I love flying Space A and I was super excited when Stephanie offered to write a post about Traveling Space-A in Japan! She has lots of great info on her site Poppin’ Smoke as well so go check out her blog & Facebook page. I hope you enjoy her info as much as I do!
My husband and I have been frequent Space-A fliers since he retired in 2015. We took an entire year off to travel, and during that time, we flew Space-A to Spain, Germany, Hawaii, Japan, and several places within the contiguous United States (CONUS). In addition to saving thousands of dollars on airfare, we had great experiences and thoroughly enjoyed using this incredible privilege we share as members of the military community.
If you’re new to Space-A – or just new to flying Space-A in Japan – you can use this blog post as a roadmap to a successful journey. Combine this intel with a little strategy, effort, and yes, some luck, and you have what you need to travel through two of the main hubs in the Pacific.
Ready to pop smoke? Let’s move out!
Our Space-A Journey to Japan
We visited several countries during our year of travel, and Japan was one of our favorites. We were there for nearly 6 weeks, and we flew through both Yokota Air Base and Kadena Air Base, spending a few days on both bases. This section has a short overview of our travels. The logistical details are in the sections that follow.
It was March 2016, and after enjoying a few weeks in Hawaii, we caught a C-5 Galaxy aircraft directly from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to Yokota AB. It was the first flight we signed up for, and it wasn’t full, so we each had our own row to stretch out and sleep.
When we landed at Yokota AB, we spent one night at the Kanto Lodge, the temporary lodging facility on base. The next day, we followed the Kanto Lodge’s printed instructions and took the train to Tokyo Haneda airport. From there, we caught a $100 last-minute flight down to Kagoshima, a city on the southern end of Kyushu.
We spent the next few weeks visiting my husband’s family (he is half Japanese) and friends in the Kagoshima area, then took another low-cost commercial airline to Osaka, the closest airport to Kyoto. After a few days exploring the “City of 10,000 Shrines,” we visited more family in Nagoya, and then took a combination of the bullet train (Shinkansen) and the local Japan Rail (JR) network to return to Yokota AB.
We stayed at the Kanto Lodge for a couple nights while waiting for a flight and enjoyed using the gym, the BX, and American-style showers. As we watched the flight schedules, our only goal was to get back to the United States; we weren’t too picky about where.
When flying Space-A, my husband and I follow the advice an Army buddy gave him early in his career, which is, for us, Rule #1: Take the first thing smoking.
In other words, don’t wait around for the perfect flight; keep moving forward. This advice is especially true when traveling from outside the contiguous United States (OCONUS) to CONUS. You simply want to get back to the U.S., because if you must buy a commercial ticket to reach your final destination, it is less expensive flying from within the U.S. than paying for an overseas flight.
With our rule in mind, when a flight to Fairchild AFB in Spokane, WA came on the schedule with 10 tentative seats, it sounded perfect. We knew most other Space-A travelers would hold out for a more convenient base. Sure enough, only two other passengers competed for the flight, and we were confirmed with no problem. But the flight kept getting delayed, and we knew it had been stuck at Yokota AB all week due to a maintenance issue, so we decided to hop a flight to Kadena AB instead. The Kadena AB schedule showed a flight going to Andersen AFB in Guam, JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, and Travis AFB the next morning. It seemed promising, but by the time we landed, the mission had been cancelled, and there were no other flights to the U.S. in the next 72 hours.
So, we decided to stay at Kadena AB for a while and enjoy ourselves. This bring us to our Rule #2 when flying Space-A: Enjoy the time at your current location.
Nearly all bases have Morale, Welfare, & Recreation (MWR) resources, recreational equipment rental, movie theaters, rental cars, golf courses, etc. What’s not to enjoy?
