Being stationed at MCAS Iwakuni is what you make of it. Here we share some of our most valuable tips on when to travel while stationed at MCAS Iwakuni.
We absolutely loved our time at MCAS Iwakuni. It is the perfect starting point to experience Japan – three of the four main islands of Japan are accessible within two hours of driving, and flights everywhere are easy because it’s an air station with a civilian airport.
During the first few months, we didn’t travel as much, but once we started trying to utilize every weekend, and especially our long weekends, our Japan explorations really took off. We saved up our leave to go to New Zealand for two weeks and Thailand for one, but we focused our time on exploring Japan as much as possible. Utilizing 96’s was the key to our many travels.
What is a 96?
We are an active-duty US Navy family. A “96” is a four-day weekend for US Marines, and it was a new concept for us as far as holidays go. For each federal holiday where we would normally have a 3-day weekend in the Navy, the Marines add an extra day off and have a 96-hour holiday. However, being stationed at a Marine Corps Air Station and being attached to the Marines, we get 96s! Even if you are Navy, being stationed at MCAS Iwakuni definitely has its perks. There are 10 holidays throughout the year that will give you this wonderful 96 hours of vacation (when a holiday is midweek, we get 72 hours off instead).
What holidays are included in the 96’s?
- New Year’s Day
- Presidents Day
- Martin Luther King Day
- Memorial Day
- Independence Day
- Labor Day
- Columbus Day
- Veterans Day
- Thanksgiving Day
- Christmas Day
What countries can I visit during a 96?
There is a list of countries that Marines in Japan can visit without taking leave when traveling over a 96. The list changes, so you will want to always check it before you make any plans. Currently, the list includes:
- Hong Kong
- South Korea
We were planning on being here another year and our idea was to visit the countries on the 96 list during that next year. With an unexpected (but exciting!) change of plans we decided to explore as much of Japan as we could instead of going to different countries.
We realized after about a year and a half of living here that 96s needed to be used to our utmost advantage. Because we are on the mainland, it was most efficient for us to travel around Japan instead of spending parts of the weekends traveling internationally.
Traveling from MCAS Iwakuni for a long weekend
Looking at our list of things to do in Japan on a long weekend, we have done all of them except one. We never went to Hokkaido. We intended to go to the ice festival in February 2019, but Matt deployed in support of the Cobra Gold 2019 exercise in Thailand and that made it impossible.
Time goes so fast, make sure you plan out all the places you want to see. Our best advice is to plan ahead by making a list of all the places you want to go in and out of Japan. Many of these weekends were our most memorable out of the three years we were stationed at MCAS Iwakuni.
Popular for skiing, amazing hiking, volcanic activity, onsens, the Ice Festival in the winter and lavender fields in the summer. Hokkaido is great to visit at any time of year – our friends have loved hiking.
One of my favorite places in all of Japan is Ishigaki, an island off of Okinawa. Our trip here was most memorable because this was where we snorkeled for the first time as a family. Our 2- and 4-year-olds both snorkeled and we found Nemo, Marlin and Dory. It was beautiful and wasn’t touristy. Learn how we taught our kids to snorkel here.
One of Matt’s favorite vacations was visiting the island of Shodoshima. We originally wanted to go because of Angel Road, a special road that only shows up twice a day with the tides. Angel Road was beautiful but just one part of the charm that Shodoshima has to offer. Every October they have a Taiko Drum festival, our favorite festival we’ve been to in Japan. October 14 is the day of the big parade which often coincides nicely with Columbus Day.
Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea
At first, I thought we were crazy to plan 4 days of Disney, but I would do it, again and again, each year if we could. Had we gone to Disney our first year I think we would have made it a yearly trip. We recommend staying at one of the Disney hotels – it makes getting to and from the park convenient and easy, and gets you in the park 15 minutes early!
We spent time exploring the countryside from Lake Biwa up to the Japanese Alps. We went to shrines, rock cliffs, a traditional handicraft village and the highest point of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and Snow Walk. Although we had been to Kyoto several times it was nice to give Lake Biwa and the country north of Kyoto its own long weekend to explore.
Kyoto has so much culture and history – and so many tourists as well. I feel like it’s a place you should at least see once, but our favorite parts of Kyoto are the areas with fewer people. There are a number of historic temples with bloody ceilings in Kyoto that connect you to one of the most pivotal moments in Japanese history. Those temples are unique and not overrun by tourists. We also spent a day in Osaka during this long weekend, and although we personally felt like there was more to see in Kyoto, we loved Dotonbori in Osaka.
Nachi Falls is in the middle of nowhere but was on our bucket list of places to see, and Nara was a good place to stay for all the things we wanted to do in the area. We went to the deer park first…I thought I would enjoy it more, but the deer were pretty aggressive! Nachi Falls came second and was a day trip from Nara, but it sure was worth it. It has the tallest single drop waterfall in Japan. That night we had some of the best beef, better than Kobe beef, at a restaurant in Matsusaka, but our favorite part of the trip was visiting the Ninja village in Iga.
One of our best travel memories was while driving down to Nagasaki. We had been commenting on the storm we were driving through only to later realize it was a typhoon! Trying to see anything that day made no sense so we took shelter at a mall just down from our Airbnb. That night we watched Silence, a movie about the persecution of Christians in Japan, which set the stage for the next day’s activities quite well. We saw the memorial of the 26 Martyrs, Urakami Cathedral and then went to the Nagasaki Peace Park. Sasebo was a quick trip from Nagasaki where we took a ship ride around the bay where they farm pearls. On our way home we stopped in Okawachiyama, a pottery village with incredible mountain views.
I have always been fascinated with natural disasters, so Matt planned a weekend dedicated to the volcanoes on the southern island of Kyushu. From Mount Aso, which is the largest volcano, to Mount Sakurajima, which is the most active volcano in Japan, there are so many beautiful landscapes shaped by these volcanoes (and numberless onsens). Takachiho Gorge is a must see when visiting the area!
Taking the kids to the Okinawa Aquarium always seemed like a fun idea so we finally did it for Royce’s birthday over Columbus Day. It was a relaxing trip dedicated to the kids. This was where Royce first snorkeled which set the stage for Jeannie learning to snorkel just a couple of weeks later. We ate delicious food, swam in the pool and in the ocean, went to the aquarium and didn’t explore the island much more than that!
Enjoy every moment at MCAS Iwakuni!
One day, your time in Iwakuni will come to an end. Whether that is just a few weeks away or years in the future, take some time now to enjoy the opportunities available because you’re at one of the best duty stations in the world!
Plan your trip:
Click on any of the links above to plan your vacation!