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How to Experience Japan's Pachinko Culture

Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.

Pachinko is a type of gambling game that has been popular in Japan since the 1920's.

Pachinko is a type of gambling game that has been popular in Japan since the 1920's.

If you have ever been to Japan before or plan on visiting in the near future, you may have noticed or will notice that almost every main city is filled with Pachinko parlors, usually several situated around high-traffic areas. Inside these parlors is a world that most tourists are not familiar with, but for many Japanese, it is a place they frequently visit for some entertainment.

Trying your hand at Pachinko may seem intimidating because these large halls are so loud, there are no written instructions and you won’t usually find other tourists inside, but it’s a rather simple game that anybody over the age of 18 can play. If you like new experiences and would like to have a taste of Japan’s long-lived Pachinko parlor culture, or if you’re just curious as to how it works, keep reading and I will attempt to explain it step by step.

What Is Pachinko?

Pachinko is Japan’s version of Dave and Buster’s (D&B) or Chuck E. Cheese’s for adults. The object of the game is to win and collect as many silver balls as possible so that you can exchange them for prizes (just like the ticket system at D&B). As you read the following guide, keep in mind that there are many different machines with different patterns, but I will try to explain the most common type.

Money slot to insert bills

Money slot to insert bills

1. Choose Your Machine

First, decide if you want to play the more expensive machines where 1,000 yen buys you approximately 250 balls (each ball represents around 4 yen) or the cheaper machines where 1,000 yen gives you about 1,000 balls (each ball represents 1 yen or so). The aisles with the cheaper machines are usually marked by signs or arrows on the floor saying 1円.

Next, you can decide if you want to play a machine that wins more frequently but the payouts may be smaller, or a machine that may give you more for your win but is more difficult to strike a win. The odds are usually written above the machine, 1/99 being on the easier side and 1/399 being tougher. Winning on a hard-to-win machine won’t necessarily give you a larger sum in the end; it all depends on how many rounds your win continues for (i.e. continuing for seven rounds on an ‘easy-to-win’ machine would probably give you a larger sum than one round on a ‘hard-to-win’ machine).

2. Insert Your Money

There should be a vertical slot to the immediate left or right (most commonly left) of the machine for inserting bills. If you’re a beginner, 1,000 yen to start should be enough. There may also be a place to insert 500 yen coins on some older machines. The little counter window on the protruding bottom part of the machine will show a countdown related to how much money you put in and use. For example, when you slip in a 1,000 yen bill, the counter will read 10.

Inserting 1000 yen will show up as the number 10 in the counter window

Inserting 1000 yen will show up as the number 10 in the counter window

3. Dispense the Balls

Just putting money in usually won’t make the balls come out. You'll have to press the button near the counter window labelled 球貸 (literally meaning ball rental), and balls should come rolling out of a small opening in the upper tray of the protruding part of the machine. Take a look at the counter; the number should have decreased corresponding to the number of balls dispensed (see the photo above).

4. Start to Play

Now you are ready to start playing. Slightly turn the dial on the bottom right side of the machine clockwise. You’ll notice that balls will start spitting up the left side of the machine just like in pinball (except the table is vertical here). Turning the dial all the way to the right makes the ball fly to the far right side of the machine. This is called migi uchi 右打ち and is only used after you have won, so for now, make sure the balls are falling to the left side of the machine. This is called hidari uchi 左打ち.

The aim is to make as many balls as you can fall into the hole in the centre of the machine, just below the screen. Adjust the dial to lessen or increase the strength at which the balls pop out. You’ll have to fiddle around a bit with the position to find a good one where the most balls enter the hole. You’ll know when a ball has fallen into that hole because somewhere on the bottom of the screen a symbol will pop up (the symbol is different for every machine).

This signals 3 numbers to appear on the screen. Just like a slot machine, you want those numbers to match up in order to win. So basically every time you get a ball in the hole, it gives you a chance to ‘spin the wheel’. A good position of the dial will keep up to two or three chance symbols on the bottom of the screen at all times (most machines will store a maximum of four, some eight).

The aim is to get as many balls as you can into this hole

The aim is to get as many balls as you can into this hole

If you are finding that the balls aren't popping up into the vertical board, look down at your hand and the dial. Make sure your fingers are touching the metal ring around the circumference of the dial because that is the sensor that signals the balls to come out. Also, make sure you are not pressing the little plastic tab on the edge of the dial because that will block the balls from coming out as well.

The dial

The dial

5. Continuing to Play

As you keep trying to accumulate “chances” and the number sequences keep changing on the screen, the machine will try to grab your attention once in a while to make sure you are not bored. All of the machines will have a big button located on the protruding ball holder. Usually, it says PUSH in English, but sometimes it doesn’t have anything written on it. Keep watching the screen and when it shows you an image of the button with the words ‘push’ or ' 押せ ', simply push the button.

Don’t worry if you don’t get it in time though, most machines are automated and the result is the same whether you push the button or not; it is mainly there to make it more exciting.

Push this button when the screen indicates to do so

Push this button when the screen indicates to do so

6. Winning

I said before that a set of three matching numbers will give you a win. However, the makers of the machines want to keep you on the edge of your seat, so there are different levels of chances. Usually when you have a chance to win, two matching numbers appear on the screen making you wait and hope that the third number will match too.

The signs that tell you when there is a higher chance of winning are, for example, if the symbols that appear at the bottom suddenly pop up as a different colour (such as blue, green, red or gold), then these let you know in increasing order, your chances of winning. Thus you may get excited when you see a red or a gold symbol.

