A loud and clear voice fills the participants in from far away: Last team standing, three minutes, no zombies. He counts down – three, two, one – go. Your team leaves the home zone. One of your two team members, decorated with an unnecessary amount of gear, rushes to the strategically valuable lookout offering a nice view of the entire left half of the field. A helmet is placed on top of the tunnel running under the lookout as decoration. Maybe you could try putting it on? No, you’d lose precious seconds and be vulnerable without the BB gun in your hand. Also, it would not help a thing: This game we are playing makes use of the honor system, where people who get hit have to raise a hand, call out “HIT!” and leave the playing field.
You make your way to the other team’s home zone at the far end of the field. Without a doubt, the first clashes will break out before you come anywhere close. You look up to the ceiling, where beams and ventilation pipes shine weakly.
We are in “Heavens”, the only indoor Airsoft Field in Sendai. It is located in the basement of the Forus Department Store, tucked away opposite of the concert venue “Junk Box”. Next to the Chinese restaurant and the large Karaoke establishment that are also found here, it stands out as the only facility of its kind in Sendai. Another “Heavens” is found in Natori, some 20 minutes by car south of Sendai.
Walking through the entrance corridor, framed by walls decorated with camouflage gear on the left and a target range on the right, visitors will be greeted by Myohei Sakowaki at the reception, a Kumamoto native who has been working here for over a year after frequenting the field as a player. The location itself is only two years old, but already boasts a tightly knit community.
“Two in the left corner!” Your teammate at the lookout has made visual contact. The first plastic bullets fly over the field, hit obstacles and walls. No hit so far. Where is the last guy? You stay low and peek around the corner. Another exchange of bullets – “HIT!” One of the enemy team members comes into sight with hands raised to leave the field. Game Over for him. You take a deep breath, raise your gun and rush to the next set of wooden walls.
Whether or not the Airsoft installation itself or the location in the middle of the city, right next to the Disney Store, the most popular meeting spot in Sendai, is the bigger surprise, is up for discussion. One thing, though, can be said: While the legislation for real firearms in Japan might just be one of the strictest in the world, a lack of such rules for fake “BB Guns” leaves enough room to move around in more or less freely. Some players attach lasers, flashlights or silencers to their guns. They dress up in outfits that look authentic to the layman and even carry fake knives that serve no purpose at all on the field. Anything to get more out of the experience.
Heavens offers a rental service for gloves, a facemask and the gun itself. Myohei takes a couple of minutes to explain the rules of the game to any newcomer. No guerilla shooting i.e. sticking your gun around a corner and shooting without looking, no zombie play i.e. taking more than one bullet, and of course no alcohol on the field. Magazines have to be removed in the entrance area for safety reasons. All this serves to create a surprisingly controlled environment, outside and on the field. That is not to say players get off lightly. The plastic bullets can hit some sensitive parts of the body, and at that point they will get a reaction from you. It serves to have players experience an immersive atmosphere with a light seasoning of dread, regardless of the equipment. After all, all it takes is one well-placed shot.
“HIT!” Your lookout leaves the field. On the way to the net marking the field entrance, you see him shaking his head. Your remaining team member is standing maybe five, ten meters away from you behind a door complete with peeping hole. He gestures you to move further down into enemy territory. You nod and make a ducked dash for it, gun gripped tightly with both hands in front of you.
Everything happens very fast in Heavens. Before you reach the next safe spot in the middle of the field, a human shadow is thrown onto the wooden wall closing the spot off from plain sight. There is not enough time to retreat anywhere, so instead you decide to make use of the element of surprise that is still on your side. Your steps speed up, together with your heartbeat. A figure dressed in black comes into sight – you give off one, two, three shots without thinking – they all miss, ricocheting from the wall behind the other player - he raises his gun. You take a breath, hold it and give off three more shots. “HIT!” The other player lowers his gun and leaves the field. One more to go.
Depending on the number of people playing, more game modes become available. Modes such as “Spies”, where a member of the Heavens staff gives a signal at one point, after which a previously chosen member in both teams who acts as the spy throws off his disguise to fall in the back of his unsuspecting non-team-members; or “Terminator”, where one player in the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger fights to protect an item that two opposing teams have to find and bring back to their own base. The Terminator is invincible - he will always be back.
The different dynamics of the game modes change the entire flow of a match: when you thought all your opponents to be in front of you, all of a sudden, you also have to take care of your back.
The last opponent is always tough. He had sneaked around the back, picking both you and your teammate off with a bullet to the back. How he did it, you will never know. The only lesson to be learnt from this round is to keep your eyes and ears peeled open. On the way back to the changing rooms, where the ammo is stored, players from both teams laugh and talk about new spots to hide. After reloading magazines, the next round starts.