(Almost) every year, the U.S. military’s Yokota Air Base in the western Tokyo suburb of Fussa opens its gates to tens of thousands of locals in celebration of Japanese-American ties. Visitors can view aircraft static displays, enjoy on-base entertainment, and indulge in junky American food from various vendors.
Known as the Yokota Air Base Friendship Festival, the two-day event usually takes place in August/September but was brought forward to May this year after a two-year COVID-induced hiatus.
The Yokota AB Friendship Festival in 2022
This year, the festival was held over the weekend of May 21-22 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (last entry 8 p.m.). The static display area, which features visiting Japan Air Self Defense Force in addition to U.S. military aircraft, closes a little earlier at 6 p.m.
The displays included CV-22 Osprey, MC-130J Commando II, and C-130H Hercules aircraft. There was also a visiting U.S. Navy plane there. You can go inside some of them but as usual, lines.
Most Japanese SDF and U.S. military officers on-site would happily pose for photos, including one with a four-legged friend.
A plethora of food stalls offer plenty of junky American food like chilli cheese dogs, cheesy fries, New York potato, steaks, funnel cakes, etc. There were also stalls serving typical Japanese festival food like takoyaki, yakisoba, karaage, etc. Alcohol was widely available.
I picked up this Philly cheesesteak sandwich (from a stall called Bangkok Express oddly enough lol), and a couple of empanadas from a Latin American stall. Not sure how authentic they were in terms of taste, but they were delicious enough and really hit the spot after all that walking.
In terms of entertainment, there were a couple of stages with live music through the day, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. There were also flyovers of aircraft from time to time.
A fireworks show was on Saturday night from 8:20 p.m., but I elected to go on Sunday instead because…
Air Force One landing
U.S. President Joe Biden was due to arrive for his first official visit to Japan since taking office. He was scheduled to land at Yokota Air Base around 5 p.m., flying in from South Korea.
Nearing that time, I made my way through to the end of the static display area, passing through a scattering of aircraft along the way. It was a fair distance, with the sun was shining bright and hot. Tanks and other land vehicles dotted a roped off section signalling end of the area open to public. I saw many dark grey U.S. military aircraft lined up in the distance.
Huge crowds had gathered here. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who knew of the planned Air Force One arrival. We didn’t have to wait long. I soon heard the distant sound of an airplane, and turned to see it flying in straight towards us, gradually dropping lower and lower. I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to an aircraft landing, let alone Air Force one. It was thrilling to hear the engine’s roar as it touched down and began to taxi just metres away.
The plane eventually taxied all the way to the other side of a field, so the public didn’t get to see Biden alight from the aircraft. But being able to see the plane landing up close made the long trek worth it.
Entry requirements to Yokota AB Friendship Festival
Non-Japanese and non-U.S. citizens need to preregister online in order to enter. You will need to bring *both* your passport and resident card on the day for identity verification purposes. You can register on the day as well, but I don’t recommend it because of the lines.
I arrived at Haijima Station and had walked maybe 5 minutes towards the Yokota Air Base when I hit a line that had formed. It was insanely long, stretching for at least a kilometre. Since I am not a Japanese citizen and had preregistered, I had hoped that I could skip this line. So I walked past it all the way to the Gate #5 entrance, and saw a far shorter line had formed in the direction of Ushihama Station. I promptly joined this line instead, and was able to enter the gates in the next batch.
Inside the gates, there were still huge lines. But I stuck with my hunch that non-Japanese citizens would be processed in a different line. I couldn’t help grinning when I spotted the sign and saw it only had 30 people or so in it.
Joining the end of this line with relief, I was surprised to see many of the other foreigners were from mainland China. It seems even despite their government’s rhetoric they are still interested in the United States. I waited in line for a bit before I heard one of the staff shout, “can anybody speak English?” I was one of the only people to put up my hand, and a non-uniformed American officer made his way over to me.
He was friendly as he checked my passport and resident card, saying visiting Australia was on his travel bucket list. I was told to wait inside a small building while they processed my information.
So by holding a non-Japanese passport and speaking English, you can skip many lines. Score! All in all, it still took almost an hour from arrival at the station to actually getting inside the base. But if I had joined that original line from the station, who knows how long I’d have been waiting.
There was also insane congestion when trying to leave the base in the evening around 6:30 p.m. Police were stopping crowds whenever the light turned red to let cars pass, resulting in bottlenecks near the gate. I think it took a good 30 mins just to get out of the base.
Getting to Yokota Air Base
The air base’s entry point for the festival, Ushihama Gate #5, is around a 10-minute walk from Ushihama Station on the JR Ome Line. The station can get very crowded during the festival, so organizers recommend visitors come from Haijima Station, which is around a 20-minute walk from the gate. Maybe too many people took this advice because I found the line was way longer and instead walked over to join the other from Ushihama Station.
Tips for attending the Yokota AB Friendship Festival
- Expect lines everywhere. But don’t just mindlessly line up, see if you can find a shorter line or get around it.
- In this case, home turf does not have the advantage. The line for non-Japanese nationals is literally miles shorter. Preregister to simplify matters, and use your English-speaking skills to your advantage. If you are a U.S. citizen, even easier, no need to preregister.
- If you go around 2 hours from closing, there is virtually no wait time. However, you will miss seeing the static displays (which close at 6 p.m.), so not sure if there is any point. You can still eat your fill of stall food and experience the base, I guess.
- Outbound congestion is also bad, so plan accordingly. There is no order, it is just a slow-moving throng of people and every man for himself. Weave in and out and (politely) overtake people as needed.