Seaplanes used to be a common form of transport in the Japanese archipelago, with scheduled cargo and passenger flights operating mainly in western Japan until the mid-1960s.
But as shinkansen trains and regional airports, which enable faster transport links with greater capacity, developed, seaplanes were phased out.
Decades later, however, seaplanes are drawing renewed attention, chiefly for tourism in remote areas where infrastructure costs are prohibitive.
A company in Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, on the Seto Inland Sea coast, launched sightseeing seaplane services on Aug. 10, the first new business of its kind in Japan in about half a century.
A Setouchi Seaplanes amphibious Kodiak 100 took off early last month with five passengers from Onomichi Floating Port, flying around 500 meters above the isles of Innoshima and Noshima for nearly an hour.
The trip costing around ¥24,000 ($230) per person — a promotional weekday fare through September — provided views of these and other islands in the emerald green inland sea.
Setouchi Seaplanes Vice President Takenori Matsumoto said the business is aimed chiefly at revitalizing the economies of regional cities such as Onomichi and Fukuyama, also in Hiroshima Prefecture.
The company is a unit of Setouchi Holdings Inc., which belongs to Tsuneishi, a major shipbuilding group. The holding company acquired Quest Aircraft, the U.S. maker of Kodiak planes, in February.
Matsumoto is confident about the future of Setouchi Seaplanes’ sightseeing business, which operates a fleet of four Quest aircraft.
“The landscape of the Seto Inland Sea islands from a low altitude is magnificent,” he said. “We will be profitable in the long run.”
Although seaplanes are susceptible to high waves and restricted to daylight operations due to visibility, the company is considering starting passenger flights linking Seto Inland cities with Tokyo or Osaka, and envisages eventually building a nationwide network of seaplane routes.
Tomoyuki Todoroki, a Nihon University professor of transport system engineering, said the Setouchi Seaplanes launch has given momentum to similar businesses in other parts of Japan.
Working with Setouchi Seaplanes, Matsue, the capital of Shimane Prefecture, is planning a full-fledged service at Nakaumi, one of the largest brackish lakes in Japan, sometime in the next fiscal year starting in April.
Yuji Fukuma, who heads the city’s regional promotion division, said he hoped to see seaplane tours over the Shimane Peninsula.
“We hope to provide a tour (using seaplanes) because the adjacent Sakai port accommodates cruise ships from abroad,” he said.
The city of Matsue is responsible for providing infrastructure such as a pier, while Setouchi Seaplanes will oversee flight operations and marketing.
According to Todoroki, other regions in Japan have also shown interest in seaplanes.
The city of Kamiamakusa in Kumamoto Prefecture once contemplated island-hopping flight tours, while local governments in Ibaraki Prefecture are considering allowing seaplane operations around Kasumigaura Bay where seaplane services originated in Japan in the early 20th century.
Todoroki said he saw a role for seaplanes in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to revitalize regional economies because the aircraft can provide swift transport to destinations off the shinkansen grid.
“They can take off and land if there is an inlet 1,000 meters long,” Todoroki said.
There are also other potentials for tourism. The trip from Tokyo to the Lake Chuzenji region in Tochigi Prefecture, which draws throngs of tourists for its autumn colors, could be cut to 30 minutes from around five hours by car.
Todoroki noted that seaplanes can also be an asset in emergency situations such as providing relief and transporting sick people from remote areas in the event of an earthquake.
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