Japan Today

An addict’s guide to pachinko

By Joe Van Bakel

Garish blinking lights. Overwhelming noise. Suffocating smoke. Zombified patrons. For fresh-off-the-boat gaijin, the pachinko parlor is one of the first signs that Japan is, indeed, the strangest place on earth. Yet, more than anything else, pachinko is a drug, and like any drug it can be intimidating to try. You need to be shown how, and you need to be convinced you should. So, take our hand as we lead you to the highest of Japanese highs — and the lowest of lows.


First, you must understand the machine. Often described as “pinball turned vertical,” pachinko machines shoot small silver balls at a wicked pace. The balls cascade down, bouncing off and directed by a series of pins. Eventually, they drop toward bottom center, where there’s a hole protected on both sides by two small doors. When the doors are closed, one ball can slip through; when they’re open, three or more can. Most balls fall meaninglessly into the bottom of machine. Watching this parade is, for the most part, what has everyone so entranced. It’s the only thing besides choosing which machine to play that gives any control of the experience.

Play could not be simpler — or more deceptively difficult. Feed money into the top left of machine and press the button near the bin sticking out like a big bottom lip near the bottom; it will fill up with your balls. Grab the wheel at the bottom right with your right hand and twist.

Here’s the trick: the amount you twist controls the speed at which the balls shoot out the top. Tiny adjustments change the ball’s path as it bounces down through the pins. Your job is to find a sweet spot where the balls jump consistently into that little hole at the bottom. A good goal is 20 for every 1,000 yen you spend. If you’re consistently getting less than ten, you’ll want to stand up and take a little frustration-dampening stroll, lest you punch the machine and get tossed out. Seasoned addicts will jam a 5 yen coin in the mechanism behind the wheel to freeze it once they’ve found the perfect position. This may earn you a chastising “Dame!” from staff. Ignore them and jam the coin back in once they’ve turned away.

For each ball that goes in the hole, you are rewarded in two ways: you get about 10 free balls, and you also get one spin on a virtual slot machine that appears in the machine’s video screen. Unlike Western-style slot machines, this one has numbers (which may be written in kanji) rather than symbols (like cherries). Exactly like Western slot machines, however, three of a kind wins. The similarities end there.


What makes pachinko the singularly most addictive game known to man is what is called a REACH. In simple terms, a REACH occurs whenever your spin gets two of the same numbers and you’re forced to wait for the outcome of the third. The first thing that happens is that the screen changes into REACH mode. When this happens, there is an epic battle played out between the number you need to complete a winning set and some other number. The number you want is represented by a cartoon good guy. Any other number is the bad guy. Samurai warriors battle. A guy on a boat fights a shark. Yoda dukes it out with Darth Vader. And so on.

Pachinko machines go into REACH mode every fourth spin or so. When they do, your emotions start to fly. The REACH on any machine is repetitive, and more often than not the good guy loses and a shamed cartoony grin crosses his face.

It’s when something out of the ordinary happens that your heart really begins to pound. Perhaps the blue bus that usually crosses the screen suddenly turns red. (“Ohhh, something good is about to happen!”) Maybe the lights in the machine start to spin. (“Here we go!”) The woman who has been on the screen for an hour is all of a sudden adorned in gold (“I’m about to get paid.”) The screen jumps from cartoon to live action and whispers “REACH.” (“I think I’m gonna explode.”) There are a whole series of audio and visual cues and increasingly complex events happening on screen which tell you that this REACH is the one where the good guy wins. When your machine acts like it’s about to win, it means that it is.


The cartoon battle ends and you have three of the same number. A soaring power ballad begins to play and you feel like a king. A flap under the hole opens up, sucking in every ball and converting each of them into ten new ones. As you amass balls, you press a button that dumps them into the plastic tray on the ledge in front of you. The sound of these balls hitting the plastic rinses you clean of the shame you’ve felt at feverishly driving all that money into your machine.

