One week of aviation photography can be easily spend around central Honshu, Japan‘s main island. This article focuses on a selection of major military airfields around Tokyo that are within the reach of a one-day drive.
Where? central Honshu, Japan
When? November / December 2018
Between late September and Christmas, airshows in Japan nearly take place on a weekly basis. This time of the year is also generally a good travel season, as the hot and humid summer is gone and the weather is getting more stable. For the photographers, this means a nice blue sky, autumn colours in the trees and a low sun over the horizon with its long shadows and not so harsh light.
Autumn is the second, and main airshow season in Japan following some events in Spring. After a summer break, the airshows tend to start in the North of the country and move South, literally following the good weather and nice temperatures. This is with some exceptions… Tsuiki on Kyushu, the Southern island, for example can be a hit and miss, let it be October or end of November. And the airshow at Hyakuri, located in the North of Tokyo, saw dates ranging from September to December in recent years.
This trip here around central Honshu was done in the week before one of the last Hyakuri airshows that still featured the venerable McDonnell Douglas / Mitsubishi F-4EJ Phantom II. 2018 was the year of the disbandment of 302 Squadron, and it was therefore well worth attending this airshow, which is featured in a more extensive report also on this site.
The week before the show at Hyakuri, the airshow at Tsuiki took place. To spend the week in between, a schedule was planned that involved some driving efforts, short nights of sleep, and took some risks regarding the weather. But it featured a high chance to catch jet fighter action at Hyakuri and Komatsu, see interesting transport and special mission aircraft at Iruma, and to have a look at the rather seldomly visited trainer base Matsuhima.
In short, it meant to stick to the following schedule:
- Monday: Hyakuri
- Tuesday: Iruma
- Wednesday & Thursday: Komatsu
- Friday: Matsushima
The tight schedule made it a ‘No guts, no glory’ one. In the end it turned out having its highs and lows, but not that bad at all… with the application of some flexibility on the driving schedule.
First thing to do after the airshow at Tsuiki was to get a late evening flight from the Tsuiki area back to Tokyo, get a rental car, pass Tokyo at night and drive towards Hyakuri.
his is where this Japanese military aviation photography delight tour started on Monday morning. As the airshow at Hyakuri was scheduled for the following week-end, this stop at the beginning of the week was planned in order to photograph some operational flying at Hyakuri. Also it was meant as a ‚bad weather back-up’ for the airshow week-end and filled with a slight hope to see some of airshow rehearsals. Fortunately, it went as planned. F-4EJs and RF-4E(J)s Phantoms were flying in quite some numbers and some display rehearsals also took place!
As expected the famous towers were already quite occupied – mainly by European photographers. Unmistakably the shrine and the land, where these towers are build on, turned into some kind of ‚Phantom Mekka’ for foreign Phantom Phans and Lovers. Some of those enthusiasts even decided to spend a full week at Hyakuri. Obviously this is a more or less safe bet, but – in my honest opionion – a missed chance to catch some more of the variety and aviation photography delights that the JASDF has to offer.
With some good catches at Hyakuri on Monday morning and hazy weather coming in around midday, the goal to get some nice photos of Phantoms at Hyakuri was reached. It also made the decision easy to drive to Iruma a bit earlier that day.
Iruma is home to the Air Defence Command Headquarters Flight Group and as such hosts mainly transport and special mission aircraft. It is located in the West of the Japanese capitol. The drive from Hyakuri therefore passes the greater Tokyo metropolitan area and it is wise to avoid the busy evening rush hour if you do want to waste too much time on the road… It was a late arrival, but with some time to discover this Tokyo suburb at night.
Iruma on Tuesday morning started with good weather, and even Mt. Fuji was visible during breakfast. On the way to the airfield this turned again into gray, just as the previous day has ended.
