WALKING into one of Kutchan’s many pachinko parlours is a feast for the senses to say the least. Pachinko has a gigantic cult following in Japan and is all about being over the top. Tasteless design, a haze of smoke hanging in the air, blaring techno music, the incessant bleep of machines, echoing announcements shouted over the speakers by workers, and, of course, the sound of hundreds of thousands of metal ball bearings whizzing through the seemingly infinite fluorescent displays.
Best described as a cross between poker and pinball machines, pachinko is a Japanese gaming device with the ultimate goal of winning prizes and providing general amusement – which it offers in spades.
A dummy’s guide to pachinko
It may seem non-sensical, but there is a method to the madness…
• Players buy metal balls by inserting either cash, a pre-paid card, or a member card directly into the machine. For assistance, ask a worker.
• The pachinko machine has a digital slot machine on a large screen in the centre of its layout. Similar to slot or poker machines, the objective is to get three numbers or symbols in a row for a jackpot.
• Balls are shot into the machine from a ball tray with the purpose of attempting to win more balls, which act as currency. It’s a simple as that, so good luck!
Play by the rules
Player beware, the Japanese are serious about their pachinko!
• In Japan, there are many unwritten rules of pachinko conduct. All participating are expected to conform or leave. Some law-breakers have even arrested!
• Staff members are not supposed to tell a player where they can exchange their tokens for cash, due to ‘legality issues’ (privatised gambling is technically illegal in Japan), so players are expected to find out this information themselves.
• It is extremely taboo to touch another player’s balls. In-parlour fights have broken out because one player was accused of stealing another player’s balls, or accidentally knocking buckets over. A rule of thumb: best never touch anyone’s balls at all.
• Lastly, if a situation arises where you hit a jackpot but have no more balls to use in payout mode, you can ask a fellow player to borrow a handful of balls, but only if you return to him or her about twice the amount of balls you borrowed.
Hire a babysitter because kids aren’t allowed.
• Children are technically not allowed inside pachinko parlours, mainly because of alcohol and smoking. Believe it or not, a blind eye is sometimes turned towards children playing pachinko, so long as they don’t win much!
Pachinko and the law
Technically pachinko is illegal… and run by the Yakuza!
• In Japan, gambling within the private industry is illegal, but pachinko parlours are tolerated by the Japanese authorities as ‘semi-gambling’, and are not considered as centres of illegal activity.
• Attitudes towards pachinko vary in Japan, from being considered a way to make a living, to being stigmatized.
• In Japan, due to its bordering on illegal gambling, the pachinko industry has a close relationship with the police force. Currently, however, due to growing public and political pressure, Japanese police are more active in regulating parlours and they often send retired officers to become board members of pachinko companies.
So, there you go. Don’t just limit your Japanese cultural experience to the deep pow pow of Niseko and head a few minutes down the road to Kutchan, a local haven for pachinko parlours. Just look for the biggest, brightest buildings in town and you’ve found pachinko.