This “win time” lasts two or three glorious minutes, at the end of which you’ll have a full tray of balls in front of you worth about 5,000 yen. After the win, you also enter into a period called “lucky time.” The doors protecting the hole at the bottom of the machine open up and you get 100 “free” spins. If your winning numbers were red, it means you are guaranteed to win again during “lucky time.” Blue means you might.

Pachinko machines win in bunches. The feeling is euphoric, and nearby players are envious of the songs and flashing lights coming off your machine. Once you’ve felt the ecstasy of being in win mode or lucky mode and have collected tray after tray of beautiful tiny silver wonder balls, you will be a slave to the machine for the rest of your days.

At this point, it is important to remember to adhere to the first rule of pachinko etiquette

Pachinko Etiquette

Rule 1: Show no emotion. Your winning face should be the same as your losing face. You are playing in close proximity to others, so don’t drag them onto your emotional roller coaster — they are on one of their own. Internalize your joys and your wretched despair. "Obasan" are the only people to occasionally thwart this convention, so it is only with them that you can share a satisfied smile or glance of anxiety.

Rule 2: Never pick up a full tray under any circumstances. There is a call button at the top of the machine that alerts the staff to help you. They will hand you an empty tray and then pick up your winnings and put them on the floor behind you.

Rule 3: For God’s sake, never kick over a tray. Pachinko parlors are tight places, so tread carefully. Should one of your feet betray you and send 1,000 balls cascading, just run away and don’t look back. Your apologies are going to fall on deaf angry ears.

Collecting your winnings

Your smoking-hot machine has turned noticeably cold with few REACHes and none of the good long ones. You’ve been seething in the silent burning hatred and envy of your neighbor, who has sunk 20,000 yen into his machine and come out a big winner. Now is not the time to be greedy. It’s time to go home, or back to work, or to face your angry girl/boyfriend whom you were supposed to meet three hours ago. The trays behind you are overflowing with balls each worth about 15 yen. It’s time to cash out.

The problem is that playing pachinko for money is illegal. “Seems legal to me,” you say? Well, let’s take a look at the hoops you’re about to jump through in order to get your cash.

First, call the staff over and indicate that you are finished by making an exaggerated X in front of you with your arms. The staff will dump each of your trays into a counting machine, which spits out a receipt indicating how many balls you’ve collected. Take the receipt to the main counter. A different staff member will give you some kind of token, usually a color-coded set of cards. These cards can be converted into sweet sweet yen — but not inside the parlor. Nope, you have to take them somewhere called a tuck shop.

Where is this tuck shop? Well, don’t ask the staff, because they won’t tell you. The best thing to do is to wait for a fellow winner and follow them. Once you’re inside the tuck shop, you will see no staff, just a small Astroturf-lined drawer that will shoot out when you reach the front of the line. Drop your cards in. The drawer will snap shut, and when it reopens, the cards will be replaced by your loot. Walk away. Pachinko experience complete. Addict successfully hooked.

How to never lose at pachinko

  1. Choose a machine wisely. Learn to read the stats which are at the top of every machine. Usually there are two numbers. The smaller is how many wins it’s had today. The bigger is how many spins it’s had. A good machine has few wins and a lot of spins. Also, machines pay out in waves. You can press a data button and it will give you the stats for the preceding days. If a machine won twice two days ago and 10 times yesterday, it should be ready to win big today. Conversely, if a machine won 25 times two days ago and 12 yesterday, today it’s only going to eat money.

  2. Play "shindai." "Shindai," which means “new machine,” is probably the most important word in the pachinko player’s vernacular. These machines are advertised on trains and in front of parlors. They have no stats, so they pay out without having to be fed first. You may have to reserve a spot or wait in line to get one. Do so. These machines stay very hot for about a week and are good for about two.

