The first trip of the year kicked of on 25 February 2023 with a small group visiting Japan. Not only for watching aircraft this time, but also for visiting a variety of large aviation related bookstores and model shops and manufacturers.
As Monty Python used to say ‘and now for something completely different’.
The idea behind this 4Aviation tour was to visit Japan for the usual wonderful aviation opportunities but to then also take in the world’s most amazing model shops as well, a modellers aviation tour if you like.
Unlike a normal trip, large suitcases were definitely allowed in order to be able to cope with the predicted frenzy of plastic purchasing in the coming days.
Sadly one of our travellers had to drop out at the last minute, so the group of five aviation enthusiasts and a tour leader made their way to Tokyo via Doha and the excellent services of Qatar Airways on Saturday 25 February. The small group size was chosen deliberately to allow a more intimate tour experience, especially as some of the model shops would be overwhelmed by a larger group.
After two smooth flights we landed at Tokyo Narita Airport, on Sunday 26 February, and collected our hire van for the next ten days. We then made our way to our first hotel in Yokohama and a well-earned night of rest.
Leaving the hotel very early on Monday (27 February), and being blessed with perfect sunny weather, we stopped at Gotemba for photographs of Mt. Fuji before continuing our journey to the Tamiya hobby company headquarters in Shizuoka.
Our hosts treated us to a very interesting tour of the facilities, model museum and full-size historical exhibits. For modellers, it was amazing to see and hear how plastic models are designed, manufactured and sold by the world’s most renowned model company. The visit was brought to a conclusion by a brief meeting with Tamiya-san himself, a spritely octogenarian.
Next on our journey was a short stop at Shizuhama air base to witness a couple of Fuji T-7s taking off with Mt. Fuji as a backdrop. Next on our journey came Hamamatsu air base.
Sadly, the JASDF museum is now closed early in the week, but with plenty of flying action from the base T-4s, T-400s and a U-125, and perfect warm sunlight, we were kept well occupied alongside the runway for the remainder of the afternoon.
Once we had had our fill of trainers, we left for our hotel in Kakamigahara and a very nice Japanese-style meal at the local shopping mall. Of interest to the group was the large selection of models in the department store too, their first taste of what was to come!
Tuesday 28 February started out in a more leisurely way with a very enjoyable buffet breakfast and a short journey to our favourite spot outside Gifu air base where the local spotters were out in force. We were soon enjoying swapping photos and chatting to them.
A JGSDF CH-47 was our first aircraft of the day followed closely by one of the base XF-2s, again in perfect light, making a tight steep approach followed by some go-around practice.
This was joined by two blue F-2Bs and a T-4 in the circuit before it all went quiet again allowing us more time for talking to the very knowledgeable local enthusiasts.
Two Hamamatsu-based T-4s arrived for servicing work at Kawasaki Heavy Industries with another landing after its own check flight. Helicopter action from a JASDF CH-47 and a Doctor Heli BK-117 kept us further occupied before two F-2s and a T-4 landed. We then decided to head off to the nearby Kakamigahara air museum only to find that it was unexpectedly closed for four days. Fortunately, the outside exhibits could be photographed through the fence so all was not lost.
With more time to fill than we had expected to have, we moved on via two TamTam hobby shops en-route to Komaki airport, where we spent the remainder of the daylight hours before returning to our hotel.
We left the hotel extremely early on Wednesday (1 March) in order to get to Komatsu air base to see the first wave of F-15s landing. The drive was very straight forward and we made it in time to see more than twenty locally based Eagles in action; then came the aggressors of the Hiko Kyodotai!
With the weather playing ball, all five were photographed in perfect light to the immense joy of the group. This is always a special moment in any Japan tour.
A third wave of F-15s launched before lunch along with a 303 squadron T-4. There was also a fly past from a Gifu-based T-4 on a check flight, the second one we had seen on this tour with no squadron markings.
A small fourth wave launched in the early afternoon, but once they had landed everything quietened down and there was little further action, so we left for our nearby hotel, secure in the knowledge that we had also bagged our first Indian air force C-17 that had arrived the previous day. We were told by a local enthusiast that it was going to be used for some formation flight photos with a Kawasaki C-2, but towards the end of the week when we would not be around.
A delicious Chinese meal was taken in the evening and with happy thoughts, we retired for the night.
The forecast for rain wasn’t quite true but the weather was very poor on Thursday 2 March. The crew from the IAF C-17 were staying in the same hotel as us and during a brief chat at breakfast, they mentioned that they were taking off at 09.30 for a local flight, so with the usual 4Aviation flexibility, we quickly made our way to the end of the runway.
Unfortunately, 09.30 came and went by a long way, so even though the F-15s were flying, we decided that photographic conditions were so poor, version 4.0 of our daily programme was needed.
We first went to the local Hobby Off shop and relieved them of some kits before moving on to a Book Off shop. Again a few items were purchased. After lunch, we visited the small but excellent Ishikawa Aviation Plaza where we spent an enjoyable hour admiring the well preserved aircraft on display.
Then we moved north, buffeted by very high winds on the motorway, to Kanazawa and yet more Book Off shops and a model store. This was the group’s first taste of a local hobby shop as opposed to a chain-store and they were totally impressed by the selection of items on offer as well as prices well below those seen in Europe.
With yet more happy smiling faces, we ate our evening meal in a family-run fish restaurant complete with two very hard working sushi chefs.
On Friday (3 March) we set off on our long drive back to Tokyo taking the route across the snow-covered mountains of central Japan. In some places the snow was 2m deep but the roads were perfectly clear even though there had been a fresh fall during the night. That’s why we love coming to Japan; everything works perfectly.
