SOTA and POTA in Japan: Ara combines travel and radio with a little help from friends

Abroad in Japan: SOTA and POTA

by Ara (N6ARA)

Getting the License

Several months ago, my wife and I were planning our first trip to Japan, and I couldn’t help but look at all the nearby SOTA summits and POTA parks and entertain the idea of activating one of them. While stunned by the sheer number of high point summits and local parks (many of which are easily accessible via Japan’s incredible public transport system), I realized one question I hadn’t asked myself yet: Can I even operate in Japan?

I recalled the concept of a reciprocal licenses from the ham test, but never really looked into it. A quick Google search yielded the JARL (the ARRL equivalent in Japan) foreign amateur radio license website, which details the process for submitting your documents to obtain the license.

However, I quickly learned that the application must be submitted at least 60 days prior to the date of operation. Problem was… I was 58 days out.

Around this time, I let my friends, Waka-san (JG0AWE), Kazuhiro (7N1FRE), and Ted (JL1SDA), know that I would be visiting Japan. They leaped into action and helped me figure out if there would be a way to obtain my reciprocal license in time, and advised me on which summits and parks would be doable with my constraints.

Thankfully, Waka-san was very generous and offered to make an appointment with Japanese government to apply for the reciprocal license on my behalf. I was absolutely stunned by this. I struggle to make appointments at the DMV office for myself, let alone for someone else!

Two weeks later, I was surprised to learn that my license had arrived. I was now JJ0XMS in Japan. This news fittingly arrived around Christmas, making it easy to remember the “XMS” part of my call. The reciprocal license I received was classified as “1AM”, meaning 1st Amateur license for mobile. This meant I could operate on all bands at power levels below 50W, which is perfect since I tend to operate QRP most of the time anyway.

It helps to have friends around the world, but please learn from my mistake, submit your JARL-96-04 application at least 60 days (plus margin) prior to your trip and obtain your license the right way. If you have any questions about the form or the process, contact Mr. Ken Yamamoto (JA1CJP) via email at [email protected] 

Band Plan

With my license sorted, the next step was to familiarize myself with the Japanese Band Plan. After careful review, I learned it is entirely possible to accidentally transmit out of band or mode if you are not careful. For example, in the US the 2m band ends at 148 MHz, but in Japan the band ends at 146 MHz. So in theory, an operator with a US radio could accidentally transmit on a forbidden frequency.

It’s also important to note that the calling frequencies are different for all bands and that some bands have dedicated emergency communications frequencies. Thankfully, the translated Japanese Band Plan covers these extensively.

Planning the Activations

I started planning my activations by setting the goal of activating at least one SOTA summit and POTA park. I figured I’d gain the experience of doing both to see how they differ from what I’m used to in the US (and writing this blog post).

For this trip, we mainly stayed with our friend in Tokyo, so I was limited to the summits and parks near the city. To start, I figured I’d take a look at the POTA map since Tokyo is a flat city (read as, no SOTA summits to be found within the city itself), so worst case, I’d only do a POTA activation.

Much to my delight, I learned that Tokyo has 146 POTA parks within the city alone… and best of all… they are accessible via Tokyo’s public transportation system! Overwhelmed with all the options, I figured the best thing to do next is to try and see which nearby parks had the most space and activation count. I figured that would improve my odds of activating without any issues.

To be honest, my main concern was putting up an antenna in a park which I’m not allowed to in, or folks approaching me to ask what I’m doing, only to run into a language barrier issue. After looking through several options, I landed on Yoyogi Park JA-1255. The park was near where I was staying, fairly large, and had almost 100 activations. 

Next was planning the SOTA activation. Since there are no SOTA summits in the city proper, it meant I would have to travel a little to get to one.

Coming from Los Angeles, one of the most car-centric cities in the world, I did not expect to find that most Tokyo residents (including my friend) don’t own a car. Renting one is an option, but I figured it’s not worth the effort. Especially since Japan drives on the left hand side of the road – which I’m not used to. That meant driving to a trailhead was out of the question for this trip. Thankfully, that wasn’t as much of a problem as I initially thought.

