October / November 2005

Exotic aircraft types, colorful liveries and excellent photo opportunities: Japan is rightly regarded as a paradise for aviation enthusiasts.

Trip reports from other photographers had awakened my interest for quite some time. At the end of 2004 the crazy ideas became more real when I found out that fellow photographer Andreas had been dreaming of a trip to the land of the rising sun as well. Phantom-Phreak Florian completed our trio. First plans aimed at the year 2006, but as we soon found out we would have seen types like the fighter-bomber Mitsubishi F-1 or the jet trainer Fuji T-1 only in museums. Additionally one never knows how long the Japanese authorities will tolerate foreign photographers at their air bases because of the political situation in the world today. The number of photo spots decreases as well, as we had to find out at Hyakuri. Time was short, and so we decided on November 2005. During this season the weather was supposed to be good for photography. Later on we should experience a temperature range between zero (at night at Misawa) and about 25 degrees (in the sun at Nyutabaru).
The date also had the advantage of allowing us to visit three airshows (Iruma, Gifu and Tsuiki). The first event was Iruma near Tokyo on Thursday, November 3rd after arriving in Japan on Sunday, October 30th. But before the show we would face a strenuous trip (around 1600 kilometers in three days) to see the famous blue Phantoms in Misawa on the Northern part of the main island Honshu. For me the F-4 was the main goal of the tour. Therefore we included all Phantom bases (Hyakuri, Misawa, Nyutabaru and the flight test center Gifu) on our route with the exception of Naha on the distant island of Okinawa. Further top items on our list apart from the last F-1s, T-1s and T-2s were the colorful Aggressor F-15s from Nyutabaru, the Army helicopters at Akeno and of course the flying boat Shin Meiwa US-1. That did not leave much time for sightseeing during the 18 day long trip, since we wanted to see civil airports and aviation museums as well. However, we had to modify our planning a few months before the journey because the show at Tsuiki was brought forward one week and now coincided with the event at Gifu. Of course we decided to go to the F-1 farewell show in the South on the island of Kyushu, even if this meant to cover a distance of 1400 kilometers in just two days. The following week we wanted to spend in the South (Nyutabaru, Kanoya, and Tsuiki again) and then progress towards the Tokyo area again. The remaining days were spare days.
Despite the big distances we chose to travel by rental car. This way we were more flexible, could reach the often remote photo spots and had an opportunity to spend the night for emergencies. As a downside we had to cope with enormous toll fees and a maximum allowed speed of 90 kilometers per hour. The bottom line was that most of the time we would stay at a base until 4pm at the latest and then would drive to the next airfield during the evening and night, getting up very early the next morning. Not a leisure trip! To keep costs down we had booked from home only two nights in Tokyo, the last night at Narita airport and the first night in Sendai. The remaining time we wanted to sleep in youth hostels or in our newly bought tent, which we actually never used because we were taking turns in suffering from a flu.
Preparations were extensive: we had to get Japanese translations of our driver licenses as well as charts of the airfields with their photo spots. Copies of our passports with a Japanese text explaining what we were doing later helped us a lot in dealing with the local security forces. To take pictures over the sometimes high fences we need ladders that we brought from home. At most bases one needed a 400mm lens. Instead of the heavy 600mm I relied on the handy Nikon AF-S 300mm 2.8 with converters (TC-14 and TC-17). The rest of my equipment consisted a Nikon F4 and F5 and the following lenses: 28-70mm, 80-200mm 2.8, 300mm 4. All in all I shot more than 150 slide films during the trip. Before us mostly Dutch and British enthusiasts had taken these strains. Even after touching down in Tokyo we still could not believe that we had actually made our dream into reality…