Pachinko parlours are Japan’s version of the bookies. Nobody boasts about spending the day there, but plenty of people do. In fact, you’ll usually see a line of people waiting for a parlour to open, based on the belief that some machines are luckier than others (and are usually placed nearer the door).
A pachinko machine resembles a cross between a pinball and a slot machine, and uses zillions of mini steel balls. Gaudily decorated, ear-splittingly noisy parlours are scattered all over Tokyo, from the bustling shopping areas to the hushed suburbs. If you enter a pachinko parlour and take in the cacophony of bleeps and whirrs, it will be hard to believe that the game is, technically, illegal. But it is. So there are a few hoops to jump through to circumvent the law. First, you need to buy a prepaid card from a machine near the entrance (so you’ll be gambling points rather than money). Slip your card into the slot, push the ball-eject button, turn the handle to flick the balls, and you’re rolling.
Now comes the tricky part. The balls have to land in the centre hole to start the numbers on the screen revolving. This is done by inching the handle back and forth to find the optimum setting. Once you’re satisfied the balls are going in (aim for at least ten hits every ¥500), wedge a coin into the handle to hold it in place and wait to win. In the meantime, you’re free to read a book, call a friend or write a short story. Any sudden ejaculation of steel balls means you’re a winner: cash them in or continue playing.
In the unlikely event that your machine pays out, you’ll have to carry your little balls to a desk where you can exchange them for a variety of prizes. The least enticing ones may look like taped-up lumps of rock, others may resemble gold bars. Opt for these ‘special prizes’ anyway, and take them to a small window somewhere off-premises (look on the counter for a map), where someone will repurchase them for yen. Winning at pachinko is largely a matter of luck, but there are some pointers. First, don’t just plonk yourself at any old machine. Instead, reconnoitre, suss out the parlour; see who’s winning, which machines haven’t paid out. Once you’ve picked, throw a pack of cigarettes into the trough to mark your spot – smoking is compulsory.
Most serious players believe the machines are rigged, sometimes in the player’s favour. You’ll notice that the people seated by the entrance are on incredible winning streaks. The battle for a door seat explains why you’ll see long lines of people waiting up to two hours each morning for the parlours to open.
The original version of this article appeared in Tokyo City Guide (edition 6)