If you’ve been lucky enough to visit Akihabara, you may have noticed a few Pachinko machines dotted around the area. They’re not in too many places and are a bit difficult to spot, so just in case you haven’t seen any, here’s an example of what they look like:
Yep, they’re everywhere and they are INCREDIBLE. You cannot walk into an arcade without seeing these magical strobing rainbow machines, lined up and ready to swiftly inhale hundreds of tiny balls from the hands of eager gamers (a sentence with questionable innuendo potential but hey, I’m keeping it.)
In the unlikely event of you not happening upon Pachinko, you’ll definitely hear it. Oh boy, are these machines LOUD.
Back in 2008 during my last trip to Tokyo, I stood hypnotised by these futuristic fun vaults, never actually sitting my ass down and learning how to play. I would not make that same mistake again. This time, they will be played. Oh yes, they will be played.
My first foray into the magical world of pachinko playing was strangely not in Akihabara but it’s smaller cousin Ikebukuro. On my way back from visiting the Pokemon Centre and Namco Namja Town, I happened upon an arcade featuring 1-yen pachinko and a highly amused team of staff, eagerly trying to teach me how to play without speaking any English and without me having a clue what was going on.
Eventually, they gave me an adorable instruction leaflet entitled: ‘The First Pachinko’
It turns out the basis of Pachinko play is actually quite simple. There are a few different types – 1-yen, 2-yen, 3-yen and beyond. This determines the stakes – the higher the yen, the higher the risk. For a first-timer or those who haven’t factored a 10,000 yen gambling fund into their travel budget, 1-yen Pachinko is essential. In this instance, 1 yen = 1 Pachinko ball.
To play, just fire the ball into the machine in a fashion similar to pinball. The ball will fall naturally down the middle, bouncing off various obstacles. The goal is to get the ball to fall into the small hole in the centre. Whether or not any skill is involved in this process is highly debatable, but after a while I definitely felt I had a bit of a technique going that wasn’t just simply ‘what am I doing’.
As soon as the ball falls in the hole the main screen is activated, and depending on the theme of your machine some crazy what-is-happening action will begin. The main goal on screen is to get 3 of the same numbers or symbols in a row – just like your standard slot machine. If this happens, balls pour out into your winnings tray underneath the machine, and further jackpots can be triggered (a process known as the kakuhen system)
Pachinko machines come in many themes, the most common being Street Fighter, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hana No Keiji, and Great Sea Story – the latter of which is a terribly dull mermaid/fish theme that I firmly recommend you don’t play.
For my first Pachinko, I choose a horror theme complete with ghostly kimono girl who’s head comes off and spins across the screen:
Armed with my new knowledge of how to own this thing, I start pumping my balls into it like candy, propelling them one-by-one into this deep and unknowable universe. Some are lost and discarded, whilst others are sucked into the tiny mystical goal, unleashing visual and audial chaos on screen. Kimono girl screams. Her head comes off. Everything moves and shakes. I win 100 yen.
It is then that I realise I will become addicted to Pachinko. Something this ridiculous, this randomly entertaining and hilarious, cannot be forgotten quickly.
The best part is, at this stage I’ve ‘won’ such pittance the staff don’t expect me to want to cash it in. Instead they explain I am only able to exchange my measly winnings for snacks, displayed behind the service desk. Fortunately for me, this situation seems to be quite common since the array of snacks on offer is impressively diverse. Plus I can honestly say there is no better feeling than winning a pitiful amount on Pachinko and exchanging it for a few packets of custard cake.
My new found Pachinko addiction was in full swing. The next evening, Alistair and I attempted to find retro gaming bar A-Button in Akihabara – it was pouring with rain and we got lost. We wandered helplessly around, freezing and soaked, trying to read google maps whilst shivering in the darkness. We bickered about directions, we grew tired of walking, we were cold and wet and grumpy, and when we eventually managed to find A-Button – it was closed.
Now, normally this would be very annoying. Normally after a very long, disgruntled and freezing wet walk, finding such a disappointing result would only make things worse. But like a beautiful rainbow glistening in an endless sky of dark misery – it hit me.