Looking through the SOTA map, I found several trailheads to the east of the city that are easily accessible via train/bus and short walk. Again, I looked at the activation count to get a sense of what is attainable and found Mt. Arashiyama JA/KN-032. The summit had 84 activations with a relatively easy 762ft gain across 2.25mi and the trailhead is a 15 minute walk away from the train station. The only downside was that the train ride itself was about an hour and a half away from Tokyo. But as those who do SOTA know, the commute to the trailhead is part of the journey. (I think there’s something wrong with us.)


With a game plan settled, it was time to configure the kit. One important thing to note here is that when I submitted my paperwork to apply for the license, I forgot to include the radio make/model I planned to use (required for the application process). Thankfully, Waka-san registered the ICOM IC-705, an HF/UHF/VHF all mode transceiver (which I so happen to have). This afforded me the flexibility to work a wide range of bands and maximized my odds of having a successful activation.

With the radio figured out, I thought to pair it with a portable antenna that strikes a good balance between volume/mass and performance. My hope was to cover 10/15/20m for DX and 40m for working locals, so naturally I gravitated towards my trusted K6ARK End Fed Half Wave EFHW with an added load coil, making it resonant on 10/15/20/40m. I like to use this antenna in an inverted-V configuration using a 7.2m fishing pole. Since I had one shot at each activation, I figured it would be wise to pack a back up antenna just in case something broke mid-transport, so I also decided to pack my Elecraft AX1 vertical whip antenna and T1 tuner.

For CW paddles, I couldn’t resist packing my recently acquired Ashi Paddle 45 from Mr. Haraguchi 7L4WVU in Japan. Only seemed fitting! Finally, I thought to print out copies of my US and Japanese ham radio license, and a translated note describing ham radio, SOTA, and POTA just in case someone asked what I was doing.

Packing List:

[Note: All Amazon links are affiliate and support at no cost to you.]

Welcome to Japan

As soon as we landed in Japan and settle in at our friend’s apartment, we couldn’t help but go out for a nice bowl of warm ramen at Ichiran. It was a cold night, I was jet lagged, and this was exactly the “reset button” my body needed to adjust to the new timezone. I slept like a log that night. Highly recommend. 

Since this was my first time in the country, I tried my best to absorb as much of the food and culture as possible. From the Yakitori, to the Tonkatsu, to all the various Japanese curries, and Onigiri, I was glad to be walking around the city to burn off all the calories I was consuming. Everything we ate tasted incredible!

One of the first orders of business was to visit Akihabara, the electronic town I had heard so much about. Walking through shops, I found every possible component imaginable. Want a transformer? There’s a small shop that has every variant you can think of. LEDs? There’s a shop with a selection that will make you see floating dots when you close your eyes. It was like living in a Digi-Key or Mouser warehouse.

Walking through streets and multi-story markets, I was constantly running into small radio shops. Some selling commercial radios, many selling various ham radios and ham radio accessories. One golden nugget I found was a shop that sells home-brew radios, one of which was a 47.1GHz Transverter! Where else are you going to find something like that for sale in a shop?!

One last stop in Akihabara was Rocket Ham Radio, one of the largest ham radio shops in Japan (think HRO in the US). I couldn’t help myself from buying a 2m/70cm whip antenna for my IC-705 for portable VHF and UHF operations while in town. Would feel wrong leaving without buying *something*!

POTA Activation and Logging

POTA activation day was finally here, and much to my delight, Mr. Haraguchi (7L4WVU) reached out to say he was available to meet me at Yoyogi Park for a joint activation.

