Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Do the Pachinko!

パチンコ Does Pachinko get your heart pumping? The rushing sound of the little steel balls, the flashy lights, obnoxious arcade game music, the heavy smoke?
My first encounter with pachinko was during a high school trip to Kyoto. We didn't have a lot of free time but on one of the evenings the cool group to which I belonged, decided to go out and buy alcohol. I remember snickering about the name of the store (Liquor Mountain) and then being amazed they had just sold a sixteen year-old a bottle of rum (or was it vodka?). A couple of us went even further and bought cigarettes from a vending machine (OMG!!), and I even found the flattened box a couple years ago while I was cleaning out some stuff at my parents' house, which I had kept as a memento-Hope Lights. Shorter and smaller than regular cigarettes, Hope Lights come in a small white box with a picture of a bow and arrow. How cute. How hopeful. Hope I don't get cancer.

On our way back to the hotel it started to rain just as we had conveniently happened upon a pachinko parlor. We all went inside and posed in front of the blinking machines for photos and then ran around picking up lost balls off the floor. I still have a couple of those too.

Fast forward a bit to when I found out that the beau plays pachinko. You what?! I asked, trying to conceal my disdain. This was several months in and I had neglected to ask him if he played pachinko on our first date, something I had always reserved in my mind for low-lifes. When I used to commute to school in Takadanobaba I would walk by the lines of mostly men and young blond Japanese guys waiting around for the parlors to open. And then I found out that the man I love is a Pachinko Player. Time to readjust my thinking? Strangely enough once I found out that he plays, all of these other previously unidentified players started coming out of the woodwork. His father, some young university students we know, part-time workers at bars and restaurants that we frequent. Every one's doing it! Some for the money but most for stress relief. I personally find entering an environment filled with a non-stop metallic waterfall sound and the smell of stale smoke to be stress inducing but what do I know? I didn't grow up here.

I would have to stage an intervention if the beau was actually losing money and ended up in debt to loan sharks like one of his close friends (charming I know) but when he comes home and offers to take me shopping with his winnings or out for some nice expensive meat, my stress is reduced. I even forced myself to tag along a couple times, you know, play the supportive-of-your-hobbies girlfriend role. And to be honest, despite my worst intentions, I did enjoy myself on those few Sunday afternoons, sitting side by side amongst the deafening roar and sucking in all the smoke I could ask for.

On those afternoons I also had a chance to observe the other patrons of the pachinko establishment and they weren't all deadbeat salarymen and peroxided youth. There were other couples, pairs of women and even some women on their own. And of course the requisite bunch of old women, possibly trying to make up for time lost years ago when they were sitting at home while their now-immobile husbands were off at the P Parlors (just to clarify, I mean pachinko parlors, not pink parlors or penis parlors). Granted I don't think I can speak to the deadbeat factor of the previously sighted couples and women, but at least the demographic spread was broader than I had imagined. Of course everyone stared at my white ass because really, what is a white girl doing in a P Parlor? To get into the carnival atmosphere once I even wore my Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction wig and pranced down the narrow aisles between the seats flashing smiles here and there. That day I won us around 70,000 yen and there was constant traffic behind my chair as people vied for looks at Whitie Winning it Big. I felt like reminding them skill and luck at pachinko has nothing to do with nationality.

Pachinko is everywhere. In the countryside it is some of the only entertainment around. There are people who are "professional" players, not holding down a job and relying on their pachinko winnings to get by. In recent years even the pachinko establishment has tried to clean up its image, producing one yen parlors (where the amount of money used is much less), smoke-free parlors and couples' parlors where there are rows of two machines paired with a love seat. The thing about pachinko is, I still don't like it, but I can certainly understand its place among salarymen working their lives away for very small salaries and those who don't fit the salary mold, working outside the salary-realm or holding down several low-paying jobs at once.

If you ever do catch the p-bug, I would highly recommend the game based on a period drama about a band of old skool assassins called Hisatsu Shigotonin. It's the only game I play and if you appreciate a combination of old Japanese movies and tacky Vegas lights, it may be the game for you.


Lisa said...

Ah, pachinko! My husband and I played once in Kyoto. We lost $20 and I still don't understand how to play! :)

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

It really involves nothing more than constantly holding the knob with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other. Seriously, I think the only thing I had to learn was how to adjust the knob so the point the flying balls reached was high enough...that sounds convoluted doesn't it.

ally & kim said...

wah higatsu shigotonin is so cool...how did you get the video? a random youtube search or did you record it?

i dunno how to play pachinko too, i didn't dare try for fear of losing my life in the parlours...

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

I found it through a random youtube search-it's amazing how many people have recorded their favourite pachinko games and posted them. I personally can't multi-task like that between all the smoking and gripping the knob. :)