Tim Johnson really thinks so.
It's a dream of many Phantom-lovers to travel to Japan in order to capture the Vapors of the Japanese F-4s. It is also quite a challenge to travel to Japan, but also very rewarding. Since World War II the Japanese Constitution has placed severe restrictions on the military - the only Japanese Air Self Defence Force aircraft regularly seen outside Japan are the Boeing 747s which transport the Emperor's family and the government. The participation of the "Blue Impulse" display team in the 1997 Golden Tattoo at Nellis AFB was quite exceptional, as was a C-130 at a recent Airlift Rodeo. So, if you have to see those Phantoms, you will just have to go to Japan.
The greatest problem we Europeans encounter is the language barrier. Don't expect anyone to speak practical English, not even at major airports. It is also virtually impossible for us to learn the Japanese "Kanji" characters in a short space of time. The Japanese themselves spend their primary school years learning the 3,000 most used characters of the 50,000 existing in Kanji. There is also the "Katakana" character language which consists of 46 characters - this is used to write 'loan-words' from other languages. If a Japanese person sees your name written in Katakana, he can pronounce it quite well. If you learn only one word in Katakana, the three characters for "ho-te-ru" (hotel) would be useful!
Japan is generally a much bigger country than we think. The main island of Honshu is as big as the entire UK. If you go there for the aircraft, you'll want to go to Nyutabaru in southern Kyushu as well as Misawa in northern Honshu. Nyutabaru is the 'Home of the Japanese Fighter Pilot' with the OCU for the F-4, the OCU for the F-15 and the 'Hiko Kyodotai' (the Japanese Aggressor squadron) based there. There are great locations for photographers at Nyutabaru. Misawa has the sole attack tasked F-4 squadron (8 Hikotai) which has some of the very last F-4s to be built, the E-2 Hawkeye squadron, the first F-2 squadron of the JASDF and the 35 FW of the USAF's PACAF fleet with its WW-coded F-16s. Unfortunately the photographer has only a few choices of locations there, and a 500mm lens is almost essential. Near Tokyo is the airfield of Hyakuri where RF-4Es and F-4EJs are based - the 'J differs from the base E model in the fitment of an additional external camera pod. The RF-4Es have been flying since the summer of 1978 in the same colour scheme, surely one of the longest periods of non-change anywhere! Two more F-15 squadrons are also based at Hyakuri.
Other diverse aircraft can be found in the country, such as various helicopters at Kanoya, Iruma and Matsushima, and over 100 P-3 Orions at Hachinohe and Kanoya. Colour is still very much the fashion with the JMSDF, unlike the US Navy, with fashionable tail markings being the norm. Other reasons to go to Japan are the many indigenous designs such as the C-1 airlifter - just think of a C-141 with only two engines. Normally found at its home base of Iruma, but most JASDF airfields will have a visit each day at some point. Similarly unique to Japan is the F-1 and its trainer derivative the T-2; very similar in layout to the SEPECAT Jaguar, it is now being withdrawn from service, the last remaining unit being 6 Hikotai at Tsuiki and may disband by 2004. The T-2 was the forerunner of the F-1 and the first supersonic aircraft of Japanese design. A later Japanese design is the T-4 trainer, similar this time to the Dassault-Breguet Alpha Jet. It is used as the fast-jet trainer for the JASDF and can be seen at Iruma, together with many examples attached to the fighter squadrons around the country. Finally, the MU-2S performs in the SAR role from Iruma.
Despite its size, the country is not as densely populated as we think. Of course, the ten percent of the country that is populated is incredibly busy, but the rest consists of very steep hills and mountains covered with dense forests.
You must choose between the excellent public transport and a hired car. The first option is a bit impractical for an aircraft spotter, but if you choose public transport, get a JR rail pass. It's only available outside Japan and allows unlimited travel on the JR network. If you travel in a car, you'll find two types of road: the highways where you pay toll and the other roads where the official speed limit is 50 km/h (about 30 mph). On average you will not go much faster than that on the narrow roads. Navigation is also a lot easier on the tollways, as you can just follow the English signs. On the other roads, you will encounter encounter some English signs but sometimes you'll come across a junction with only Japanese! So, be prepared to lose some time once you leave the tollways. The landscape is also fascinating and you get many opportunities to buy a nice hot coffee or tea from a roadside vending machine. It's a good idea to take a sleeping bag or tent in case you can't find a hotel, but just don't camp in a park in the middle of a city!
Because of the weather the best time for a trip to Japan is either April or October. October is also a time for some interesting airshows including Gifu, Iruma, Ashiya and Kisarazu. May and June is the time of the rainy season, July and August are very hot and humid, September has the typhoon season and from November to March it's winter. These are of course generalisations and, for example, August may be a pleasant time to visit Chitose AFB on the northern island Hokaido when the climate there could be compared with that of Sweden.
The Japanese security services allow spotters to take photographs of aircraft but obviously one must stay outside the fence. Often they will come and ask you a couple of questions, maybe sending security people in civilian clothes. They're quite polite and once they have your name and picture and are convinced you're a harmless 'Plane Maniac', they're happy. By the way, JASDF personnel and Japanese spotters seem to understand English much better than most Japanese civilians. Apart from airshows, they very rarely let foreigners visit their bases. Luckily, great shots can be taken from outside as these pictures testify. One reason why the Japanese security people know about aircraft spotting is the abundance of Japanese spotters who sport massive lenses. Any trip to Japan will cost a pretty penny, but it will be a great experience!