Arriving at the park, Mr. Haraguchi suggested to meet at Hill Plaza, the highest point with in the park. This area also happened to be further away from foot traffic. Ideal for setting up my EFHW. As I approached the hill, I found Mr. Haraguchi with one of his home-brew rigs running FT8. He had a vertical whip antenna and counterpoise setup and was working stations on 40m. I couldn’t help but gush over his rig. Small and compact, with a cool 90’s style clear case, I was blown away to learn he was only transmitting at 100mW while cranking out contacts left and right.

We had a really nice chat and I asked where he would recommend for me to setup. We picked a spot not too far from him and I got to work deploying my fishing pole and EFHW. In the process of doing this, I could see by his reaction that he was not expecting my setup to take up so much room. Although it did not attract the attention of the park staff, a group of folks walked by and asked what we were doing. Since I don’t speak Japanese, I was fortunate to have Mr. Haraguchi around to describe POTA and ham radio. After he explained what we were doing, their eyes lit up with excitement! It was a very sweet moment.

I later learned that setting up large antennas in parks isn’t really that common. Most folks in Tokyo will setup smaller antennas to operate. Think compact whip antennas or mag loops instead of DX Commanders or giant fishing poles.

With the antenna setup and my gear ready to go, it was time to start my first log as JJ0XMS. I opened the HAMRS app and created a new “profile” (found under menu->profile->manage profiles) for my Japanese callsign, then selected it as the ‘active’ profile so that the OPERATOR field in the ADIF log file gets auto-populated with the correct call. This will be important later when we upload logs.

First, I figured I’d start with the 15m band since many of my US friends in the west coast were waiting for me to activate. The timing was perfect too. It was morning in Japan and evening in the US. Optimal conditions. Right out the gate, my first two QSO’s were my good friends Rob (K6KM) and Justin (K5EM)! It’s always nice to hear familiar calls, but now with extra QSB! I got two more QSOs, this time with stations in Japan, but it wasn’t the pileup I was expecting that day.

Mr. Haraguchi then suggested 40m. I figured that’s a good idea, work the locals! What didn’t expect was the waterfall as soon as I tuned over…

The spectrum on my IC-705 was absolutely LIT. UP.

For a moment, I thought I had messed up a setting or punched in the wrong frequency, but no, 40m was actually THAT busy in Japan. As my buddy Scott AK5SD pointed out “Japan has 89% the land mass of California, yet over 2x the number of hams compared to the entire US. Makes sense that 40M NVIS is hot. Fun fact, Tokyo has about the same population as all of California (about 38 million).” Mind blowing stuff!

As soon as I snapped out of my amazement, I dialed around 7.062MHz where I normally hangout while activating on CW, but instead heard SSB! Confused, I referenced the Japanese Band Plan and found that above 7.045MHz, phone is allowed. Mr. Haraguchi recommended going below that and calling CQ. So I gave that a try. 

What I experienced next was the most overwhelming pileups I have ever had. Every time I called CQ, I was met with a slurry of calls all coming back to me at the exact same time. To make matters worse, I was jet lagged and all the calls were foreign, so it felt like playing “pile up the video game” on hard mode. Alas, I persevered and bagged 28 contacts. Feeling accomplished, it was time to QRT and move on. I was very gracious that Mr. Haraguchi not only took time out of his day to meet up, but also for showing me how to operate in Japan.

Before parting ways, we had an unscheduled gift exchange. I had brought some TinyPaddles with me from the states to give him, and he had brought one of his Ashi Paddle 45 keys with a built-in memory auto-keyer. Super nifty for rigs without memory or for folks looking to have quick access to memory buttons. Brilliant design!

After getting back to the apartment, it was time to upload logs. At first I thought I might need to make a new POTA account, but that was thankfully not necessary. As mentioned earlier, my logging app populated the OPERATOR field with JJ0XMS (after creating a separate profile in the app), so all I had to do was log into my POTA account as N6ARA, upload the ADIF file, and let the upload tool automatically count it under my account! Too easy!

SOTA Activation and Logging

With my confidence built up, it was time to head into the mountains for a SOTA activation.

