Ask 100 children what they want to be when they grow up and it’s a safe bet that a dozen will say they want to be a pilot.
Sure, air travel is less glamorous than during my father’s generation, but the act of flying remains magical to kids. Adults too. You don’t have to be a schoolkid to find aviation interesting. For those who love planes, two Japanese airlines offer a chance to experience some of the biggest jets in a new way.
Both Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) offer tours of their Haneda Airport maintenance facilities. This is often called a factory tour, but you won’t see planes being built. Instead, retired pilots, flight attendants and ground staff show you airplane maintenance up close — all while you learn about air travel and the mechanics of aviation. Oh, and did I mention that this is free?
Before I describe what happens on a kōjō kengaku (factory tour), there are a few caveats worth mentioning. First, the entire experience is in Japanese — the exhibit explanations, the presentation and the guided tour — although some English pamphlets are available. The online registration process is also in Japanese. If you struggle with the language, have a local friend help sign you up. It’s worth noting, though, that Japanese proficiency isn’t required to enjoy the tour. The awe of standing next to a massive Boeing 787 engine requires no translation.
Second, the tours are for school-aged kids 6 years old and above. In fact, regardless of age, I would only suggest visiting with kids you know can stay with the group. There are safety factors to consider once in the hangar.
Third, these are very popular tours and spots are limited, so I recommend registering as early as possible. Some people register months in advance. The limited numbers, however, will work to your advantage. It never gets too crowded and you get a more personalized experience, with less people in the way when you want to take pictures.
The ANA tour begins with a 20-minute presentation, which involves lots of slides, video footage and models. The purpose is to not only discuss the history of ANA as an airline, but also explain the physics of flying. Afterward, it’s time to head to the hangar for a tour, which includes up-close views of some of the airline’s planes. Everyone is given a hardhat and told the basic safety rules. Remember, you’re entering an active work site, so make sure the kids fully understand and respect the rules.
The types of planes you see on the hangar floor depends on which are being worked on that particular day. There’s no guarantee of what will be there, and there’s no public maintenance schedule. In addition to the planes being serviced, you’ll likely see other planes in action outside. The doors to the hangar each seem like the size of a basketball court. When some of them are open, planes are visible landing and taking off. To see this closer than you normally would from inside the airport is a real thrill.
Japan Airlines offers a similar tour, but with a few differences. There’s the JAL Sky Museum, which includes an interesting display of flight attendant and pilot uniforms from the past 30-plus years. You can even try some of them on for pictures, too. There are also interactive exhibits, such as one that allows you to play the role of an aircraft marshaller directing a jumbo jet. At JAL you can also see the golden-yellow seat that the emperor uses when flying.
Both the JAL and ANA tours allow photography, but with some stipulations. ANA, for example, emphasizes that images must be for personal use only. You must request permission to reprint them elsewhere. JAL has similar rules, and they don’t allow any pictures of the emperor’s seat or of government planes if they are being serviced during your visit. Either way, there will still be plenty of opportunities for selfies here and there.
Whichever tour you choose, I highly recommend arriving at least 30 minutes early. That way you’ll have time to peruse exhibits before the presentations and tours officially start. The magic of flight is infinite, but your time here isn’t.