Japan’s strategic position in the Pacific and it’s strong relationship with the United States makes it an excellent place to visit for military aircraft activity, especially in the later half of the year when the Japanese Air-Self Defense Force (JASDF) holds open days at their dozens of bases around the country.
The Aviation Studio had the opportunity to visit several bases and attend the Hyakuri Air Festival, one of the the last airshows dominated by active F-4 Phantoms in the developed world.
Gifu Air Field
Gifu Air Field was the first stop of the trip. Located approximately 50 km north of Nagoya, it is home to the JASDF’s Air Development and Test Wing (ADTW) which operates subfleets of nearly every aircraft in the JASDF inventory. Just next to the base, Kunomoriundo Park is an excellent spot for viewing arrivals on RWY28 and is a short 15 minute walk from the nearest train station.
Within minutes of us arriving, a Raytheon U-125 belonging to the JASDF Flight Check Squadron arrived to perform some orbits.
This was shortly followed by the departure of an F-2 and an F-4, and the arrival of a CH-47J Chinook. In between the military movements a variety of civilian helicopters were seen.
Finally, the F-2 and F-4 returned to Gifu, making a stunning close formation initial and pitch over the field.
After some sightseeing in Hiroshima, we caught the local train down to Iwakuni, a major part of the Seto Inland Sea industrial area and home to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni which hosts Marine Aircraft Group 12 (MAG-12) and the US Navy’s Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5). CVW-5 calls MCAS Iwakuni home when the USS Ronald Reagan is in port.
There is an amazing location located on the sea wall which is perfect for seeing all the action. Due to the sun’s position, it is generally better for RWY20 operations however on the day RWY02 was in use.
Movements at MCAS Iwakuni were constant. We managed to catch dozens of F/A-18C/D/E/F Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, F-35B Lightnings, KC-130J Hercules, C-130H Hercules and C-2A Greyhounds.
A special catch for us would be the VFA-27 “Royal Maces”, the squadron behind some of the famous cruise videos on YouTube.
Kadena Air Base
After the excitement of Iwakuni, we headed down to the island of Okinawa, a quarter of which is covered by US military installations. One of these is Kadena Air Base, commonly referred to as the “Keystone of the Pacific” and is the largest and most active US Air Force (USAF) base in the Far East.
Kadena offers a variety of good locations for seeing the movements, and on the day the best location for us was Sunabe Baba Park which overlooked the approaches for RWY05L and RWY05R. It is a short 15 minute walk from a bus stop which sees frequent service from Naha and Okinawa City.
From the moment we arrived, we were treated to dozens of 44th and 67th Fighter Squadron F-15 movements, separated by the odd US Navy P-8 Poseidon, helicopter and USAF KC-135 Stratotanker. A specific highlight for us was catching a KC-135T Stratotanker, a modified version of the KC-135Q Stratotanker which was originally developed to refuel the SR-71 Blackbird.
Activity and light quality dwindled around 2pm and it was soon time to head back to Naha…after lunch of course! With Okinawa being home to a large contingent of US military personnel, naturally there were heaps of quality burgers around. We can specifically recommend Gordie’s which is a two minute walk from Sunabe Baba Park.
Naha Air Base
Sharing operations with Naha Airport, Naha Air Base is home to various units of the JASDF, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) and Japan Marine Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). All movements can be seen from Naha Airport’s terminal observation deck, which we were positioned at prior to our flight from Naha to Tokyo.
In the space of an hour, we saw some P-3s, E-2s and F-15s in action. The base also generally sees a large amount of activity from Kawasaki T-4s however many around Japan are grounded and awaiting engine part replacements.
It was a shame about the weather at Naha, however on a nice day there are great opportunities to see the action in both the morning and afternoon.
Hyakuri Air Base
For an in-depth report on the Hyakuri Air Base, see our Hyakuri Air Festival article here.
Yokota Air Base
Yokota Air Base, in Western Tokyo, is jointly operated by the USAF and JASDF and is home to JASDF Air Defense Command Headquarters and United States Forces Japan Headquarters. It therefore sees a large amount of logistical movements, dominated by the 36th Airlift Squadron operating C-130J Hercules. Additionally there are various contracted cargo flights into and out of Yokota, operated by various American airfreight companies.
In our time at Yokota we managed to spot a single C-130J and an ATI Boeing 767-200F. After this we decided to head to nearby Iruma Air Base in the hope of catching some more interesting aircraft.
Iruma Air Base
Iruma Air Base proved much more fruitful for us. Being home to the JASDF’s Electronic Warfare squadrons which operate modified NAMC YS-11s and Kawasaki C-1s, we were bound to see something interesting.
We set up our ladders at the fence around the base and within a couple of hours had seen a YS-11EB, YS-11FC, C-130H, U-4, C-1 and EC-1. Success!
Despite the constant lack of sleep, uncertainty, anxiety and seat of the pants kind of planning, this trip delivered in the best way possible. The weather was mostly spectacular for each of our spotting days, the movements were epic and we came away with some good stories to tell.
Japan really has something to offer to everyone and the public and most airports are generally well aware of aviation enthusiasts, both civilian and military. What we really appreciate about the Japanese military is the amount of aircraft built in Japan either under license from foreign companies or under an entirely domestic initiative. It is a true testament to the size and capability of the Japanese manufacturing and aerospace industries.
Interested in visiting any of these bases, or have any suggestions for alternate spots? Leave a comment below!