and flight schedules as well while in country. The company delivers the phone to the airport where it is held for pickup, you just go to the Japan Post Office desk at the terminal you arrive at and pick it up.
All that was left to do now was await that much anticipated departure day and travel to one of the most incredible places on Earth.