Bicycle races have been around for a long time, but did you know that the first cycle races designed for wagering began in Japan? Keirin was developed in the post-war period by the Japanese government and although it’s now an official Olympic sport, the gamblers you’ll be mingling with are more likely to be chain smoking than doing push-ups in the velodrome aisles.
Intensity rating ★★★
They ain’t riding your grandma’s mama-chari: these cyclists top out at 70km/hr.
Kuu-chan the orange whale is the official mascot of the Japanese lottery and his smiling visage greets you from every one of the hundreds of lottery stalls that pepper the streets of Tokyo. Don’t let his smile mislead you though – the Japanese lottery is one of the toughest to win in the world, with a payout rate of only about 50 percent. Kuu-chan’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Intensity rating ★
Buy the ticket, take the ride. Nothing too special here.
In the mood for a board game but can’t find a foursome to play with? Walk into a mahjong parlour in Tokyo and the staff will match you up with a set of opponents the minute you step through the door. Originally from China, mahjong has become Japan’s most popular table game. The rules can take a little while to learn but the time is worth investing. You can meet some pretty interesting characters in these places – and walk away with their money!
Intensity rating ★★★★
The games are action-packed but also surprisingly safe. Wagers are kept low by the parlours, which make money off the amount of time you play, not the money you lose.
You see it everywhere, from the suburbs to the centre of town, where it clusters around the major stations: pachinko is king in the land of Japanese gambling and it’s bigger than you think. Those loud, flashy, smoky parlours that look (and smell!) like Pleasure Island on steroids number nearly 12,000 nationwide and the industry has annual sales of almost 20 trillion yen. The most amazing thing about the game may be that it’s actually beatable. Professional pachinko players can make a consistent income – but they take quite a pounding to their senses in the process.
Intensity rating ★★★
Most people can expect more damage to their hearing than their wallet, but pachinko’s sensory overload has been known to seduce patrons into full-blown addiction.
Japan has no casinos – at least, none that are openly spoken about. Foreign investors have been speculating about the introduction of Vegas-style casinos for over a decade, but if you’re willing to venture off the beaten bath you may just chance upon one of the dozens of underground casinos rumoured to exist in Tokyo.
Intensity rating ★★★★★
Be careful, you may find more than you bargained for.