  3. Play at grand opening events. Call in sick in order to do so. All the machines are "shindai."

  4. Cap spending. Unless it’s the first couple of days of a "shindai," don’t spend more than 5,000-10,000 yen on any machine. The first time you stumble home having lost a full month’s rent results in a sad, call-your-mother type of depression.

  5. Never, ever play in an empty parlor. It’s empty for a reason.

  6. Don’t feed machines your winnings. The machine’s job is to use your addiction against you. If you find yourself calling the staff to move a bucket from behind your chair to the ledge in front of you, give your head a shake and run away.

The big questions

  1. Why are there lines outside some pachinko parlors in the morning? These people are pachinko pros. They know exactly which machine they want because they know the stats and can anticipate where there will be a silver ball explosion on any given day. The problem is that every one of those people in the line is thinking about one of the same 10 pregnant machines. The smart disappointed leave. Everybody else, including you, will sit and feed the stats.

  2. Why the noise? Once you’ve taken a seat and fed in your first ¥1,000, the noise magically disappears. You’ve honed in on the sounds of only your machine, searching for and then finding meaning in each bing and high-pitched squelch. It’s only after you leave that you start to hear it all, an incoherent ringing that lasts about an hour until you start singing the winning song over and over inside your head — even if it was your neighbor’s machine doing the winning.

  3. What are the staff yelling about? They are telling you that you could win on your next spin. You know that. That’s why you’re there.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Years ago I thought I might try pachinko if I ever found a smokeless parlour. The curiosity soon evaporated.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The one thing this article doesn't mention is, who owns and runs these parlors and where do the profits go? - Korea.

Pachinko is a scourge on Japanese society and should wiped from the face of the earth. This pathetic addiction destroys lives. In Australia there are slots in all pubs and casinos in every major city, however, the operators are trained to notice gambling addictions and there is a very strong support network of councilors. What do they have in Japan? - A blind eye!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

No mention of the babies left to bake to death inside cars while their addict parents play this pathetic game. Or the kids left at home unattended and end up falling off balconies or burning the apartment down. Pachinko is the dumbest form of addictive gambling, run by gangsters and kept "legitimate" by the ex police chiefs who inherit managerial posts at parlors. Disillusioned is right. A lot of the profits go to North Korea, but you'll never hear the rightwing thugs in trucks blaring this fact, since they're in on the take as well.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Pachinko machines were first built during the 1920s as a children's toy called "corinth game" (コリントゲーム, korinto gēmu?); based on and named after an American game called "Corinthian Bagatelle". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pachinko

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Garish blinking lights. Overwhelming noise. Suffocating smoke. Zombified patrons. For fresh-off-the-boat gaijin, the pachinko parlor is one of the first signs that Japan is, indeed, the strangest place on earth.

No, just hell on earth.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Pachinko's a sick escape from a sick society.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I was wondering where I should leave the kids whilst I play. I understand proper etiquette demands I leave them in the car with the windows closed. Is this correct?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I was invited to try pachinko once and still to this day I have no idea why. Since I knew absolutely zero about the game and the strategies, I thought it was a strange waste of time. However, having read this article it cleared up a few questions for me. I'm still not interested in going again. To 'Disillusioned' up there, why are all the profits going to Korea? (sorry, I am obviously very naive about this subject)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

"I understand proper etiquette demands I leave them in the car with the windows closed. Is this correct?"

Apparently, yes. And don´t forget to park your car in the sun.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"For fresh-off-the-boat gaijin, the pachinko parlor .."

No one comes here by boat any more. Those days are long gone.

Maybe 'For fresh-off-the-plane gaijin' would be a more appropriate phrase.

Sorry, I've just had lunch and am feeling EXTREMELY picky. :-)

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Get a real hobby...or do some real gambling...it will turn you into a vegetable,just have a conversation with the people that play.

1 ( +1 / -0 )


"The one thing this article doesn't mention is, who owns and runs these parlors and where do the profits go? - Korea"

Very well said! And that's the reason why I'd never play Pachinko! Western Pinball machines are a better choice anytime.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Some of these pachinko/slots machine are tops in technology and the Japanese companies that make them are raking in the money.

