I was alone in Kyoto part of last week getting tape for a story. One night after doing an interview, I was looking for something to do... and I stumbled into one of the city's gigantic pachinko parlors. The sliding doors opened to a wall of sound -- a cacophony of pop music and high-pitched cartoony explosions. Of course, I got out my recorder. (Stay tuned.)
After I was ordered put it away, I wasn't quite ready to leave. And thanks to a very patient lady attendant, I soon joined the ranks of pachinko-crazed zombies.
Here's how it works: about $10 gets you 250 little silver balls to start. You turn a dial and it releases a ball up to the top of the machine -- then it bounces down through a series of pegs, and if you get it in a hole, you win that ball back -- plus more. The goal is to win as many balls as possible.
The pachinko machine we had in our basement growing up was basically just a lever, balls, and pegs -- but these machines had crazy lights and sound and a video that with every level won told a new chapter in a manga story. Picture a modern pinball machine on speed.
Although my lady attendant had to correct me several times on proper pachinko form, I soon started winning back balls. A lot of them.
After 20 minutes though, I got bored (couldn't understand the screaming cartoons on the screen) and decided to give back my balls and leave. My lady attendant fed them into a machine, then hurried me to the front of the parlor where I was given a candy bar and some plastic cards with numbers/credits on them.
Then things got weird: she spun around and hurried me out the back of the parlor into a creepy alley. At this point, I was sure that my little cultural experiment was about to get me mugged. But instead, she led me to a little booth -- behind a lace curtain, a woman's hands appeared and traded me my cards for cash. A lot of cash. Like nearly 10 times as much as I put in.
Shocked, I thanked her and ran away.
Now from what I hear, pachinko parlors are run by the mob -- and I was supposed to act like my prize was really that candy bar and the credits to keep playing. (In other words, the hurrying out the back door to get my pay-out part never happened.) But you'd never guess that gambling is illegal here from how ubiquitous and mainstream these places are. They're the biggest, brightest, loudest businesses on the block -- and certainly the most popular.
Of course, I gave all the money back.
- Jenny Lawton