04/05/2014 08:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What the F*ck Is Pachinko?

Pop and clink your way around Japan. Illegal gambling has never sounded or looked so bright!
Photo by: aubergene

In a country that pulsates with neon signs and never-ending karaoke, leisure time activities need to pack a sensory punch if they're going to get any play from the locals. Pachinko, with its orgy of colors, lights and sounds, is the perfect marriage of arcade and casino and while Japanese law strictly prohibits gambling, playing this game can turn your coins into some serious bucks (or colored pencils).

Balls Out
Photo by: Star Wars & Chelsea Marie-Hicks

Pachinko is basically a tricked-out version of pinball, with the game play area mounted vertically in front of the player (so that pachinko junkies can keep at it longer than if they were hunched over a horizontal machine). Rather than using flippers to knock a single ball around, players twist a knob to shoot a series of small metal balls into a labyrinth of pins. The balls tumble through the pins and land in various chambers. Just like in life, get your balls in the right hole and you're a winner. The payout is more balls (trays and trays of them, if you're any good). Control is key; you don't want to blow your wad. Fire out the balls too fast and they plummet down the loser chute. Too light a touch and they don't shoot at all. In short, finesse your balls, since jerking the knob is the only control you get to exercise in the game. Once the balls hit the game play area, fate and gravity decide which slots they will end up in.

Eyes on the Prize
Photo by: Nomadic Lass

Collecting your winnings takes a few steps, since you're more or less dancing around the Japanese law that forbids gambling. Once your carpal-tunneled wrist screams at you to stop pachinko-ing already, push the call button at the top of the machine and a parlor employee will come and haul your balls away for counting. You'll get a printed credit slip that is redeemable for prizes: candy, cigarettes, toys, and household items. Claim your dinky treasure and cherish it forever.

Cash Out
Photo by: Kevin Poh

Oh, you don't need a new key chain or pencil box? Turning your balls back into cold, hard cash takes a little finagling around these parts. To sidestep the anti-gambling laws, the Japanese have set up a sneaky system to reconnect you with your cash. To get the green, you must take your winnings off the premises, usually around the corner to an "exchange shop"; a hole in the wall that'll swap your balls for cash.

Play Time
Photo by: Bethany

No need to search far or wide for a pachinko parlor. Turn a corner in any major Japanese city and one of these adult-oriented arcades will smack you in the face. Once inside, don't expect to see anything like the dimly lit casinos back home in the U.S. as Japan has managed to best us again by styling their gaming establishments like kaleidoscopic acid trips. Everything about a pachinko parlor announces that you are about to have your senses delightfully fucked with. Throbbing neon displays and shimmering LCD screens beckon you in and keep you happily rooted in your seat. Even the word "pachinko" is charmingly onomatopoeic, so named for the pops and clinks the balls make as they ping around the machines.

Bypassing the pachinko parlor on a trip to Japan is like forgoing sushi and sake to dine at Mickey Ds. It's a pastime as Japanese as bonsai trimming, but fucktons more fun. Make sure to get in some quality knob-fiddling and ball-shooting next time you've got a few yen to burn.

Written by: Rachel Dunlop