It was late December, and I had been stuck in Guam for five days, waiting for a stubborn typhoon to move out of the way between America's westernmost territory and Japan. Today's final leg of the 7,000 nm delivery flight was to Sendai, Japan, just under 1,400 nm by the most direct route.
Unfortunately, the weather made that route highly unlikely. As a result, I filed for a more southerly trip to circumnavigate the storm. I'd overfly Iwo Jima and hit the Japanese coast near Osaka rather than north of Tokyo. Predictably, the controller wanted me up high, but the airplane's pressurization system had failed out of Majuro, Marshall Islands, and lack of onboard oxygen limited me at 12,000 feet.
I departed Guam at 0600 local and cruised into the gathering dawn above a placid Pacific. There wasn't much to see for the first four hours, just rolling ocean stretching to the horizon. Somewhere below was the Marianas Trench, the deepest water on the planet, 35,000 feet to the bottom according to the Discovery Channel. Moot point, I shrugged. If I ditched in 10-foot water or the 35,000-foot Challenger Deep, the result would be the same. Still, I couldn't help wondering if deep ocean should look bluer than shallow.
Eventually, the trio of tiny islands that make up the Iwo Jima group materialized in the distance. I watched the airplane gain on the main barren rock island, about half the size of Manhattan, and saw it drift by on the left.
In February, 1945, the U.S. finally wrested Iwo Jima from the Japanese, and used it as an emergency landing site for eight months until the war ended. Later, it was returned to Japan in 1968. The place was nearly deserted as I passed overhead in 2007. Sleepy Mt. Suribachi, a small 550-foot-tall, long-dormant volcano on the southern tip of the island, looked to be little more than a small hill from two miles above. The island was no longer of strategic value, certainly nothing worth dying for, as so many Americans and Japanese had done.
The winds were reasonably willing on this day, a friendly 10-knot headwind, but upper level winds in this area can be phenomenal, especially during winter. Airline crews have experienced hurricane-like jet streams in excess of 200 knots above 30,000 feet. On this day, I cruised at a ground speed of 180 knots, watching the ocean unroll toward Japan.
The Japanese coast abeam Osaka was only another 600 nm from Iwo, three-and-a-half hours or one Gatorade and a ham sandwich away. The sky had been washed clean by the recent typhoon, and as I approached the coast, the controller gave me a vector that cut the corner and pointed me directly at the snowcap of massive Mt. Fuji, 50 miles from Tokyo.
I had only made a handful of trips to Japan, and this was the clearest view I had had of the sacred 12,000-foot mountain. The domed peak with its perennial winter glaze of snow rears up southwest of the capitol city, a sentinel guarding the city.
The scene was reminiscent of all the times I had witnessed a similar sight in Seattle, watching massive Mt. Rainier rising into the high sky, king of the West Coast's chain of sleeping volcanoes. More than coincidentally, the evenly spaced string of gently arched mountains along the American West Coast and the similar line of volcanoes in Japan are part of the same Pacific Ring of Fire, a sometimes-active zone of not-so-dormant volcanism.
The eastern edge of Honshu seemed almost pure city, as I turned north along the beach to stay away from heavily congested airspace over Narita Airport at Tokyo. I knew from previous trips that Japan is an almost indescribably beautiful country, but population density is very high, even greater than that of India. There's not much open terrain to see. The country is surrounded by ocean with mountains everywhere, and at 12,000 feet, you're within sight of ocean or mountains (or both) virtually all the time. Most of the land is dedicated to small villages or big cities.
I've been fortunate to fly the world on someone else's nickel, and while there are some places I've been happy to witness from 10,000 feet rather than ground level, Japan is one I'd love to see up close.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the population density, Japan's infrastructure makes it relatively easy to get around, and that's evident looking down from above. Japan consists of more than 6,000 islands, of which the four major islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. And, there's another 400 or so smaller isles, but many of these are connected by a profusion of bridges.
On the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, there's also the maglev Shinkansen—bullet trains that transit the islands at speeds as high as 200 mph. (Once several years ago, I was flying a new Cessna Grand Caravan above Honshu and was amazed to see a train pass me below.)
American general aviation pilots flying their own airplanes in Japan won't find it that much different from operating here at home, although the process is somewhat more formal. All flights require a flight plan, and there are strict limits as to where you can go. It's a lot like operating in or around Class B airspace in the states. IFR is the preferred mode of operation, but even if you're filed VFR, expect to be monitored by controllers.
Problem is, of course, just getting to Japan in your aircraft may be a stretch for anything without the range of a Rutan Voyager. While it's possible to earn an English-only Japanese pilot's license, you can't simply apply for a 30-day temporary ticket as you can in many other ICAO countries. That means the only convenient way to arrange for a sightseeing flight is to charter through a local Japanese FBO with a professional pilot in a JA-registered airplane.
Alternately, AOPA-Japan can help out. The latter may be the less expensive alternative.
Airline airports are, by definition, reserved for the heavy iron, but there are a number of general aviation fields in Japan that accommodate light planes. My ferry flight ended at Sendai, hard by the coast near the Fukushima nuclear power station that was heavily damaged by the 2011 tsunami. This 2007 ferry flight was my most recent trip to Japan, so I'm not sure what's left of Sendai airport. The primary approach comes in over the beach, and the runways and terminal took the brunt of the huge waves.
Your universal source of information should be AOPA Japan. The American headquarters of AOPA in Frederick, Md., can provide all the contact information you'll need for a flight as a passenger in a Japanese member's airplane over one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.
Just watch out for the typhoons.