I would guess the craziest thing about pachinko is what you are able to win. Most of these parlors will only have a couple of jackpots worth up to 30 mon ($3000). After sitting all day and night, most people would be happy to take home a profit of 1 mon ($100).

Gotta laugh at "profits going to Korea". LOL

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I still would appreciate it if someone would kindly explain why the profits are going to Korea and what Korean people have to do with pachinko. Thank you to the person who is nice enough to give me an answer, even if it is quick and simple.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Most Pachinko parlors are owned and run by Korean mafia. The local Jp govs get a cut and ignore the social implications of Pachinko. (Or should that be 'antisocial implications?)

Because gambling is illegal in Japan there are no regulations covering the payout rate of these machines. It's a blatant rip-off. They only payout enough to keep the suckers interested.
1 ( +1 / -0 )

Hmmmm, thank you for your response. I didn't know that they were run by the Korean mafia, I just assumed they were run by the Japanese mafia (which may be Korean decent?). And so they are sending that money to North Korea? To help build nukes??? Sorry, but I don't understand why the Korean mafia in Japan would want to do that. I seems like they are shooting themselves in the foot. But maybe they are getting some kick-backs. I don't know, this dark underbelly is all news to me.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

never been, never want to. Just today went past a Pachinko Parlour on a beautiful sunny day and thought to my self - what a sad bunch of people wasting a beautiful early spring day.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

During my first visit to Japan, my friend and I had a couple of hours to kill one afternoon. I suggested pachinko, because I'd always wanted to see what it was about. She'd played it once, when she was 10. No expertise there...

We walked into the parlor and made it clear to the nice young lady behind the counter that we wanted to play but didn't have a clue. She walked out and plopped us down in front of a "Star Wars Fever" machine.

Long story short: I didn't have much of an idea of what I was doing, but I walked out two hours later with a 75 ml bottle of energy drink and a bag of chips. The nice young lady led me around the corner to the "teller's window" and told me to hand in my chips, for which I received..... 54,000 yen! I played again a couple of days later and won another 20,000 yen.

I played once again two years later, blew 1,000 yen and left. Done with pachinko. I wouldn't call it a pleasant experience, but it certainly was fun for a first- (and last-) timer.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japan should quit the whole childish facade and get casinos.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Tip for those Gaijin "fresh off the boat", Pachinko parlours have nice clean toilets and nobody ever bats an eye at you walking in and using them.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

hahaha. this is pretty hilarious. hey people waste money on all kinds of entertainment anyway, video games, booze, partying, cigarettes, etc; all arguably as equally addictive if not more so. i say all things in moderation. if it helps to relieve stress and you have fun doing it, i say why not.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is one of the best article I've ever read in Japantoday or Metropolis !!!

I never tried Pachinko in my 6 years of Japan, but I should sometimes.. Just burn 3-5000 yen or so and enjoy the experience :)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I know people who make as much on Pachinko as they do at work. They fund their vacations and big ticket items with their winnings. But they live in those places on the weekend and spend a lot of time preparing.

Life is too short to waste it on working yourself to death, as most do here in Japan, then spending the weekend trying to turn a little more income in those noisey, smoke filled hell holes.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I'm no pachinko fan, but this was a great article.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The real problem with pachinko and all gambling in fact is that it is a quick fix... immediate self-gratification that really has no long term value. in fact, long term it is very damaging. For one, being a smoke filled, noisy environment is devastating to one's health long term. But the biggest damage come from the belief that there is a quick fix to wealth. Instead of going to the pachinko parlor people should go home and start thinking about starting a business where they can truly help other people in some way... provide a genuinely valuable service to others. (the complete opposite of the selfishness of pachinko). Some much comes back to you when you start thinking about other people and just get off thinking about yourself (getting money in the case of pachinko). In fact, I believe all suffering comes from thinking about one's self. Joy and happiness comes when you think about others. In fact, I think that's what love is... forgetting yourself and thinking about others. Study Buddhism. Lots of great stuff in there.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This is real hell on Earth: Smoke, continuous squicky announcements, and sicko J-pop music. If you want to lose your marbles, go for it, this is the right place to do it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

