Say it, pachinko, say it real slow so it just rolls off your tongue, pachinko. Now your asking, what’s pachinko (パチンコ) and why am I saying it? The overly simple description pachinko is that it’s a Japanese vertical pinball game. The rules are simple, shiny silver balls are fired from the top before cascading down through series of pins tumbling downward, most balls would disappear while a few may got into special holes that activates slot machines. The goal of the game is to gain more balls which can be exchanged for prizes. The operation of the game is actually really mechanical leaving the player with very little to do except defining the speed and rate the balls are fired upwards into play. It truly is a game of luck.
What does any of this have to do with me personally? Good question. I’m very glad you asked. Before I lived in Japan I had never seen a pachinko machine or pachinko parlor. Unless you count the pachinko game they would play on occasion on The Price Is Right way back when. However, the exterior of the pachinko parlors around where I lived reminded me of times I had visited Reno and Las Vegas which meant one of two things, casino or strip club. I had driven by a few pachinko parlors for the first year or so of living in northern Japan and never had an interest in finding out what was really going on inside these always packed 24/7 buildings. Biggest reason was money, we were poor and didn’t have spare money to go and gamble away.
One day that all changed, I had been out walking around an area called Green Pole Road which was basically an array of small shops, restaurants, and open farmers market. It had a mix of many things depending on what mood you were in. It was also host to most of the festivals and parades that came through Misawa. Anyway, I heard the noise of the pachinko parlor around the corner ahead of where I was walking. So, I decided to poke my head in and check out what pachinko was. The very first thing that alarms one’s senses is that it is freaking unbelievably loud. I can’t even dream up a way to describe how loud it was, just very loud, trust me I listen to heavy metal cranked up to the max, I know loud. No time to stand in the door tho, I was brushed ahead and seated immediately, seems I was blocking traffic while I was looking for the 4 seconds I stopped.
I had some Yen so I decided what could it hurt. I was shown how to play and away we went. I was sitting only a matter of 10 minutes when lights, bells, whistles, and a cascade of balls made a noise so deafening that it made my whole body vibrate. Immediately an attendant came by with small plastic tray to be used to fill up with the balls. This went on for a few minutes and then as fast as it began it was over, except I had over 70 plastic trays packed full with shiny chrome balls. Now what? Exactly what I was thinking. Soon enough another attendant pushed through and began stacking the trays of balls into a flatbed dolly. He pulls my arm and was telling me something I couldn’t even hear. So, I just followed him to the cashier. The dumped all of my winnings into a counter, not unlike a machine that will count/sort change, and when it was all done it spit out a ticket with the quantity of balls. How many was it, don’t know exactly, but is was an assload of them for sure.
Then one guy, resembling the way an auctioneer would move his hands fast and talk fast, started showing me everything I could trade my winnings for. Start with a cheap plastic lighter and work your way up to some high dollar houses with every appliance, car, food, drink, tobacco product, known to man up for grabs. I guess I had a look on my face that I was interested in any of the exchange prizes so I was handed my ticket and walked out the front door. Before I could even begin to wonder what just happened another man leads me to the building next door. The reality of it is we went down the alley and stopped at a very nondescript door where we waited for a few moments before the small window opened. The receipt was taken from my hand and handed to someone I could not see, then the window closed. After a few minutes the window opened and the hand shoved out a plastic bag in my direction. The guy outside takes the bag and shoves it inside my jacket and points for me to go.
When I looked in the bag I saw it was full of money, allot of money. How much? Well, when I went to the credit union and did the currency exchange I was given just shy of $6500.00. Oddly enough I had only spent under $25.00 playing the game. After some checking I found out while there was all the cloak and dagger secrecy, gambling for cash is illegal in Japan. But, gambling for prizes is not, nor is selling your receipt (for a cut I found out). That would the first and last time I went to a pachinko parlor to gamble. However, when my parents came over for their visit I did take my dad, he won as well, but only a couple of hundred dollars. Oddly enough I don’t like gambling, I can think of a zillion different things I “should” be doing with my money, like paying bills. So, there you go, a little deeper into my life in Japan. I have many tales to tell about Japan, it was a very fascinating place to live, work, and raise a family.