This was bearable as the airfield does not offer that many good photo spots in the morning and time of the day did also not see that much flying activity. There were very few movements of the C-1 transport aircraft and T-4 ‚shuttles’, which serve higher ranking commands of Iruma to easily get to other airbases all around Japan. The highlight though was to catch the Kawasaki C-1 „Kabuki“ special scheme celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 2nd Tactical Airlift Squadron in 2018.
It lost this special scheme shortly afterwards, in 2019 it was seen again in the regular green and brown camouflage scheme. For this white C-1 wearing an orange and red artwork the hazy weather was of course quite a shame. Following the landing of „Kabuki“ it was a quiet morning indeed, with the hope for an even better afternoon. And this expectation was fulfilled.
Weather conditions got better and better around midday and the flying activity got into full swing. Not only did the local T-4s fly a lot more, there were also some visiting T-4 from other airfields as far as Chitose or even Naha. A Kawasaki CH-47J Chinook helicopter practiced landings on the slope opposite of the famous photo spot in the South-West of the airfield.
Also the Kawasaki EC-1 flew twice, obviously for some flight testing of its ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) equipment as on of the venerable NAMC YS-11EB departed always at the same time and followed its flight pattern. The EC-1 is a specially converted C-1 for ELINT versions, thus stuffed with electronic equipment and externally heavily modified with plenty of limbs and bumps.
The special versions of the YS-11 are one of the last airworthy aircraft of this type in Japan and are also used for ELINT missions, albeit they do have a lower range and due to their flying profile they should also have less capabilities than the unique EC-1.
In previous years the EC-1 has been an elusive sight, nowadays its successor is on the horizon with a special modification of Japans new transport aircraft, the Kawasaki C-2. Thus seeing the EC-1 has been a pleasure indeed.
The day ended with a splendid blue sky, and it was difficult to leave and move to the next location. Towards the end of the day the low sun was as good as it could get, the shadows however were also getting longer and longer. At one point they are so long that they reached on the taxiway, thus throwing shadows on the aircraft passing by and putting an end to a marvelous day of aviation photography.
It was then time to hit the road towards Komatsu. Komatsu is located at Japan’s Western coast. The trip from Iruma by road is approximately 500km, and easily takes 6 hours, even if going on the motorway. The road passes the Japanese Alps and the city of Nagano, which is well known for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
But it was already dark by then, and nothing could be seen of this spectacular landscape.
Komatsu can be challenging for photography, but it is well worth a trip as the airbase is home to two Squadrons of F-15J, 303rd and 306th Hikotai, and since 2016 also home the Tactical Fighter Training Group, the famous JASDF Aggressor Squadron and their colorful jets.
Therefore it found its way on the list during this trip, but two days were planned to be on the safe side. Additionally to possible bad weather, the infrastructure also limits photo possibilities. The airfield is surrounded either by a high fence, massive walls or a fence forrest. This is in strong contrast to many other Japanese airfields, which are wide open and offer plenty of photo spots.
Additionally to that, winter season is maybe not the best choice to visit Komatsu, as the wind tends to come from the West – this is were cold Russia is… – and tends to bring in humidity, snow and clouds over from the Japanese Sea. This bad weather mix then cannot cross the mountains, and then tends to stay around the Western coast. And the coastline is just a stone throw away from the airfield.
And being close to the sea, Komatsu is a great place to have some sushi. As is Japan in general, obviously…
The most prominent photo spot at Komatsu is the one on the visitors deck of the civil airport‘s terminal. It offers convenient facilities, good photo possibilities for any night flying activities and on the civil apron, furthermore during winter you can warm up inside the terminal. However, the terminal is located on the Western side of the airfield, thus only suitable in the afternoon or on a cloudy day. And even though the wire fence offers large gaps, this can spoil your panning photos.
As the airbase occupies more or less all of the Eastern side of the airfield, all photo spots for the morning are located along the approach paths. It is also possible to stand mid field, but this is a hit and miss, as jets can either be to low, or high and small in the frame.