In order to make it to the summit of Mt. Arashiyama by 10am, my morning had to start around 6am. Unsurprisingly, doing this activation on a weekday meant I got to experience Tokyo rush hour since everyone was headed to work. Trains were fairly packed as I started my day on the Saikyo Line, followed by a transfer to the Chou Line. From there it was an hour and half train ride into the mountains east of Tokyo.

The train carts thinned out as we got further and further away from the city center, but remained quite crowded. Hopping off at Sagamiko Station, I found my way to the nearest Family Mart (a convenience store that’s actually convenient and good!) to grab an Onigiri snack and warm drink for the summit.

After a short 15 minute walk across the Sagami Dam, I found myself at the north-west trailhead of the summit. The trail starts with concrete steps, but that quickly turns into a dirt trail surrounded by amazing trees and views of the neighboring mountains. 

The entire trail was very well maintained and marked. And although I had loaded my phone with offline maps and tracks using Gaia GPS, I could have just as easily hiked it by following the trail and checking the signs along the way.

The climb itself was very easy, just watch out for the slippery leaves on the ground. At the summit I found a nice Shinto shrine and stunning view of the Sagami River.

The weather was clear and I was fortunate enough to spot Mount Fuji in the distance. Up until now I hadn’t seen anyone else along the trail, so I decided to setup my EFHW antenna to the side of the trail, but well within the Activation Zone. I took a moment to have my snack before activating because I knew the second I turn that radio on, I’d be hooked on making contacts and would forget to eat. I also took a second to absorb the moment and the peacefulness of the summit. 

It was time to get started. I again opened the HAMRS app, verified my profile was set to “JJ0XMS”, then opened a new SOTA log as I normally do.

With the SOTA 10m Challenge going on this year, I felt it was only appropriate to make this summit count towards it, so I started on 10m and worked my way to 40m.

Fittingly, I made contact with Waka-san JG0AWE, the person who made this all possible. After many TU’s and greetings, I worked a few more stations until the band dried up. Next, I tried 20m where I got to work my “callsign buddy” Hojoong DS1TUW. Hojoong also acquired his Japanese reciprocal callsign at the same time as me and received the callsign JJ0XMT! He was a few weeks away from visiting Japan with his new call, so we missed the opportunity for a Summit-to-Summit and JJ0XMS-to-JJ0XMT QSO. Alas, next time! 

Finally, I tuned to 40m and got yet another massive pile up. This time around, the pile up was so intense, I genuinely struggled to make contacts. Purely relying on random letters I heard on the outer edges of the pile up’s gaussian curve, I managed to bag 32 QSO’s before having to QRT. I felt awful leaving the pile up, but I didn’t want to be late to the next thing on our itinerary. I was deeply humbled by the number of folks calling me and I promised myself to allocate more time for 40m next time. 

After getting back, I exported the ADIF log from HAMRS, logged into my SOTA account like I normally do and uploaded the log. The system automatically recognized the Japanese callsign in the OPERATOR field and counted the activation towards my N6ARA SOTA account. Again, too easy!


Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had the friendly support from the Japanese community and the opportunity to activate POTA and SOTA in Japan. I’m already planning the next trip. I have set my sights set on activating Mount Fuji, an unrelenting two day hike, and various SOTA summits in the Nagano prefecture with Waka-san JG0AWE. That entire region is just FULL of 8-10 point summits! 

As for lessons learned, I would suggest the following for those planning a POTA/SOTA-cation in Japan:

First, 40m is the magic band. Bring a portable 40m whip antenna. For POTA especially, space may be limited and you may not be allowed to setup large antennas. With the high density of hams in Japan, you could easily knock out 10 contacts on 40m from anywhere. If you’re anticipating a large pile up, maybe consider running split.

