February 12, 2009
An Addict’s Guide to Pachinko
The ins and outs of Japan's favorite pastime
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2009
1. I’m bored
2. I’m at a new train station
3. I’ve finished work
4. I’m flush
5. I’m broke
6. I have to wait for somebody at the station anyway
7. There’s an event happening
(Note: Applies equally to an alcoholic’s excuses to drink)
Garish blinking lights. Overwhelming noise. Suffocating smoke. Zombified patrons. For fresh-off-the-boat gaijin, the pachinko parlor is one of the first signs that Japan is, indeed, the strangest place on earth. Yet, more than anything else, pachinko is a drug, and like any drug it can be intimidating to try. You need to be shown how, and you need to be convinced you should. So, take our hand as we lead you to the highest of Japanese highs—and the lowest of lows.
First, you must understand the machine. Often described as “pinball turned vertical,” pachinko machines shoot small silver balls at a wicked pace. The balls cascade down, bouncing off and directed by a series of pins. Eventually, they drop toward bottom center, where there’s a hole protected on both sides by two small doors. When the doors are closed, one ball can slip through; when they’re open, three or more can. Most balls fall meaninglessly into the bottom of machine. Watching this parade is, for the most part, what has everyone so entranced. It’s the only thing besides choosing which machine to play that gives any control of the experience.
Play could not be simpler—or more deceptively difficult. Feed money into the top left of machine and press the button near the bin sticking out like a big bottom lip near the bottom; it will fill up with your balls. Grab the wheel at the bottom right with your right hand and twist.
Here’s the trick: the amount you twist controls the speed at which the balls shoot out the top. Tiny adjustments change the ball’s path as it bounces down through the pins. Your job is to find a sweet spot where the balls jump consistently into that little hole at the bottom. A good goal is 20 for every ¥1,000 you spend. If you’re consistently getting less than ten, you’ll want to stand up and take a little frustration-dampening stroll, lest you punch the machine and get tossed out. Seasoned addicts will jam a ¥5 coin in the mechanism behind the wheel to freeze it once they’ve found the perfect position. This may earn you a chastising “Dame!” from staff. Ignore them and jam the coin back in once they’ve turned away.
For each ball that goes in the hole, you are rewarded in two ways: you get about ten free balls, and you also get one spin on a virtual slot machine that appears in the machine’s video screen. Unlike Western-style slot machines, this one has numbers (which may be written in kanji) rather than symbols (like cherries). Exactly like Western slot machines, however, three of a kind wins. The similarities end there.
What makes pachinko the singularly most addictive game known to man is what is called a REACH. In simple terms, a REACH occurs whenever your spin gets two of the same numbers and you’re forced to wait for the outcome of the third. The first thing that happens is that the screen changes into REACH mode. When this happens, there is an epic battle played out between the number you need to complete a winning set and some other number. The number you want is represented by a cartoon good guy. Any other number is the bad guy. Samurai warriors battle. A guy on a boat fights a shark. Yoda dukes it out with Darth Vader. And so on.
Pachinko machines go into REACH mode every fourth spin or so. When they do, your emotions start to fly. The REACH on any machine is repetitive, and more often than not the good guy loses and a shamed cartoony grin crosses his face.
It’s when something out of the ordinary happens that your heart really begins to pound. Perhaps the blue bus that usually crosses the screen suddenly turns red. (“Ohhh something good is about to happen!”) Maybe the lights in the machine start to spin. (“Here we go!”) The woman who has been on the screen for an hour is all of a sudden adorned in gold (“I’m about to get paid!”) The screen jumps from cartoon to live action and whispers “REACH.” (“I think I’m gonna explode!”) There are a whole series of audio and visual cues and increasingly complex events happening on screen which tell you that this REACH is the one where the good guy wins. When your machine acts like it’s about to win, it means that it is.*
The cartoon battle ends and you have three of the same number. A soaring power ballad begins to play and you feel like a king. A flap under the hole opens up, sucking in every ball and converting each of them into ten new ones. As you amass balls, you press a button that dumps them into the plastic tray on the ledge in front of you. The sound of these balls hitting the plastic rinses you clean of the shame you’ve felt at feverishly driving all that money into your machine.
This “win time” lasts two or three glorious minutes, at the end of which you’ll have a full tray of balls in front of you worth about ¥5,000. After the win, you also enter into a period called “lucky time.” The doors protecting the hole at the bottom of the machine open up and you get 100 “free” spins. If your winning numbers were red, it means you are guaranteed to win again during “lucky time.” Blue means you might.
