One of the holy grail locations for aviation photography has got to be Hyakuri Air Base north-east of Tokyo, Japan. Over the past few months I’ve been lucky enough to have visited twice so I thought I’d give you my impressions and some tips if you’re able to skip across the Pacific to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Hyakuri Air Base (pronounced hee-YAK-oo-ree) was originally an Imperial Japanese Navy holding from seized farm lands dating back to 1938. World War II’s conclusion saw the lands being worked again by local farmers until 1956 when the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces took control. Many farmers refused to sell their land to the government which is the reason for the unique dog-leg taxi way (more below).
Today, Hyakuri is home to a plethora of flying aircraft. The 302nd Tactical Fighter Squadron flies the F-4EJ Kai Phantom II, the 305th Tactical Fighter Squadron flies the F-15J Eagle. The 501st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flies RF-4E and RF-4EJ Phantom IIs and all three squadrons also have attached T-4 trainer aircraft. Hyakuri Air Rescue Wing flies UH-60H Blackhawks as well as the U-125A search and rescue aircraft. There is a limited amount of transient traffic from what I can gather.
The “shooting towers” at Hyakuri are the result of local farmers refusing to give up their land to the Japanese Government and home to one of the most unique photography locations I have ever encountered (providing a bit of income for the farmers as well). Currently there are four towers built in two different locations. Constructed of wood and some with metal ladders they can easily hold 6-8 photographers with big lenses as some of the regulars will often bring small stepladders making two rows. There is ample room along the surrounding fence lines as well for those who choose to bring ladders. The two towers I have photographed from are in this area of land that was never relinquished to the government. So, when the airfield expansion was built, it forced a dog leg to be built into the course (the link will open a Google map and you can clearly see the kink in the taxi way ).
|Entrance to the shooting tower location with phone number to call|
|Two of the four shooting towers, these are at the “elbow” in the taxi way dog-leg|
|UH-60J 98-4569 does a slow taxi past the towers at photographer level|
Entrance to the towers is gained by calling a phone number on the gate (not before 0715 local time please) and a very nice lady will arrive in short order, take your ¥2000 entrance fee and have you sign a form. I have no idea what the form says. There is parking inside for 8-12 vehicles as well as a small Tori gate and shrine. PLEASE NOTE: the towers are monitored by CCTV and more than likely if you don’t look like a local the JASDF Security Police will show up. Why they bother with me I’ll never know since I fit in so well here in Japan. The have a standardized list of questions (How long are you here? Where do you come from? etc.) and will ask to see your passport which they will photograph or you can provide a copy for them to keep. They will also photograph you so try to look nice. They are very courteous and I have never had the slightest hint of trouble with them. If you are going to photograph from multiple locations tell them and later patrols will just smile and wave.
For photographing at Hyakuri I take two camera bodies: a Canon 40D with a 24-105mm f4 L IS and a 7D with the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS. Both are 1.6 crop factor bodies. Here are some representative images with the focal lengths noted.
|24-105mm @ 50mm, minimal crop for composition on 1.6 crop factor body|
|100-400mm @ 220mm no crop on 1.6 crop factor body|
|USMC McDonnell Douglas F/A-18D Hornet 165410 VK-01 from VMFA(AW)-121 Green Knights 100-400mm @ 380mm 15% crop for composition on 1.6 crop-factor body|
As the twin runways are a 03/21 orientation the towers are great photographing locations in the morning with progressively worsening lighting conditions as the day wears on. Aircraft that are scheduled to fly for the day are parked on the ramp outside the hangars so you can quickly see what you have a very good chance to see in the air. The runway closest to the towers is for military use and the far runway mainly utilized by a small amount of commercial traffic (Spring Airlines A320 and Skymark Airlines B737) although I was treated to a twin landing by two JASDF Phantoms while photographing from the north-west fence line once. A curious note; when the Chinese-based Spring Airlines Airbus is close to arriving all the hangar doors at Hyakuri will be closed and things will get pretty quiet. The doors will not re-open until the aircraft has left.
|U-turn after back-taxi on the civilian runway from the “arming & approach” point on the map|
|Skymark Airlines Boeing 737-86N JA73NF from the Orchard location on the map|
On the opposite side of the air field are three locations to photograph from. One is a little north of the terminal with a long fence line favored by the masses and nestled near some orchards (very nice in the summer). Fences at Japanese bases are shorter than the American style Cyclone fencing so a 4-step ladder will do you fine.
|F-4EJ Kai 97-8425 of 302th Tactical Fighter Squadron from the Orchard location on the map|
Another spot is at the northern edge of the runway which can be good for the Phantoms dropping the chutes. I have not seen a departure from this end in my two visits so no info regarding that aspect.
Lastly there’s the other end (southern end) of the runway for some great late-afternoon arrival opportunities as well as some decent arming area sights with a long enough lens. The arming area is slightly below the level of the runway so if you’re picky about the tires being all the way in the shot just realize that it ain’t going to happen. Civilian aircraft use this closer runway but without a taxi way they back-taxi affording a nice opportunity for turning images.
|Taxi to takeoff from the arming area on south end of runway, 100-400 + 1.4x II @ 560mm|
|F-15J 42-8828 leaving the arming area on south end of runway, 100-400 + 1.4x II @ 560mm|
|U-125A (BAe.125) 22-3020 of Hyakuri Rescue Wing from the south runway end|
Now if you want to try and get some “breaking” photos you go to what my friends refer to as a “gambler’s field” called such because if they break early you can get a real nice image and if they break late you get, well…. mostly trees.
So there, in a nutshell, is Hyakuri Air Base/Ibaraki Airport northeast of Tokyo, Japan.