‘We could….just go and play pachinko?’
Suddenly, the world was beautiful again – the evening had been saved, and what’s more, our moods lifted. We laughed excitedly about playing Pachinko, we walked to the arcade with a spring in our step – we could cope with what had been a disappointing stressful situation. We could cope because of Pachinko.
On this fateful night we find a 1-yen Pachinko arcade (WAY easier to find than A-Button, I might add) and continuing my horror theme I decide to play a Ringu Pachinko machine.
I fling my balls in and I’m off to a good start – I’m getting a lot of them in the hole and shit’s going down on screen. Sadako’s climbing out the well and a load of school girls keep running away and falling over. Numbers are appearing repeatedly that seem relevant, a giant plastic phone rings and big plastic fingers twitch above the screen. I think one of the school girls just died.
This happens a few more times until I achieve the unthinkable – I get 3 of the same number in a row.
The screen goes crazy as hundreds of tiny balls are released from nowhere and injected into my game, triggering a huge series of on-screen actions that culminate in another 3 numbers in a row. The balls pour out into my winnings tray, rattling loudly and bouncing uncontrollably in every direction, whilst more balls are simultaneously fired into the machine, tripling my chances of another win. This goes on for around 20 minutes, balls pouring out non-stop as an attendant rushes to my aid with replacement trays. I then get a THIRD number combo, the rattling of continual ball-bouncing sounding the trumpet of victory. I am a fire ablaze, an unstoppable force, a confident thrust in the face of bad luck. I have never felt more alive. I am PACHINKO.
Once my winnings have been calculated I am given a receipt, escorted into a lift and taken to a hidden floor. I step out into a dimly lit room where an attendant in a waistcoat (a different colour to the floor attendant’s waistcoat – I assume there is some kind of waistcoat hierarchy in place) sits behind an important looking desk. He takes my receipt and places 4 objects that resemble Gamecube memory cards on the table. I take them, and my attendant ushers me back into the lift.
Leading me to the exit he explains that I can exchange my tokens for money, but I have to go to a separate area and see ‘a second man’.
He gives me vague directions and I head off, in search of man no. 2. I find myself wandering down a back alley, when I finally see what I need. A literal hole in the wall, containing a counter, a big reinforced glass window, and indeed – a second man.
Handing him my 4 golden objects I feel like a hardened criminal doing a dodgy deal down one of Tokyo’s hidden side streets. Considering the strong link Pachinko had (and arguably still does have) to the Japanese Yakuza, this feeling is unsurprising. The second man barely looks at me and says nothing. He quickly counts out my winnings and hands me a wad of cash.
As I walk away I check out my stash – five, six, seven…eight thousand five hundred yen!
Pachinko featured heavily throughout the remainder of my Tokyo trip, with plans often made around the occasional (read: frequent) Pachinko play. I like to think I’ve experienced many highs in my life, and now the downright thrill of winning a game of Pachinko is one of them.
If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, be sure to drink freely from Pachinko’s ample cup of enjoyment. As always however – just remember to drink responsibly.
Things to Note:
- Japan is one of the only countries in the world where you can play Pachinko and is therefore one of my top must-do activities in Tokyo.
- 1-yen Pachinko is available in most, but not all, Pachinko parlors. The 1-yen machines are usually clearly marked in their own section or floor. If in doubt, ask an attendant.
- Photographs and video recordings are often prohibited in Pachinko parlors. Best way to find out? Take a photo! You’ll soon be told if you aren’t allowed. Since you’re in Japan, you’ll be told extremely politely.
- Here’s a Google Maps link for A Button bar I quite frankly could’ve done with myself.
- Finally, if your winnings amount to pittance and you fancy cashing them in for snacks, I highly recommend the Custard Cakes, Moonlight Cookies, and Krunky Kids.
All words and images my own unless otherwise stated.
Pachinko can be a source of gambling addiction. For more information visit www.gajapan.jp.