Walk the streets of any Japanese town and you will hear the clatter of something that steals the lives of countless people throughout the country.
You might only catch the noise when someone opens the front door to these venues of vice and steps out, inscrutable, into the night air. Or you might only spy the rows of machines yelling at passers-by with their convulsing, spasmodic explosions of colour, the glass front of these dens shielding pedestrians from the worst of the cacophony.
Spying on the addicts
Press your face against the glass and you will see these machines attended by zombie-faced Japanese whose right hands gently caresses a dial, and whose left occasionally jabs at flashing buttons. These aren’t your ordinary slot machines, one armed bandits, or ‘pokie’ parlours seen the world over. These are Pachinko machines, a game that obsesses so many Japanese but which to me seems unfathomable and largely pointless.
The point is?
The concept is this: A near-vertical pin board, much like bagatelle, sits in the top half of the machine. A dial below can be twisted to control the speed that ball bearings are fired into the maze of pins and it can only operate when it senses skin contact – hence the lingering hand seen on all machines. Many Japanese wedge a coin or a bit of paper in the dial so that they need only touch the dial, they don’t need to maintain a grip on the optimal bearing-firing position. The point is that the bearings bounce down the pin board and depending upon the type of machine being used the bearings need to enter certain holes or avoid others. Once certain conditions, unknown to amateurs like me, are met the screen below the board will fills with staccato, lysergic, graphics and a voice will chatter at the player urging some action be carried out on the buttons. What this achieves I cannot say. What I can tell you is that the point is to get the game to pay out more Pachinko bearings than you feed in. Like any gambling device mankind has ever created.
Some players sit in little forts constructed from half metre-long trays of these balls all stacked on top of each other. So that the players remain firmly glued to their little dials there are buttons allowing you to call attendants over to you. These Pachinko drones can be given drink or food orders, or you can simply order more balls if you’re losing. Each ball represents 1 Yen therefore a tray of balls can be several thousand Yen by itself. At the end of your session, if you can rip yourself away from the spectacle, you approach a small hatch at the back of the hall and exchange your balls for money (Oo-er).
When visiting a good friend, Maki, in Okazaki City I took the opportunity to explore a Pachinko parlour with her father. In fact the whole family came down and had a go. We walked into the huge hall which was slightly out of town and were hit by the familiar noise of a million bearings clattering through pin boards. It’s a roar that I’ve never heard the likes of before. Some players can been seen with bearings in each ear as makeshift and very dangerous ear plugs. The room is air-conditioned but the heat generated by the hundreds of machines and slavish operators is pretty intense. The attendants sweat profusely.
Maki’s father generously gave us a thousands of bearings and sat us down to play. I was awful. Really embarrassingly crap. Kristina was amazing, but she doesn’t know how. An old lady, clearly a pro, came over and showed us how badly we were playing. She adjusted my hand positions and wedged card in my dial for me. I still lost very rapidly. Even with her hitting buttons for me when the shouty screen lady danced and writhed between cartoon characters and flashing stars.
After perhaps an hour of being shouted at by a machine I began to lose interest. I had no idea what was going on and even Maki couldn’t tell me. All around me people remained glued within their little ball castles and didn’t bat an eyelid when we stood up to leave. Kristina exchanged her winnings for Yen and again Maki’s dad refused to take the winnings earned through his own generosity. Semi-enlightened and semi-confused we decamped and stood in the vast but serene car park. Looking back at the huge shack I couldn’t really understand this obsession. There doesn’t seem to be any skill to it. No hook to keep you coming back beside the piling of trays. I reckon the screaming screen gives small rewards quite often and stimulates the nucleus accumbens into thinking that you’re doing something pleasing. Although the shiny little balls are also rather pleasing to handle and dunking a hand into a full tray is almost like receiving a little massage. It’s just a cheap thrill from doing something completely mindless and possibly damaging. Much like watching Eastenders.
A creeping tide
The sums of money sunk into these parlours must be immense. I saw them all over Japan and only in Osaka did I see one that was pretty empty. Pachinko is an enigma to me, but then so are a great many of the things that mould Japanese culture into the beautiful thing that it usually is. I do feel enriched by the experience, even if I haven’t got a flipping clue what was going on. If you’re walking up a street and you hear that signature clatter then make sure you spend a thousand Yen in a Pachinko den, it’s not a waste. Just don’t fall for the hypnotic screens wily charms, turning yourself into one of the many undead haunting these multicoloured limbos.