Travel

The safe thrills of indoor skydiving come to Kanto

by Kathryn Wortley

Special To The Japan Times

With the call of “Standby!” the butterflies in my stomach start to dance.

Effortlessly, my instructor, Kazuki Suzuki, steps out. As I follow him, letting go of the doorway, the sheer force of the wind takes my breath away. All I can do is gulp air. Flight suit billowing and cheeks jiggling, I try to adjust to this remarkable, indescribable feeling of weightlessness.

Within seconds, adrenaline kicks in and I recall the pose I need to adopt; it was carefully explained by Suzuki during pre-flight training. By straightening my legs and holding my head up, I’m soon steady, but keeping my arms up and out proves tricky. Luckily, Suzuki is by my side, guiding me.

“Relax,” he says, using one of the pre-decided hand signals for in-flight communication.

It’s easier said than done, but a group of well-wishers help me to feel at home; their enthusiastically proffered thumps-up and smiling faces are mere meters away, on the other side of the glass — because this skydive happens to be indoors.

I’m at FlyStation Japan, in a transparent wind tunnel 4.5 meters across and 19.8 meters high, which is about as tall as a six-story building.

As it’s my debut outing, I’m flying low. Suzuki tenses his muscles to stand beside me on a trampoline-like net, below which lie the powerful engines that turn the chamber into a gigantic fan. Technical crew in an adjacent booth look on while monitoring a bank of screens and dials, carefully ensuring that the wind speed is appropriate for my body size and ability. They give me a friendly smile that I try to return, but my facial expressions are at the mercy of the wind.

Supported by the force of the air, I move around the space, flying left and right, in circles and back to the center.

Suzuki lowers me to mere centimeters from the floor before bringing me up again, holding me down with a hand on my back when I stray above his eye level. Frequent visitors or experienced skydivers can regulate their position in the tunnel easily by moving their body in various ways. First-timers, however, focus simply on keeping their bodies straight — to remain stable — and on enjoying the ride.

It’s a truly exhilarating experience to feel so light and free. Toward the end of my second two-minute flight, Suzuki takes his feet off the net and gets into a horizontal position to bring us up to the second floor. The free fall, which simulates an outdoor jump from 4,000 meters, is a feeling like no other. Like a bird, I see the ground below as I fall and, remarkably, I can rise to float alongside a few spectators on the building’s upstairs observation area.

I leave the flight zone invigorated and elated, bouncing along as I get used to being back on the ground. Though I feel like I’ve done a workout, I’m not tired, but perhaps that’s due to the excitement of the experience.

Each day FlyStation welcomes 40 to 50 people, and I completely understand why many are repeat customers. It’s an ultimate high-octane sport, yet with extreme safety measures that offer peace of mind and make it possible for anyone with good general health — even children aged 4 and over — to participate.

According to Natsuki Kato, marketing manager for FlyStation Japan, the company’s main target audience is families. Some 40 percent of its customers are in their 30s or 40s, and many of them bring their children so that everyone can fly together. As I return my stylish navy and pink flight suit, I spot a rack of tiny, cute “Superman” flight suits that I’m sure would delight any parent, not to mention the kids.

Among other regular users is the small but growing community of skydivers in the Kanto area as well as other local residents who aspire to learn and enjoy indoor skydiving as a new sport.

On the day of my visit I meet Hiroyuki Iida, a skydiver with 25 years of experience who lives in Tokyo, about 30 minutes by car from the facility on the edge of AEON LakeTown mall in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture. Since FlyStation opened in April this year, Iida has logged 30 hours of flight over about 60 visits.

“It’s a little bit different from skydiving because you have to go up the tunnel before falling down, but it’s great,” he says. “I come mainly to train and also for fun.”

Flying after him were Lucy and Brianna from Houston, Texas, who were on vacation in Japan to climb Mount Fuji. After reaching the summit, the young thrill seekers were keen to check out how FlyStation compares to the indoor skydiving facility back home, where they are instructors. They were not disappointed, and noted the spacious observation area and cafe for pre- or post-flight relaxation and socializing, which they considered particularly important due to the supportive and friendly nature of the skydiving community.

CEO of FlyStation Japan Nadezda Inoue, who donned her flight suit to show me some acrobatic moves in the wind tunnel, believes the facility offers not only a great training ground but also a practical alternative to outdoor skydiving, where barriers can include bad weather, high costs and the difficulty of group-based experiences, not to mention the all-or-nothing requirement of jumping from a plane.

A former instructor of Tokyo Skydiving Club, Inoue recognizes the potential of FlyStation to attract complete newcomers who want to experience skydiving in a safe and fun environment or learn the sport through the coaching program offered by the flight school.

Marketing manager Kato is also eyeing the corporate market for team-building events or private-event hires. A group package of 20 flights for ¥58,500 on weekdays includes use of the upstairs VIP room, where guests can hold business meetings or club meet-ups either before or after flying.

Kato is enthused with the facility’s average review of 4.9 out of 5 on Facebook. In fact, such is the reception that a second facility is scheduled to open in western Tokyo in 2019.

Plans are also underway to offer an English-language website and telephone operator, as all information and reservations are currently only available in Japanese. However, there are some English-speaking staff, and I received my pre-flight training with the help of an English-language interpreter.

The company also wants to expand a social project that began at its headquarters in St. Petersburg, Russia, which provides free goodwill flights for children with hearing or sight impairments, cerebral palsy, cancer, autism, Down syndrome and musculoskeletal disorders. After a series of flights, the children have shown improved fitness, mobility, confidence and resilience.

“It makes them so happy,” explains Kato, who points out that while such children have many difficulties in their daily lives, when flying they can simply relax and enjoy the experience. “The children’s muscles are also being moved and stimulated by the wind, so they get great exercise that might have been difficult without weightlessness.”

Older people, too, have been feeling the benefits. To date, the eldest customer at FlyStation is an 85-year-old man who “loved the experience.”

“Most first-time visitors say that the flying was fun but more difficult than they thought it would be,” says my instructor, Suzuki, post-flight, as I nod in agreement. Suzuki is one of 13 instructors at FlyStation who can each boast at least 30 hours of flight training in the tunnel.

“I like sports and I like heights,” he says, explaining why he applied for the role. Though indoor skydiving was new to him when he accepted the role of instructor in October 2016, he has since been trained by some of the best professional skydiving instructors from Russia, who visited Japan in the pre-launch phase. He’s now a whizz at not only teaching but also doing many complicated poses individually and with others.

“My favorite pose is curving, whereby my head is down in the center of the tunnel and I spiral around,” he says, adding that he has learned how to move his body to control his speed, direction and shape.

Post-flight, watching the professionals in the tunnel as they join arms to form tight circles before spinning up and down at speed and then do handstands, I can’t help but wonder how they do it. It looks so easy, like dancing in the air.

The best thing is that, unlike many sports, you don’t have to be skilled to enjoy it. With a great instructor like Suzuki, anyone can try indoor skydiving and leave with a lasting top-of-the-world feeling, even after your muscles become sore the following day.

From Shinjuku, take the JR Saikyo Line Rapid train for Kawagoe. Change to the JR Musashino Line at Musashi-Urawa before alighting at Koshigaya-Laketown. A starter package of two one-minute flights including use of flight wear is ¥9,000 on weekdays or ¥12,600 on weekends and holidays. Beginners must fly with an instructor; skydivers with at least one hour of flight time can fly alone or with up to six others, at the discretion of instructors. Groups of up to 10 can standby together or in turn. For more see flystation.jp (Japanese).