“I was raised on stories about seaplane pilots. My grandpa always said there are no finer people. Their hearts are washed clean by both sea and sky. So they’re braver than sailors, and prouder than regular pilots.”
Such are the words of Fio Piccolo, the young aviation engineer in Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant animated film, Porco Rosso.
Yet while the movie’s tale of romance and (quite literally) high-flying adventure takes place in the Adriatic Sea, Miyazaki’s vision of that body of water bears an uncommon resemblance to Japan’s Setouchi.
And so I think, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to fly around the Setonaikai like Porco Rosso?”
Enter SETOUCHI SEAPLANES, a chic new startup in Onomichi City offering low altitude flights over the Seto Inland Sea in amphibious aircraft. They even have a plane sporting a livery produced under the supervision of Hayao Miyazaki — you guessed it — to evoke the iconic red plane in Porco Rosso. (Seriously, how cool is that?!)
The second I walk through the doors at SETOUCHI SEAPLANES, I know I’ve made the right decision. Even the entryway hall possesses a notably chic and — let’s say, “fuselagey” — ambiance. And once inside the lobby, where lifelike models of their Kodiak 100 seaplanes grace the counters, and gorgeous photographs of the planes in flight adorn the walls, the message becomes clear…
This place was born out of a love of aviation.
Friendly staff greets me and my party at the counter, and we begin our quick preflight check-in, which includes standing on a scale to make sure our body weights match up with what we reported upon booking the flight. (Turns out they ask in order to properly trim the plane before takeoff, so no fibbin’ on the form now, ya hear?)
This accomplished, we stroll into the reception area where a selection of hand-squeezed fruit juices, top-shelf chocolate, and delectable pastries awaits us.
“Hmm, seems like they should have weighed us after the pastry bar,” I think, as I pile a lemon cake, chocolate bar, and cookie next to a glass of fresh orange juice.
After allowing us a few moments to develop a reasonable discrepancy with our recorded weights, we head down to the dock where, following a brief security check, we step out to where our plane bobs gently on the waves.
Climbing aboard definitely feels more like boarding a boat than an aircraft, but the cushy leather seats, headsets, and four-point harnesses smack of things more exciting to come.
Once we’re all aboard, with harnesses and headsets donned, the pilots take the helm, and a member of the ground crew closes the passenger door while another unmoors us from the dock. The pilots fire up the prop and taxi us out over the clear, sparking bosom of the sea.
Already the experience contains enough of interest, between the novel sensation of slowly turbo-propping over the water, and the beautiful view out the windows (because let’s face it, the Setouchi Inland Sea looks gorgeous from any elevation). Yet the whole time we’re filled with a palpable anticipation, waiting for the pilots to let it rip and send us skimming over the waves and into the air.
At last the moment comes, and the erstwhile purring prop kicks up to a solid hum. The plane pulls forward with authority, and a fin of water sprays up on either side as we carve through the waves faster and faster. Subtly, the speedboat sensation smooths to a gliding sensation, and just like that we separate from the water and climb into the sky.
Turns out the headsets we’re wearing tap directly into the pilot’s mics, allowing them to provide tour information about the numerous islands and landmarks rolling by beneath our flight. Yet what’s more, to my great delight I find that the headsets are not merely a link to the pilots, but in fact a connection to the live aviation channel, allowing us to hear the back and forth between the pilots and ground control throughout the flight.
This simple choice on the part of SETOUCHI SEAPLANES provides a far deeper connection for us during the flight — like we’re part of the adventure, not merely along for the ride.
Alarmingly, an imminent terrain warning darts through our headsets as the onboard computer warns the pilots, and thus us as well, of the mountain rising out of the sea in our forward flight path. But of course there’s nothing to worry about — the pilots bank us into a smooth arc, and we begin our long, figure-eight course over the Setouchi Inland Sea.
We maintain a low altitude — not skimming the waves, mind you — but generally cruising at around 700 meters, less than 1/10th of what you experience in a commercial jet. As a result, we have the perfect vantage point to soak in this stunning region of the world.
The scene below looks almost like a model, as the expert pilots name island after island in both Japanese and English, all the while providing information about local points of interest and regional history.
Below us the ocean, a lovely blue-green, greets the blonde fringes of Setouchi’s islands, which in turn arise regaled in forests of yet darker greens. Above them, the open blue sky, dotted with puffs of white cumulus, beckons us onward — like an unspoken promise of adventure.
The flight lasts a good 50 minutes, looping us over the gorgeous islands and bridges of the Shimanami Kaido — an excellent cycling course, by the way, also accessible from Onomichi. In fact, I’d posit that the “Setouchi Discovery Flight” offered by SETOUCHI SEAPLANES would make a perfect addition to a cycling trip along the Shimanami Kaido, either as a prospective-shifted recap at the end of the journey, or as an aerial teaser of sights to come. Either way, it’s a winner.
At last we return to our starting point, and the pilots take us in for one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced. The friction from the waves quickly dissipates our momentum, and the plane returns to a leisurely boating pace as the pilots taxi us back to the dock.
Climbing out of the plane, we feel almost giddy. And man does flying over a region renowned for its fish and produce work up a powerful appetite.
Fortunately, SETOUCHI SEAPLANES has that covered, too.
In addition to the excellent restaurant, SOFU PASTA & CAFE, located onsite in their building, they also host a good old-fashioned hot dog stand right on the boardwalk outside.
Sipping on citrus soda and looking out over the waves, all we need is someone to sing Le temps des Cerises with piano accompaniment, and we could be dining at Porco Rosso’s Hotel Adriano, right here in Japan.
Photographs & Text Peter Chordas