You can buy secondhand pachinko at game sokou(warehouse) then you can hone your skills at home

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I agree with Altria - I don't play either but I enjoyed (and learned a lot from) this article.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Disillusioned at 03:29 PM JST - 15th February Most Pachinko parlors are owned and run by Korean mafia.

"owned and operated" please

I had a student who went to pachinko every weekend. She claimed to make 8000 yen on average every weekend. She stayed all day Saturday and Sunday, so I pointed out that she was making 500 yen per hour -- to "play", of course. She seemed satisfied. She spent the rest of her weekends watching 10 videos. In class, she was famous for the expression, "Oh, weewee" her way of saying "Oh, really?". She was a 7B at Nova ("What is he doing? level), but signed up for a 300,000 yen medical translation course when she didn't even know the word "finger". I mentioned I was moving and she showed up at my place with a massive truck from her father's painting company. She claimed to have a Picasso in her house. She took four man-to-man lessons a day for two years yet never got out of "Fizz is the softest" Level 6.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I've always been pretty lucky at Pachinko. As long as you set spending limits you should be ok. Anyway, a bit of quick cash does wonders for one's outlook on life. Just don't get sucked into pachinko as an occupation.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This is real hell on Earth: Smoke, continuous squicky announcements, and sicko J-pop music

Dont forget the excessively bright neon lights on the machine floor set at 1000+lumens

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I play a lot of it, too much! I guess i am addicted, can you send some advise, dear Metropolis?

(i guess it will be fair, or? You cant show only one side of the Medal!)

All this People inside are addicted, everyone and special the old ones, one of the Reasons are that old People do not have a other Place to go!

So, show the real World of Pachinko!

I win a lot but the next Day i will loose, there is one Rule, in a Month you will spend 35-40% more than your Winnings, all the so called Profies!

Trust me, you cant Win, even if you are playing "only the New Ones"! Even with a proper calculation, optimisem and Prayers, there is absolutly no chance!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This is a very entertaining article and a great introduction to Pachinko for beginners. But I'd recommend readers beware of the "strategies" recommended by the author. For a self-proclaimed "addict" of Pachinko, Mr. Van Bakel gets a lot wrong.

Pachinko balls are "rented" (bought) for 4 yen a piece, not "about 15 yen." If a player wins, he sells those balls back to the parlor for a rate which is almost always lower than the original 4 yen. The most common rate until a little while ago was 2.5 yen. This means that if you bought 100 balls and then traded in 125, you'd come out BEHIND. In general, you need to make back over 140% of your original "investment" to come out ahead in Pachinko. This is why Pachi-pros play for so long.

Alternatively, one of the worst things you can do in Pachinko is play in short spurts, or cash out immediately after winning. And yet, the author recommends both of these "strategies." I wish I had a nicer way to put this, but he's just dead wrong.

Who is this guy, anyways? Googling his name turns up almost nothing. A pseudonym?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

"This is a very entertaining article"

Especially this part:

"Rule 3: For God's sake never kick over a tray. Pachinko parlors are tight places so tread carefully. Should one of your ( hey, what happened to the "big gaijin" in the Metropolis version? ) feet betray you and send 1,000 balls cascading..."

1 ( +1 / -0 )

sounds a lot like Everquest except in EQ you don't get money as easily...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

pachinko is GOD. don't study buddhism, study pachinko.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

GREAT article and written in the exact style I would expect for a funny irreverant gaijin look at this amazing 'sport'.

Now - go out there, play and WIN my son!!

I miss Metropolis magazine, and Tokyo... :(

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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