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Dead reckoning in the haunts of Honancho

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Halloween in Tokyo rarely gets scarier than the price of imported pumpkins, but I’ve heard that Honancho — a terminal station on the Marunouchi subway line — hosts an uber-spooky obakeyashiki (ghost house). Navigating the station’s dank, barely-lit stairwell at Exit 2, I’m already apprehensive.

At the top of the stairs, I find a little shop of horrors, Detatoco (literally: “Where You Emerged”), selling what appears to be bottled blood. Detatoco’s manager, Katsunobu Endo, 34, explains that the bottles are actually sloshing with fresh tomato juice.

“Our place generally offers all kinds of organic produce, but today, there’s a special event,” he says, brushing fake cobwebs aside. He hands me a flyer advertising “Walking Dead” — a local zombie-themed happening, inspired by the eponymous U.S. TV series and arranged in collusion with Fox Studios Japan.

Endo’s enthusiasm is infectious, so when he offers to guide me to Obaken, the “ghost house” sponsors of the event, I lurch after him. We go trick-or-trekking past a rickety wooden yatai (food cart) — “A cool place to eat at night,” Endo remarks — and through a zombie-free neighborhood. After crossing Kanda River, we stop in front of a condominium, unremarkable except for the fact that there are lines of people — the waiting dead? — outside.

Endo explains that this is Obaken, a high-tech, handmade horror house, with themes and timed escape challenges that change every few months. The customers lining up today have come to see a special zombie version of Obaken’s current attraction, “Six Exits.”

Endo introduces me to Shobo Yoshizawa, the game planner and sole creative director of Obaken’s productions. Yoshizawa, 36, and his partner Takeru Hibi, 35, are co-directors of Happy Life Co., a 10-member team with film production and editing experience, currently dedicated to a wide variety of zombie-related enterprises. “We started with a mission to bring life to the Honancho area,” Yoshizawa says, with no hint of irony.

Yoshizawa agrees to give me an insider’s peak at the horror house. “Six Exits is sort of like starring in the movie ‘Saw,’ ” he explains. “The idea is to enter a room, nail the challenge within the time limit, then move to the next room. There are six rooms in all.” What if I run out of time? “You die. Players can buy extra ‘revenge’ time,” he says, “and so far, no one’s cleared the game without extending.” It’s that hard? Yoshizawa nods.

Without further ado, we enter room one, a grim concrete dungeon, with handcuffs chained to a wall. “Writers know all about constraints,” I joke, in a vain attempt to distract Yoshizawa as he clicks the heavy, authentic cuffs around my wrists. “These are real,” he smiles. “We get them on eBay.” Then he leaves and the room goes dark.

On a TV screen overhead, a man on the verge of hysteria urges me to unlock the cuffs immediately and run. But I can’t see a thing with the pathetic flashlight provided for the game. I try not to dwell on the fact that I’m in a horror house, outside of its operating hours, somewhere in suburbia, chained to the wall by someone I just met. I start a mildly panicked search for the key, knocking over skulls and stuff. This goes on for a while, until Yoshizawa eventually takes pity on me. Utilizing a hidden emergency door, he hands me the key, charmingly tethered to a severed body part (think Vincent van Gogh).

Through exit one, I find a cramped and complex maze in total darkness. After flailing around at a several dead-ends, I get the hair scared off me by Yoshizawa, who pops out, and then disappears into the darkness again, chuckling to himself.

At the entrance to room two, I learn from Yoshizawa that in order to jack up the terror with precise timing, or to rescue guests who want out, Obaken staff monitor every move with surveillance cameras. So, has Yoshizawa spied any shenanigans in the rooms? “All the time,” he laughs.

Room two is nothing to laugh about. It’s a plasma-splattered horror set with convincing attention to detail. There’s a flayed skeleton, a sink of bone saws and a ghastly green fluorescent light. At a listening stand, you are instructed to don headphones, like at some music store listening station, then stand completely still. If you move, you’re dead. What you get is aural brutality — horrifying whispers and the sound of a woman being killed — and some cool physical effects. I don’t move, but the soundtrack leaves my knees wobbly. “Even guys sometimes give up here,” Yoshizawa says with unmistakable pride.