We rented a car and had a great time exploring Okinawa. We did a SCUBA trip with the Kadena AB Marina (the Air Force base’s aquatic recreation facility), went hiking, visited ancient castle ruins, golfed on the base, and had dinner in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. We also checked out Okuma Beach, a beautiful military recreation facility on the north end of Okinawa. We did not have time to stay at Okuma during this visit, but we will make it there next time.
When we were ready to leave Kadena AB more than a week later, a flight to Andersen AFB, JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, and Travis AFB popped up on the schedule. It was the first flight back to the U.S. we had seen since we arrived on Okinawa so we signed up for it. We made that flight with no problem, and after overnight layovers in Guam and Hawaii, we arrived at Travis.
Staying Connected While in Japan
While we were in Japan – and in fact, during our entire year of travel – we did not have local cellular service. We relied on WiFi-based apps, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, to make calls and send messages to friends. An app called Line is widely-used in Japan; many businesses post their Line phone number along with their other contact info.
You must install WhatsApp and Line before you disconnect from your cell service (while you are still in the United States). Both services send you a text to verify your phone number, and if you can’t receive the text, you can’t complete the sign-up process.
Throughout our travels, another app called Maps.me was indispensable. It provides detailed offline maps and routing so you can always navigate to your destination, even without WiFi or cellular service. The app is free to download, but with all the driving we did in foreign countries, it was absolutely priceless!
Arriving in Japan
If you are a non-Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) passenger (in other words, most Space-A passengers who are not stationed in Japan), when arriving from a base outside of Japan, a Military Customs Official will transport you to the Japanese Customs & Immigration Office. At Yokota AB, the office is just outside the base, only a block from the terminal. At Kadena AB the office is about 15 minutes away.
Use of Base Services
Retirees and other Space-A travelers not stationed in Japan are allowed to use the commissary, Exchange, and other services on U.S. military bases in Japan. At both Yokota AB and Kadena AB, my husband and I were allowed to eat in the dining facilities.
Commercial Air Travel in Japan
If you are traveling within Japan or to other countries in Asia, Japanese commercial airlines can be a great option. Japan has several low-cost carriers that often have fares for less than $100 round trip. Some airlines also have special fares that are only available to tourists. When we flew from Tokyo to Kagoshima, we used Solaseed Air, which has a “Visit Japan” fare of JPY 10,500 (approximately $90 as of December 2016). The fare is available on stand-by basis only, but it worked well for us because we were flying at the last minute.
You have to visit each airline to see their routes and rules, but the fares are a great deal. We had nothing but excellent experiences flying Japanese airlines.
All Nippon Airways (Visit Japan fare)
Japan Airlines (Welcome to Japan fare)
Peach Aviation (low-cost airline)
Skymark Airlines (low-cost airline)
Solaseed Air (Visit Japan fare)
Vanilla Air (low-cost airline)
Driving in Japan
The Japanese drive on the left side of the road. The driver’s seat and steering wheel are on the right side of the vehicle.
If you want to rent a car while in Japan, you must obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you arrive. IDPs cost $20, and all you need are a valid US driver’s license and two passport-size photos. The permits are valid for one year, but in Japan they are only acceptable if you are in the country for a limited time as a tourist. If you are stationed in Japan, inquire with your command about obtaining a SOFA driver’s license.
There are only two places authorized by Department of State to issue an IDP:
- American Automobile Association (AAA) You can get an IDP at any AAA location or by mail.
- American Automobile Tour Alliance (AATA) The only way to get in IDP is by mail.
Lodging & Facilities
The Kanto Lodge is the only temporary lodging on base. They have a shuttle that can take you to and from the passenger (PAX) terminal within certain operating hours, contingent upon availability of a driver. If you decide to walk, it takes about 25 minutes.
The Kanto Lodge is a 10-minute walk from the Shoppette and only 5 minutes from the mess hall (the Samurai Café). It has small fitness rooms in two of the buildings. The main base fitness facility is the Samurai Fitness Center. I walked back to the Kanto Lodge from there, and it seemed much farther than it appears on this map.