Second, you may have noticed, all my QSO’s were CW. No phone. Other than working DX, most locals on the air and repeaters speak Japanese to one another. I tried calling CQ on 70cm during my SOTA activation, but quickly ran into a language barrier issue with the other station as they were not aware of SOTA and thought I was trying to make an emergency call (and I confirmed I wasn’t on an emergency frequency). After that experience, I figured it’s best to stick to CW for now or possibly learn a little Japanese for my next trip. That said, it doesn’t hurt to try calling CQ in English on a clear frequency to see if anyone calls you back. Lots of folks do speak English, I think just got spooked out after that first attempt.

Finally, if you are visiting but don’t plan to activate, it’s always fun to bring a shortwave radio for listening. I had a great time tuning around at night listening for foreign stations and music. 

Overall, Japan was an amazing place to visit. I loved everything about it.  I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the country and nature.

16 thoughts on “SOTA and POTA in Japan: Ara combines travel and radio with a little help from friends”

  1. Ara,

    Great write up and excellent advice, thanks for sharing your experiences. And congratulations on your successful activations! I’m jealous of your radio shop visits…looked like fun.


  2. Excellent account, thanks. I visited Tokyo many years ago (before I was licensed) and found the people to be very polite and friendly (except perhaps on the subway during commuter hours). I was there for 5 weeks and had the chance to travel outside the city (by train), including the Mount Fuji area. A visit to Akihabara alone is worth the trip! Enjoy your next visit and please post the report again.

  3. Very fun read and great write up! I’ve heard how the number of hams is continually dropping in Japan, but obviously there are a heck of a lot more per square mile there than here. Makes sense the bands would look so different on the waterfall.

    My only time there was unfortunately only a layover on the way to Malaysia while in the military. So wanted to leave the airport terminal.

  4. This is a great post!

    I started a ‘Ham Radio Will Travel’ Facebook group in hopes of sharing, for others to learn from, on obtaining permission to operate in other parts of the world.

    I take my KX2 when ever i travel and have had encountered a range of experiences in getting operating permission. I’d like to create a place for all this information to be shared by shamelessly promoting my facebook page and encourage other to post copies of their experiences here.

  5. Great report Ara! I just bumped Japan up a few slots on my bucket list of countries to travel to. Thanks for taking the time to share this story and all the insights. Must be fun to operate with Japanese hams.

    vy 73 Leo

  6. I’m really happy that you’ve come to like Japan. Reading your words, I could imagine the excitement on your face.(^^)/

  7. Thank you for sharing this adventure. A beautiful write-up and compellingly described. Vicarious portable ham radio operating at its best!

  8. Great post! I went to Japan last year but I didn’t apply for a Japanese callsign, I was mostly worried about moving my 705 or even a small HT through customs and security controls at airports. Did you have any issue with that?

    I went to Rocket and some other shops, amazing places, but very dangerous for the wallet 😉

    1. Thanks! I was worried about customs and airport security as well, but I didn’t have any issues. I think it’s because I put my gear and backpack inside my checked luggage (and padded it with clothes to keep it safe from damage). I figured worst case, they’d open it up and find the translated letter describing ham radio/POTA/SOTA and probably not bother calling me. Seems to have worked out this time!

  9. the street with all the electronic components reminded me of my youth when “radio row” and canal street down in NYC was THE place for an aspiring new ham to go to get anything imaginable!
    glad to see that such places still exist!

  10. I’ll be traveling to Japan in October and want to bring one or two radios along for a POTA and possibly a SOTA activation.

    The application looks straight forward enough except one thing: Item 6 a Japanese mailing address. What did you put down for a local address? Can I use a hotel address?

    1. Ah, great question! I asked Mr. Ken Yamamoto (JA1CJP) at JARL and he confirmed that non-residents can use the JARL HQ office as the postal address for Item 6.

      Have a great time in Japan. You’re going to love it!

  11. What an interesting report and lots of useful information! Thank you very much! I saw many trees in the parks, I would try to throw a thin magnet wire on a branch to avoid taking the fishing rod. It is my big dream to visit Japan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.