As our time here is winding down, Tara and I have been trying to enjoy Japan as much as we can. There are many things that we love about Japan that we're trying to enjoy or buy for the last time (hot springs, sushi, ramen, bentos, photo booths, etc.) . There are other Japanese experiences that we have missed out on that we are doing for the first time before leaving. One example of this is PACHINKO!
Pachinko is a gambling game invented in Nagoya (the city Tara and I first lived in when we moved to Japan). The machines are a colourful mix between pinball machines and slot machines. When we first arrived in Japan and walked around in the evenings, we thought "Wow, there are so many bright lights. The night life must be so exciting here! There's so much to do!" But it didn't take us long to realize that most of those bright lights are attatched to pachinko parlours, and pachinko parlours are full of smoking, gambling, pachinko-zombies. When you walk past the entrance of a pachinko parlour the automatic doors slide open, and your senses are instantly overwhelmed. The smell is mostly smoke, but it's mixed with the smell of despairing sweat and crushed dreams. The sound is absolutely deafening - thousands and thousands of tiny metal balls pouring down through the machines, and a myriad of electronic dings and blips and voices shouting praises and encouragements. The sights - blinding lights, smiling winking animated characters, endless rows of flashing machines, and of course...
ALL THE HAPPY PEOPLE!!! Look, they're so happy they can't even smile. Rows of people completely mesmerized by the pachinko balls.
The Pachinko Machine
The pachinko machine is mostly made of meaningless distracting cartoons on a screen, or physical moving characters (like on old pinball machines). My machine featured a bikini clad girl swimming around with sea creatures, while Tara's machine sported some characters from The Mask who called out Jim Carrey lines at random. The main goal is to land the metal ball bearings in a hole. This is done by turning the knob on the lower right side of the machine to control the speed at which the balls shoot across the top of the machine. As the balls drop down the face of the machine they bounce off an arrangement of pegs and either fall into the intended hole, or (more likely) drop into the bottom of the machine where you can watch your money rapidly roll away. The more balls that land in the correct place, the more chances you get to spin the cards (or sea creatures) on screen - this part works like a slot machine. If you line up 3 of the same symbols you enter SUPER LUCKY MODE!!! Now you must land the balls in a separate hole, and doing so wins you.... MORE BALLS!
Don't understand? That's ok, neither do I. The whole experience was very confusing.
My First Pachinko Experience
The best way to experience pachinko is to have a veteran player explain the game to you. My friend Miho's dad goes to pachinko almost every day. When we sat down at the machines he stuck a coin under the knob so that it would stay in place when turned. He also started showing me sweet spots on the machine to rub or touch in order to increase my luck. I was confused about this and tried to ask why I should push all these different points on the machine, but it's so deafeningly loud inside that the conversation just went like this: I would point to "the sweet spot" and give a confused look asking "Why?" and Miho's dad would nod and smile. This went on for about ten minutes as my first 1000 yen (roughly $12 Canadian right now) of balls rolled away into the dark abyss of the machine. Later when I asked Miho about these sweet spots ("Do they affect speed or the angle of the balls?" I guessed) she laughed and explained that they are just the superstitions of old guys who spend too much time in pachinko parlours.
I did end up being super lucky though! After having lost 1500 yen with no pay offs at all, Miho convinced me to put another 500 yen into the machine and try once more. Next thing I knew, the bikini girl was going crazy! She was swimming all over the place, and the sea creatures just kept lining up in matching sets of 3, time after time. The machine called out "SUUUUPER LUCKYYYYYYY!!!!!" and my tray of balls grew into a small mountain of balls. Actually, I ended up with 3 full trays, and when we finished a man came over with a little wheely cart to help me transport my treasure.
The pay-out system used at pachinko parlours is probably the funniest part of the whole experience. Gambling for money is When I cashed in my balls I received a ticket that could be redeemed for chocolates, snacks, or small coloured pieces of plastic containing tiny pieces of silver heart-shaped jewellery. You can't take the jewellery out of the plastic case, so why would you want such an odd prize? Because out behind the pachinko parlour there is a booth with a person who buys trinkets at different rates depending on the colour of plastic. It's an odd and hilarious loop-hole in the system - the police realize that this goes on all over the country, but for some reason they've decided to just let it continue. So, in the end I walked away with 3000 yen, after putting 2000 into the machines. It was ... interesting.