Links & Information
Yokota Air Base Passenger Terminal:
Phone Numbers: DSN 315-225-5660/Flight Recording 315-225-7111/Commercial 011-81-3117-55-5660/Flight Recording: 011-81-3117-55-7111
Samurai Café Dining Hours:
- Mon-Fri: Breakfast · 0530-0800/Lunch · 1100-1300/Dinner · 1630-1930/Midnight Meal · 2300-0030
- Weekends/Holidays: Brunch · 0700-1300/Supper · 1630-1930/Midnight Meal · 2300-0030
- Exercise Hours: Breakfast · 0500-0830/Lunch · 1100-1330/Dinner 1630-1930/Midnight 2100-0100
Samurai Fitness Center Hours:
- Mon-Fri 4 a.m. – 10 p.m.
- Sat/Sun/Hol 6 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Getting Around Base
The first time we stayed on Yokota AB, we were there for only one night, so we did not rent a car. When we wanted to have dinner off base, the Kanto Lodge called a taxi, which picked us up at the main Lodge entrance. For the return, we caught a cab at a taxi stand, but he was not authorized to drive on base. He dropped us in a small parking lot next to the gate closest to the Lodge (the Fussa Gate), and it was a 15-minute walk from there.
Our second time at Yokota AB, we thought we might be there a while waiting for a flight, so we rented a car from Times Car Rental at the PAX terminal. It was about $60/day but allowed us to get to the gym, BX, and commissary easily as well as explore the area outside the base. If you only plan to stay on Yokota AB for a day or two (or you don’t feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road), a rental car may not make sense. But it was a nice convenience, and considering that a taxi was about $15 each way when we had dinner less than 3 miles from the base, the rental car didn’t seem like a bad deal.
There is also an on-base shuttle that runs M-F 0600-1800 and Weekends/Holidays 0800-1800.
Getting to the Civilian Airports in Tokyo:
Yokota AB has shuttles to both of the airports in Tokyo (Narita and Haneda).
- Narita: runs 3x per day and take 3.5 hours. Fare is $40 for passengers 13 or older and $30 for passengers 12 and under.
- Haneda: one shuttle per day and stops at New Sanno, a military hotel in downtown Tokyo. Total time to Haneda is 2.5 hours. Fare is $20 for SOFA ID-holder and $25 for others.
The Kanto Lodge provides printed instructions for train service to the airports, and we decided the train was a better option for us. We took a taxi to the local train station (about $15) and followed the directions from there. The train fare was less than $10 per person. From the time we left the Kanto Lodge until we arrived at the terminal was about 2 hours.
Lodging & Facilities
Kadena AB has two on-base lodging options: The Shogun Inn and the Navy Gateway Inns & Suites (NGIS). NGIS is close to the PAX terminal, but we stayed at the Shogun Inn, so we had to take a taxi there.
Kadena AB is actually a great place to spend a week. In addition to the usual base amenities, there is a beautiful golf course and a marina that offers SCUBA diving trips, equipment rentals, and boating lessons.
I highly recommend venturing off base and away from the cluster of U.S. military bases to explore the rest of Okinawa. There are beaches, mountains, castles, waterfalls, and many historic sites. If you don’t rent a car, try one of the trips offered through the base’s Information, Tickets, and Travel (ITT) office.
Links & Information
Kadena Air Base Passenger Terminal:
Phone Numbers: DSN 634-5806/Flight Recording 634-6500/Commercial 011-81-611-734-5806/Flight Recording 011-81-634-6500
NGIS: DSN (315) 634-0677/Commercial 011-81-989-610-677/e-mail NGIS_OKINAWA@fe.navy.mil
- Mon – Fri: Breakfast 5:30 am – 8:15 am/Lunch 10:30 am – 1 pm/Dinner 4 pm – 7:30 pm/Midnight 10 pm – 12:30 am
- Weekends, Holidays: Brunch 6 am – 1 pm/Dinner 4 pm – 7 pm/Midnight 10 pm – 12:30 am
Dive shop, Harbor, Beach Shack, and Equipment Rentals have different hours, depending on season. Check website for details. All facilities closed on Tuesdays.
