In Tokyo, particularly in Roppongi and Sinjuku, there are Pachinko parlors everywhere. They are kind of like the American equivalent of slot machines; a pinball-like game where one wins tokens that can later be exchanged for prizes, or, if you know where to go and who to talk to, cash. They remind me of Vegas casinos with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Pachinko machines lined up one right after the other. They make the same metal-machine, twinkling music that the slots do and are wildly popular in Tokyo. Gambling is not legal per se, but there is plenty of gambling involved with Pachinko, and the same gambler’s etiquette applies here–do not touch another player’s steel balls. It is best to sometimes “wait out” a machine that is due for a pay-off, just like the slots.
What I love about Pachinko parlors is the atmosphere; lots of low-hanging, hazy smoke and orange-y light, like an old American pool hall or an Edward Hopper painting. The lifers play two or three machines at once, the only noise being the clinking tinkly music of the machines themselves; sometimes hundreds at a time and the cacophony of sound oddly beautiful; the loose-change music of chance.
A lot of these joints are owned by the Yakuza, and those guys are always present. You can pick them out of a crowd. Black, tailored suits, black ties, white shirts and and hair-cuts that run the gamut from Elvis-type pompadours to the ‘fade’ cuts favores by Rappers in the late 80’s and shades– always shades, noon or midnight. Often they will be playing the machines as well. There is an unmistakable gangster-chic aura about these places. Some of them have American dance music piped in softly, or muzak-style rap that has none of the curbside urgency of the American variety. Everybody smokes. Women play this game with as much ferocity as men do. Invariably a door or two down from the parlor is a shop where the tokens can be redeemed for prizes and then the prizes for cash in the black market. Everything from motor-scooters to knock-off Rolexes can be won playing Pachinko.
I found the places I visited to be mesmerizing in their activity. Watching a good Pachinko player is as much a treat as watching a good poker player or chef. Virtuosity in anything is rewarding to observe.
These places are especially gorgeous at night when the night people come out to play. There are dramas and narratives criss-crossing in every parlor; an unspoken language of nods, winks, gestures and half-smiles, and it all means something. What? I can’t guess, but it makes my wheels turn and then I want to make pictures.