When you visit a distant country you like, knowing you will certainly not be able to get back there soon, it is safe to assume you want to create the best memories you can and experience unusual stuff. If this country is Japan, among the wonderful things you can discover, why not taking height and photograph cities from above? And while you are at it, why not choosing the biggest one, Tokyo? Of course, you could queue for hours and try to admire the view from the top of Tokyo Skytree tower, but let’s play bigger and do that from an helicopter instead. At night.
Excel Air Service provides helicopter tours of Tokyo (and even Mt. Fuji), in small groups (~five people). You can choose day, dusk or night cruises; prices are around 200€ per passenger. The flight lasts fifteen minutes and allows you to see, from above, the most iconic districts and buildings of the city (including Tokyo Skytree 😉). Charters or longer trips are available for booking but they are, of course, more expensive.
I discovered the company thanks to a French website about tourism in Japan. Booking process takes place online, in English, through simple steps. The staff members that took care of my reservation were nice and helpful. I had indeed some troubles with tour payment, as 3D Secure Mastercard system did not seem to work well; they registered me anyway and suggested that I pay later in cash, on site. As you could expect, helicopter tours are very dependent on the weather and it is safer to confirm your flight the day before (by email, or using the company homepage). As for me, tour time had to be changed (for unknown reasons). To apologize however, the staff offered me a cup of Champagne; very nice!
Excel Air heliport is located not far from Tokyo DisneySea. A shuttle awaits for customers at a rendezvous point near the train station exit. You arrive then in a classy waiting lounge where free drinks are available before your flight; you have to pay for alcohol and snacks though. There were, in the room, one or two well-dressed couples, waiting, probably to enjoy a romantic evening. Once your name gets called, it is your turn.
You first start by leaving all your belongings and bags in lockers. The only electronic devices allowed on board are cameras (rules are ambiguous here, be careful if you only have a smartphone!). You go then through security gates into a briefing room where safety instructions are provided. We had to wait a little there, since another passenger was late (the staff person was constantly looking at their watch, apologizing, even if it was not their fault at all). After that, it is time to leave the building, onto the “runway”. Pictures are forbidden at this point, until you get into the helicopter.
The tour was great! In my opinion, helicopters feel a lot safer than airplanes (especially during take-off and landing). Aside from strong accelerations from time to time, the flight was smooth and less noisy than I thought (it is hard to follow a conversation though). Tokyo at night looks magnificent and the pilot was flying over many photogenic places (including towers, stadiums and densely constructed areas). You can’t be disappointed!
As one cannot carry a lot of stuff during the flight, I chose a versatile 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom attached to my camera; however, a faster prime (35mm f/1.4? Or maybe 85mm?) would have been so great, as to maintain high shutter speed and to not compromise on sharpness at long focal values… I don’t think wider lenses are the best choice here, as I find “detail” shots, where you see building hugeness, more impressive than wide cityscapes that “flatten” the ground. After all, you are far from the skyscrapers. One thing to remember: the helicopter will regularly lean on one side to turn, giving you a unique perspective on the city; that’s when you can shoot!
VC equipped lenses are probably a good choice too, as well as a high iso capable camera. If a friend can take with them a few primes and help you swap between your lenses (or, why not, between two cameras), it could also be a huge help! At night, contrary to what I expected, windows reflections are not really a problem (as for dusk, I can’t say that for sure). For more professional and relevant advices, you should read this series of articles about aerial photography.
Exhausted but thrilled, you can then take the shuttle back to the train station, where you will blend into a crowd of people in Disney themed clothes. Overall, I strongly advise this unforgettable experience!