ITT Hours of Operation:
- Monday – Friday 10 am – 5 pm
- Saturday 10 am – 2 pm
- Sunday Closed
Banyan Tree Golf Course: (DSN 966-7321/Mobile (036) 868-2223)
Risner Fitness Center is open 24/7
Kadena AB is large and very spread out. There is no on-base shuttle, so if you plan to stay there for more than a day or two, you will probably want to rent a car. We rented ours from the Times Car Rental in the lobby of the Shogun Inn (DSN 966-7445/959-1880). The rate was comparable to rental cars at Yokota AB. Being able to drive ourselves to the immigration office (see below) and leave the vehicle in the PAX terminal parking lot on our way out was extremely convenient.
Flying out of Japan
In our experience, when trying to fly to the U.S. from Japan, Kadena AB is generally a better bet than Yokota AB. While Yokota AB does have flights to the U.S, it does not have as many as Kadena AB. Of course, you may be able to fly Space-A from Yokota AB to Kadena AB, but unless you are starting from a location very convenient to Yokota AB, consider taking Peach, Skymark, or another low cost airline to Okinawa. Factoring in the time and cost of getting to Yokota AB and what could be several nights at the Kanto Lodge, a $100 airfare may be a better deal.
If you are not stationed or living in Japan, one important thing to know is that you must “sign out” of the country before departing. To sign out, you must visit the local Japanese Customs & Immigration Office to get a “departed” stamp in your passport. After receiving the “departed” stamp, you must leave the country within 24 hours.
The Yokota AB terminal requires Space-A passengers to get their departure stamp before they can mark themselves present for an international flight. If you don’t get a seat or the flight is canceled, you must return to the immigration office and get stamped back in to Japan.
In Okinawa, the immigration office has different rules. You can’t sign out of Japan until you have your boarding pass. As soon as you get that piece of paper, you must hightail it to the immigration office to have your passport stamped. If a member of the terminal staff is available, he or she may drive Space-A passengers to the immigration office in a van, but there are no guarantees. There are also no guarantees that, if the flight crew is ready to depart, they will wait for Space-A passengers stuck at immigration, so keep that mind. If you travel with the group, you have to wait for everyone to get stamped. We kept our rental car until the last minute and arranged for the agency to pick it up from the PAX terminal parking lot. This arrangement allowed us to drive ourselves to the immigration office. The other option is to take a cab.
When you need to visit the immigration office near Kadena AB, be sure to go to the Kadena branch office, which is the office closest to the base. Several fellow passengers incorrectly told us we had to drive 45 minutes to the office in Naha. Fortunately, we did our own research, and my husband did a recon the night before to ensure he would know exactly how to get to the immigration office when we were pressed for time the next day.
Additional Base Phone Numbers and Information
These “AMC Grams” from Yokota AB and Kadena AB are handy reference tools containing phone numbers and logistical information about the bases. I recommend using them for general guidance and contacts, but be aware that some information may be outdated or even inaccurate. For example, the Kadena AB instructions related to Customs state that it is “recommended” for Non-SOFA passengers to get stamped out of the country prior to competing for Space-A seats. As explained above, in our experience, passengers departing Kadena AB cannot get the departure stamp until they have a boarding pass. The Yokota AB information appears to be consistent with our experiences.
Stephanie Montague is a military spouse and former management consultant who has been traveling the world with her husband since he retired from the Army in 2015. She is the founder of Poppin’ Smoke, a website designed to help members of the military community use their military retirement benefits to travel. Through the site, Stephanie shares everything she and her husband learned about traveling Space-A, using military benefits while abroad, and getting the most out of travel experiences. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.