7. After You Have Struck a Win

Once you have won, it’s not over yet. Most machines will tell you to turn the dial all the way to the right (右打) so that the balls are popping over to the other side of the Pachinko board. Only a handful of machines will require you to keep the balls going on the left side (左打). In either case, the machine will tell you exactly where the dial should be, so just look at the screen and look for one of two of the Japanese characters.

You won’t have to worry about the balls going into the centre hole anymore, just keep the dial as far as it will go in the clockwise position. Now the point is to continue obtaining wins. Each time you win, you'll receive a certain amount of balls (they automatically come out of machine just like when you dispensed the balls), sometimes less, sometimes more depending on what numbers were matched up. For example, in many cases, the number 7 indicates a bigger win.

Components of the Pachinko Machine; balls accumulate in the lower tray. Pressing the white button here empties the tray when full.

Components of the Pachinko Machine; balls accumulate in the lower tray. Pressing the white button here empties the tray when full.

8. Empty the Balls Accumulating in the Tray

There is a secondary or lower tray below where the initial balls are dispensed. When the upper tray is overflowing, balls start to drop down to this tray. Especially if you’ve won, you’ll notice balls accumulating here. Make sure to empty this tray so that the balls don’t get backed up and jam the machine. Just flick the switch to open up a hole in the tray so that the balls roll out.

If you’re using an older machine, the balls will fall into a plastic container placed underneath the tray at each machine. Once it looks pretty full, just press the call button above the pachinko machine and a staff member will bring you a new container and will put the ball-filled container on the floor by your seat.

If you’re using a newer machine, the balls will fall into the hole and appear to go back into the machine. You’ll notice a small screen on the left keeping track of the number of balls that you’ve obtained. If you ever find your playing balls in the upper tray are getting a little low, press the button just below or above that small screen and a portion of the balls will come rolling down the dispenser tube. If you do this, make sure the ball dispense tube is placed over the ball holder when you press the button or else you’ll end up will balls all over the floor (usually the staff is good about making sure it is in place before anyone sits down).

An example of a machine accumulating balls and showing this on the small screen to the left. Pressing the green button above re-dispenses a portion of these balls.

An example of a machine accumulating balls and showing this on the small screen to the left. Pressing the green button above re-dispenses a portion of these balls.

9. Once You Have Finished Playing

If you're starting to think that your machine is not lucky, or that you'd like to try something different, or maybe your winning streak has come to an end, you may want to switch machines or just cash out. In either case, press the henkyaku or 返却 button near the money counter. After a few seconds, a card or a chip should come sliding out of the left side of the machine.

This card has information on your winnings as well as keeps track of the money you inserted but have not used. To bring back this information to a different machine just insert the card in the same slot on the new machine. Dispense playing balls from your winnings, or from the money you have not yet used.

10. Obtain Your Prize or Left-Over Money on the Card

When you decide to call it quits and have balls accumulated or have unused money still in the machine, don’t forget to press 返却 in order to obtain the card with that information. If you had money left, there will be self-serve machines near the front counter. Just insert your card and the money will be returned to you. If you had balls accumulated, this money exchange machine will spit out your card again.

Take the card to an employee at the counter to exchange your balls for prizes. Hand the card over and specify if you’d like to choose from the prizes. All of the prizes are located in front of or behind the counter. They should be labelled with the 'price' in the number of balls (depending on if you played a 1円 machine or a 4円 machine). Prizes can range from small electronic goods and golf items to snacks, sake and bags of rice, or useful things in everyday living such as toiletries.

You may see a lot of people exchanging their winnings for what looks like thin rectangular plastic plates. What they are going to do with these is exchange the plates for cash. However, this cannot be done inside the Pachinko parlour. They have to be taken to a separate booth outside the Pachinko parlour (they are not associated with the venue). These booths charge a percentage of your winnings as a fee, so the amount of money you get back isn’t exactly what was won. (The percentage may differ from place to place.)

This is why it’s better to choose from the prizes where what you’ve won is what you get. Plus, the prizes are all things that you can munch on or things that will come in handy anyways.

After pressing the 返却 button, the machine will give you a card or chip

After pressing the 返却 button, the machine will give you a card or chip

12. Calling the Staff

Anytime you have a question, or think something may be malfunctioning with your machine (i.e. the balls are jammed preventing them from being dispensed), just press the call button labelled either “CALL” or “ 呼出 “. The staff is usually quick to come to your aid.

13. Taking a Break

You may see machines with balls in the trays, but no one playing them. This means that the person playing has gone somewhere but will be back shortly to continue playing. You too may hold your seat for a bathroom break, but make sure to leave some balls visible in the tray so that no else takes your seat. Be sure to dispense the card and take it with you just to avoid it being stolen (which doesn’t happen very often).

Also, if you are in the middle of a win but are extremely hungry, you can always call a staff member to help you find a good time to let go of the dial, and they can hold your seat for about 30 minutes so that you can take a meal break.

Luck vs. Skill

You may notice that many Pachinko parlors also house slot machines. These are a little bit more complicated and are very different from the slots you see in casinos. In Japanese slots, there are times when you must deliberately pick a symbol for the machine to stop on. You’ll see people waiting to press the button to make the reel stop when they see a symbol they want (they can practically see each symbol rotating swiftly on the reels). Where Pachinko involves just pure luck, the slots seem to require a bit of skill and understanding.

The key to having fun playing Pachinko is to be patient. If you expect a win right away, Pachinko might not be for you, but the action on the screen and moving contraptions around it may keep you from getting bored. Even if you decide never to go back after trying it once, you don’t actually have to spend too much, and it will give you an interesting only-in-Japan experience! The staff at Pachinko parlors are usually quite nice and are willing to help you as much as they can, so don't be afraid to take a peek into Japan's Pachinko culture.

© 2019 Kiyomi Motomura