Reaching Nagano, we explored a small model shop before driving on to find our second of the day. It was attached to a house in what can only be described as the middle of nowhere, yet had a huge selection of kits from around the world. Yet again, the group were impressed by this and found some time to part with their money.
From there we left for Tokyo, driving without issue right through the centre of the city on the expressway to our hotel for the next two nights, close to Shinagawa station. Our evening meal was taken at one of the many small local restaurants.
Today (Saturday 4 March) was designated as the start of our model shopping weekend in Tokyo. With a relaxed start, we took the JR line to Akihabara and began our walk around some of the best model shops in the world. During the day, we managed to take in eight and two large book shops as well.
Many purchases were made and by the end of the adventure, we were left wondering if extra suitcases would be needed. Once we arrived back at the hotel, some time was taken to see whether this was true or not, before we went out for our evening meal, again at a nearby hostelry.
Sunday 5 March was a quiet day by aviation tour standards, but this was always planned to be the case for this new more relaxed style of 4Aviation holiday.
We began with an enjoyable breakfast followed by a short walk down the road to the Sengaku-Ji temple, home of the graves of the 47 Ronin. This interesting story has defined the Japanese honour tradition throughout the ages and made for an educational visit.
On our way back to the hotel we popped in to Shinagawa station for some of the traditional bullet train photography that must be done whenever you are in Japan. The ritual of the train supervisor also has to be seen to be believed.
The Tokyo marathon was taking place today, so many roads were closed however this did not affect our journey across Tokyo towards Kawagoe. We first called at Sunny model shop, yet again being amazed at how so many kits and accessories could be crammed into such a small space.
After a navigational error (honestly, it was Google, not the tour leader!), we arrived slightly later at our next destination, this time with large numbers of old second hand kits from the 70s and 80s.
From there our drive to the hotel was straight forward, but then came the confusion of actually finding the entrance. With the help of two pedestrians, it eventually turned out to be on the 7th floor of a shopping centre and you had to park on the 3rd floor of the car park. Anyway, it was well worth the wait as the reception staff were very helpful and the rooms luxurious.
In the evening, we met up with a fellow aviation enthusiast for a delicious meal in downtown Kawagoe.
After a weekend of modelling relaxation around Tokyo, we left the hotel early in order to be at Iruma air base in time for the morning take offs on Monday morning 6 March. However, it was ‘bins day’ and the refuse collection lorries caused us some delays, such that we missed the launch of a C-2 and U-680 by about three minutes!
Taxiway work also meant that the usual photos were not possible but we were still happy with our position at the famous hospital end in spite of the chilly weather. Unfortunately there was no further activity in the morning but at least the sun was out once again.
With a ramp full of U-4s, a C-2, the EC-1, YS-11s and even four surviving C-1s, we were hopeful for some action but it was not to be. The afternoon was also completely devoid of aircraft, so we decided to head off to our penultimate model shop, and what gem it was.
On display were some beautifully made kits along with a huge choice of aftermarket items and plastic models. We even received cups of coffee from the owner to thank us for visiting. A brisk drive to the hotel was followed by a rapid check-in, in spite of the long queue.
On Tuesday 7 March we were up early again today, joining the breakfast queue and listening to the ‘welcome speech’ before leaving for Hyakuri air base. The early morning mist was beginning to clear as we entered the famous shrine gates to take our positions on the towers next to the taxiway.
Our first surprise was to see an Airbus A310 Polaris of the Canadian air force on the platform. Then came a short wait before seeing the alert Mitsubishi F-2 being towed back to the main hanger area. Our photos of the waving driver showed a dubious hand signal, but we’re sure he meant well!
Then, just like yesterday the waiting commenced, only broken by the arrival of a Pokemon-marked Boeing 737 of Skymark and a single low pass from a JGSDF Huey. We watched the 737 do it’s turn-around and take-off, then left the shrine for the airport terminal building in order to photograph the two freshly painted Phantoms on display and visit the small patch shop. From the terminal’s coffee shop we could see that the F-2s were finally being towed out from their hangers, so we made our way to the mid-point of the runway in anticipation of take-off shots.
It wasn’t long before we were rewarded for our patience, with four F-2s lifting off in front of us, including a two-seater. We then moved position again to capture them returning to base, all in wonderful warm light.
Once we had had our fill of action including afterburners at dusk, we left for our final hotel of the tour, stopping along the way at a truly excellent Japanese-style restaurant.
The first call of this day (Wednesday 8 March) was to our final model shop of the trip, the incredible Keystone. As they didn’t open until 10.00 we had a leisurely start which also gave us time to completely re-pack our bags ready for our flights home in the evening. Upon arrival we were greeted by the genial Hashizume-san and allowed to enter the canyons of plastic, much to the merriment of the group.
After a lot of fun and laughter we moved on to Kisarazu air base, in the hope of seeing Japanese MV-22 Ospreys. As we drove across Tokyo Bay, we could see a pair operating in the distance and we soon took up our position to photograph yet more. Also airborne at the same time were several CH-47s and one AH-1 Cobra, all of which were captured on our memory cards.
We scoped out new photographic spots for future tours for the remainder of the afternoon, capturing an LR-2 in beautiful light, until it was time to head for Narita Airport and the return of our faithful rental van. Check in had already been completed by 4Aviation HQ and with a smooth van return, we made our way to the gate and our flights home via Doha.
Saying goodbye to each other, there were happy smiling faces all round after the completion of the first ever 4Aviation modellers aviation tour.