By Roo O’Loughlin
I stagger into the street, on a slight high from all the alcohol, back slaps and “nihongo jouzu desu ne’s” I’ve received from my co-workers at my school’s latest enkai. As I wander onto Hondori with my sempai, Majime, I am suddenly struck by an urge to strike an item off my list of “must do’s” in Japan. I relay my wishes to Majime, who shouts “OK!” and we stumble along together toward our goal. Our co-workers don’t join us, perhaps out of a sense of shame, fear or stinginess.
Yet we soldier on, passing ramen shops, hostess girls and the ubiquitous “information
Once inside, I’m reminded a little of the clubs back home. In Australia, poker machines, or “pokies” as we call them (here they are called slot machines or “slots”), are set up in much the same way as the rows and rows of pachinko machines lined up before me now. But here there are a few little differences. The metal-on-metal sounds all around me are not the clash of coins, but actually tiny little metal balls banging together. Also, the women that are walking around are not overweight 40-year-olds, but young, hot 20-somethings.
Of course, the major difference is the machines themselves and how they are played. First up is the ball buying. After giving Majime 2,000 yen, he goes to the counter and returns with a bucket full of small, silvery balls. I look down at these perfectly smooth objects and wonder if any of these little beauties will bring me riches. Probably not.
I sit down in front of my pachinko machine and place my bucket of balls in its special place next to the machine. My first impression is that it’s a lot cooler than a poker machine. Whereas with a poker machine you’re just staring at a bunch of numbers and symbols on reels that just seem to spin round and round and never line up, a pachinko machine is more akin to a vertical pinball machine. At the bottom of the machine is a small tray where the little silvery balls are placed. Next to the tray is a circular knob. By turning the knob, the balls are sucked out of the tray and released at the top of the machine.
The aim of the game, as Majime explained to me, is to control the speed at which the balls are sucked out of the tray by holding the knob in just the right position. The reason for this is that there is a small ‘central gate’ at the lower end of the machine with digital reels under it. Every time a ball drops through the central gate, it activates the screen, where the digital reels spin. When that happens, the player receives at least three extra balls. The more balls a player gets through the central gate, the more times the reels spin, increasing (ever so slightly) the chances of winning the jackpot.
As I get ready to turn the knob to shoot my little balls into the pachinko machine, I’m feeling confident. With the noise level high, a seasoned pro sitting next to me giving tips, and a beer buzz boosting my spirits, I feel sure that beginners luck is going to come into play.
However, getting those balls into the central gate is a little more difficult than I anticipated. Once the balls drop out at the top of the machine, it’s hard to control how they fall down through the various obstacles in the machine as they make their way to and miss falling into the all-important central gate. After many attempts, I finally find the right position to hold the knob so the balls shoot out at just the right speed and, more often than not, fall into the central gate. But since the knob is spring loaded, it’s a challenge to consistently hold the knob in exactly the right position.
This is where having an expert comes in handy. Majime shows me how to use a broken credit card to hold the knob in the same position. Just slide it in the gap between the knob and the machine (without letting those hot 20-year-olds see you.) After that, I get a few more balls through the central gate.
Before I know it, I run out of balls. Although I have gotten a number of balls through the central gate, it isn’t enough to get the jackpot. It is at this time that I have an epiphany (I think I am becoming sober again, too). Pachinko isn’t really that much different from the pokies back home. There are the same high-pitched sounds, the air is filled with tobacco smoke and everybody around me is losing a lot of money. Pachinko is marginally more exciting, but already I’m feeling bored. It’s time to get out and do something more worthwhile. I turn to Majime.
“Do you wanna go for a drink?”