Pachinko machines win in bunches. The feeling is euphoric, and nearby players are envious of the songs and flashing lights coming off your machine. Once you’ve felt the ecstasy of being in win mode or lucky mode and have collected tray after tray of beautiful tiny silver wonder balls, you will be a slave to the machine for the rest of your days.
At this point, it is important to remember to adhere to the first rule of pachinko etiquette…
Rule 1: Show no emotion.
Your winning face should be the same as your losing face. You are playing in close proximity to others, so don’t drag them onto your emotional roller coaster—they are on one of their own. Internalize your joys and your wretched despair. Obasan are the only people to occasionally thwart this convention, so it is only with them that you can share a satisfied smile or glance of anxiety.
Rule 2: Never pick up a full tray under any circumstances.
There is a call button at the top of the machine that alerts the staff to help you. They will hand you an empty tray and then pick up your winnings and put them on the floor behind you.
Rule 3: For God’s sake, never kick over a tray.
Pachinko parlors are tight places, so tread carefully. Should one of your oversized gaijin feet betray you and send 1,000 balls cascading, just run away and don’t look back. Your apologies are going to fall on deaf angry ears.
Your smoking-hot machine has turned noticeably cold with few REACHes and none of the good long ones. You’ve been seething in the silent burning hatred and envy of your neighbor, who has sunk ¥20,000 into his machine and come out a big winner. Now is not the time to be greedy. It’s time to go home, or back to work, or to face your angry girl/boyfriend whom you were supposed to meet three hours ago. The trays behind you are overflowing with balls each worth about ¥15. It’s time to cash out.
The problem is that playing pachinko for money is illegal. “Seems legal to me,” you say? Well, let’s take a look at the hoops you’re about to jump through in order to get your cash.
First, call the staff over and indicate that you are finished by making an exaggerated X in front of you with your arms. The staff will dump each of your trays into a counting machine, which spits out a receipt indicating how many balls you’ve collected. Take the receipt to the main counter. A different staff member will give you some kind of token, usually a color-coded set of cards. These cards can be converted into sweet sweet yen—but not inside the parlor. Nope, you have to take them somewhere called a tuck shop.
Where is this tuck shop? Well, don’t ask the staff, because they won’t tell you. The best thing to do is to wait for a fellow winner and follow them. Once you’re inside the tuck shop, you will see no staff, just a small Astroturf-lined drawer that will shoot out when you reach the front of the line. Drop your cards in. The drawer will snap shut, and when it reopens, the cards will be replaced by your loot. Walk away. Pachinko experience complete. Addict successfully hooked.
1. Choose a machine wisely.
Learn to read the stats which are at the top of every machine. Usually there are two numbers. The smaller is how many wins it’s had today. The bigger is how many spins it’s had. A good machine has few wins and a lot of spins. Also, machines pay out in waves. You can press a data button and it will give you the stats for the preceding days. If a machine won twice two days ago and 10 times yesterday, it should be ready to win big today. Conversely, if a machine won 25 times two days ago and 12 yesterday, today it’s only going to eat money.
2. Play shindai.
Shindai, which means “new machine,” is probably the most important word in the pachinko player’s vernacular. These machines are advertised on trains and in front of parlors. They have no stats, so they pay out without having to be fed first. You may have to reserve a spot or wait in line to get one. Do so. These machines stay very hot for about a week and are good for about two.
3. Play at grand opening events.
Call in sick in order to do so. All the machines are shindai.
4. Cap spending.
Unless it’s the first couple of days of a shindai, don’t spend more than ¥5,000-¥10,000 on any machine. The first time you stumble home having lost a full month’s rent results in a sad, call-your-mother type of depression.
5. Never, ever play in an empty parlor.
It’s empty for a reason.
6. Don’t feed machines your winnings.
The machine’s job is to use your addiction against you. If you find yourself calling the staff to move a bucket from behind your chair to the ledge in front of you, give your head a shake and run away.
1. Why are there lines outside some pachinko parlors in the morning?
These people are pachinko pros. They know exactly which machine they want because they know the stats and can anticipate where there will be a silver ball explosion on any given day. The problem is that every one of those people in the line is thinking about one of the same 10 pregnant machines. The smart disappointed leave. Everybody else, including you, will sit and feed the stats.
2. Why the noise?
Once you’ve taken a seat and fed in your first ¥1,000, the noise magically disappears. You’ve honed in on the sounds of only your machine, searching for and then finding meaning in each bing and high-pitched squelch. It’s only after you leave that you start to hear it all, an incoherent ringing that lasts about an hour until you start singing the winning song over and over inside your head—even if it was your neighbor’s machine doing the winning.
3. What are the staff yelling about?
They are telling you that you could win on your next spin. You know that. That’s why you’re there.