In the South you can find some spots along the road, but this is more or less in a forrest. When the jets come in to land, you see them very late have to be really, really quick.
A better option is the approach from the North. Incoming aircraft are well visible, and you can take your photos from both sides, so it is suitable in the morning and the afternoon. Furthermore there is a convenient parking area nearby, which offers facilities and of course the omni-present beverage distributors.
Despite the difficult photo opportunities, this visit to Komatsu was rather good. F-2s from Misawa were present at the airfield and were training air-air combat with the Aggressor Squadron. This was a welcome addition to the usually already busy airbase.
Additionally to those training flights and regular flying of 303 and 306 Squadrons, F-15s went out for a hot scramble (presumably against Russian jets over the Japanese Sea) on the second day of the visit. This took place in the very early morning, even before breakfast, so the jets with their live missiles were only be caught during the landing. Additionally there were also some civil movements throughout the day.
Also the nearby museum should not be missed. It features a good variety of exhibits, including a F-104J, T-2 in Blue Impulse colors, and a rare Dornier Do-28. Another remarkable scenery also shows a Pilatus PC-6B Porter that was used by the Japanese National Institute of Polar Researchin Antartica. And apart from free entry, it has a well-equipped souvenir shop that sells a lot of JASDF souvenirs.
So, after all, if was a good visit to Komatsu, with some of the colorful Aggressor jets caught with the sun. The next stop on that trip was Matsushima, North of Sendai. Another long drive with around 8 hours and 600+km on the toll road. Going back to the East coast this meant crossing the Japanese Alps again, and a drive into the night…
Matsushima gained notoriety during the 2011 earthquake and the destructive tsunami that followed. It did not only cause the catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear poweplant. The waves also wiped out numerous cities and villages along the coastline, killing or leaving thousands of people missing. The monster wave also flooded Matsushima airbase. Matsushima, then home the JASDF display team „Blue Impulse“ and 21 Hikotai, a Fighter Training Squadron, which is equipped with the Mitsubishi F-2B, was put out of service for 5 years. It was not until the beginning of 2016 that 21 Hikotai returned to its home.
Nowadays the airfield is protected by massive walls all around the airfield which serve to prevent any such future disaster. The waves of the Pacific ocean can be heard while spotting at this base. While this was previously just a comforting sound, it nowadays brings also back to one’s mind all the harm that the tsunami has caused to the local population.
Signs of the disaster are still visible at many places. Let it be containers, which obviously still serve as a temporary housing, or even the hotel where I have been staying. It was a massive container city, obviously quickly set up for the local population, which lost their homes in 2011, and for all the helpers that came to re-build the area.
But how’s spotting at Matsushima? With only one training Squadron it is obviously not as busy as on other airfields. If you are lucky, you can maybe see also a training session of Blue Impulse. As this visit happened on a Friday, the team left for the airshow at Nyutabaru. This was somehow scheduled at the same time as the show at Hyakuri. The team left in two lots, and was supported by a C-1 transport.
21 Hikotai was flying three times that day, each time four aircraft went up, together with T-4 trainers and the UH-60J SAR helicopters. Not that much, but it was nice to catch some of those jets that usually only fly local missions at Matsushima. Weather was tricky, with lots of clouds and a freezing wind coming in from the North. And no shelter from it anywhere on the bank in the East of the main runway.
With this short visit at Matsushima this week full of planespotting around many JASDF airbases came to an end. In a restaurant along the road the 2011 tsunami disaster was still remembered with many photos along the wall, and the radiation of the Fukushima nuclear power plant was displayed on a sign along the highway. It could even be briefly spotted in the far distance along the coastline.
But then it was time for a phull phantastic Phantom Phestival at Hyakuri. A full report of this airshow at Hyakuri is also available on this site.
Before taking the ANA Dreamliner back home, Monday morning was spend doing some photography at Tokyo’s ‘city’ airport Haneda, which is always good to catch some of the plenty special scheme jets that fly around in Japan.