By Sam L, Hida RPA
Got some spare change you want to burn in pursuit of spare change? Keen to soak your clothes in cigarette smoke and risk emphysema without ever forking out for your own pack? How about a desire to do irreparable damage to your hearing without the consolation of having lost the frequencies listening to anything other than a rattling of small balls and chiming of low-fi synth?
Then might I suggest pachinko?
Pachinko plays a bit like a vertical pinball game. Shoot the ball, get it in a hole, win a ball or balls. If it drops to the bottom then you’re down a ball. But luckily you buy the balls by the hundreds so there are plenty more to shoot.
Gambling is illegal in Japan. But where there’s a will there’s a way. When you play pachinko the small steel balls are the currency with which and for which you play, and after you win a sizable amount you can exchange them in-house for a number of goodies: beer, snacks, electronics, the list goes on. But most coveted, and what the vast majority of people are playing for, are small gold medallions that you can just-so-happen-to take outside of the parlor and exchange through a tiny window - one that the parlor insists vehemently is not associated with them - for cold hard cash. Gambling with extra steps..
Temples and shrines are beautiful and serene, but after a year in Japan I wanted a bit of culture that wasn’t crisp and clean but instead gritty and seedy. I decided to delve into the bright lights and obnoxious chiptunes of pachinko, especially after the rush I had gotten from arcade claw machines began to slowly but surely subside. Despite not knowing the first thing about how to actually play the game, I burst through the double doors at my local parlor with all the enthusiasm of a young dumb drunk on the Vegas strip. It was a rough uphill battle. Pachinko is not a sprint but a marathon. It’s a grind. You’ve got to go in with more time to kill than cash, though you’ll still be burning bills as fast as you can get them into the slot. But I was flying blind, I had no real understanding what it was I was meant to be doing. No knowledge of what was good and what was bad. I needed a mentor in the ways of small steel balls, and in true heroes-journey fashion, help arrived in the form of a wizened old hunchbacked man with eyes more steely than the small balls he had accrued by the thousands. But, like a zen master his instruction was by direct transmission, outside of scripture or spoken word. That is to say, I watched him out of the corner of my eye, careful not to draw too much attention to myself while I mimed at my machine, doing my best to make it look like I did in fact know exactly what I was doing.
Here’s what I learned.
Just like in Aristotelian ethics, pachinko skill is set upon a spectrum. To shoot the ball you twist a handle, like a small wheel. The further you twist it to the right, the faster and harder the ball will be launched into the machine. Twist it too far and the kinetic energy of your enthusiastic shot will surely set the ball bouncing off each and every brass pin and down into the bottom slot. One ball down. But don’t twist the wheel far enough and the ball will pop out of the slot, lethargically and slowly missing the prize holes, or not pop out at all. One ball down. It’s all about finding the sweet spot somewhere in the middle. But trying to pinpoint this middle point in one twist with accuracy when the finest tune left or right means victory or defeat is almost impossible. The greatest strategic insight I earned watching my unaware master was not to treat each ball as a play in and of itself. Treat the pachinko machine like a machine gun firing a steady stream of projectiles, not a pistol launching one shot at a time. When you have a thousand bullets you can afford to spray them around like Scarface. As you launch shot after shot you can finely tweak the wheel left or right until you find a position where you’re getting the most balls in. You’ll never get all of them in, this is a game of chance after all, but you can increase your odds. The best I got was about 1/3 in the hole. After you get a ball in, you’ll often trigger a slot machine style spin which will award you a certain number of balls. Each machine is different in its payout style. Some, like a Lupin III machine I tried, had a pistol handle built in that would be used for a game of skill if you managed to get a match on the slot spin. I cannot recommend the Lupin machine though. Living up to its character's name, it took everything I had before I decided enough was enough and moved onto machine without a licensed character attached, hoping the lack of royalties owed would mean a machine more willing to pay out.
I stayed for an hour, or maybe two. I can’t quite remember. I called the attendant who carried my trays of metal balls to a machine, pouring them in in a cacophonous crash before it spat out a small receipt I took to the counter. This was it. I was in the money. With significantly more balls than I had paid for initially I knew payday was coming early this month. I exchanged my receipt for four golden medallions. Resisting the urge to keep one as a trophy, I took them outside and proudly slid them through the tiny window attached to the parlor around the poorly lit back staff entrance beside the rubbish bins. I couldn’t contain my excitement. How many tens of thousands of yen were coming my way? I rubbed my hands together with glee as a small hand heavy with gold rings shot out through the window with some crisp bills. I snatched them up. Counted them out. Four thousand yen. Fuck.