“People live pretty mundane lives,” Yoshizawa comments, as we fast track the next three rooms, “and this experience is completely new and cathartic. People return to their usual routines happier, I think.” Recalling each room so far, I realize they make subtle subtextual commentaries on our society: a skill crane (aka UFO catcher) in one room has body parts as prizes. Room six, however, simply messes with the brain: it’s beyond description.

Once outside again, the fresh October air floods me with relief. The jugular of Happy Life Co.’s business is zombie-related — including zombie camps in the countryside, a zombie mall and plans to open venues in Las Vegas — but they also have another event house nearby and Yoshizawa kindly escorts me there.

“Hen na Yokocho” (weird backstreet), as the locals call it, is just below Honancho’s largely pedestrian (in both meanings) shopping street. In a repurposed apartment complex, young entrepreneurs run small businesses and collaborate on thematic parties. Obaken’s smaller event space here is currently showing scary movies, but is scheduled to be a ninja horror house in the future.

The feel of the street is neo-retro — an updated take on Showa Era (1926-89) style. Professional zombies ooze out of a bar called Club Zombie and, at Pizzeria Akiccio Desica, chefs bake “zombie livers” (black dough calzones leaking marinara “blood”) and turn amputated potato “fingers” on the grill. Even the pizza offers a “deer-in-the-headlights” effect — it’s topped with free-range venison.

Gaggles of children run loose circles around a cosplay dude in a green Power Ranger suit. Didn’t he get the zombie memo? Yoshizawa shakes his head and introduces me to Tadahiro Kanemasu, better known as “Babycar Orosunja.” He’s a local hero who volunteers everyday to help moms schlep their baby strollers down to Honancho Station. “Honancho has no escalators or elevators,” Kanemasu explains. I check his biceps. “No muscles now,” he says. “They only appear when a mom is in need.” I ask Kanemasu why he chose to wear the green suit. “I’m a vegetarian,” he says, “so I like green. But on a deeper level? If people can’t see my face, they somehow don’t feel so embarrassed about being helped out.” Deep, I think, and sweet.

Talking to people happily milling around in zombie makeup, I learn that Kanemasu’s dedicated kindness has garnered international attention, and that he also runs Orosunja House, a rental space for kids and their moms and a second-hand shop for kids’ clothing. Local moms and children clearly adore him, but the men and zombies treat him like a hero, too.

I hate to leave the party, but waving farewell, but I head further down the hill from “Hen na Yokocho,” passing an Oinari shrine guarded by slightly emaciated foxes in red knit caps, and a pair of jizo (stone bodhisattva) statues. Huge wooden gates and a bamboo grove lures me to visit Tounji Temple (built circa 1573), which appears to have a flying saucer on its roof.

Over tea with Tounji’s affable priest, Akimichi Omura, and his wife, I chat about Honancho. The Omuras express concerns that the recent zombie invasion might attract unsavory people. I assure them the ghouls I’ve met seem incredibly nice, and dedicated to making the neighborhood a lively, viable and kid-friendly place. They nod, not entirely convinced. But when I change the subject, and ask about Tounji’s roof decoration, I hear a horror story that makes my hair stand on end.

According to priest Omura, Tounji’s roof decoration is actually an inverted iron cauldron. The story goes that long ago, before the 1600s, two small children — a boy, named Zushio, and a girl, Anju — were kidnapped from their parents, and sold into slave labor. When Zushio attempted to revolt, the cruel bailiff sentenced him to be boiled alive in a huge cauldron. However, a mysterious priest appeared and snatched Zushio from the scalding water, saving his life. Tounji now harbors a small wooden jizo statue that is said to have come to life to save Zushio. For this reason, Tounji — also affectionately known as Kamadera (cauldron temple) — sports a cooking pot on its roof, perhaps inverted so that it can no longer hold water. With protective spirits like this in the neighborhood, I think, zombies won’t be an issue.

Getting there: Honancho Station is located on the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line, roughly 11 minutes from Shinjuku. “Six Exits” runs through Nov. 2, after which Obaken will close for several weeks for a new installation. As this is a small company, schedules can change; call for reservation or visit obakensan.com (Japanese only) for more information.