Westeners who visit Tokyo may recognize the many karaoke bars which are present in every corner; after all, this sing-along system has spread throughout the rest of the world. They will also be familiar with the ubiquitous convenience stores, another Japanese export. What they may not recognize are the series of parlors that have saturated the length and breadth of the country but remain relatively unknown beyond it. They are distinctive by their vivid neon signages, loud electronic noises, and row upon row of shiny, flashing machines. They are the pachinko shops.
A pachinko is the next best thing to gambling in Japan, and is such a huge industry in the country some companies even hire Hollywood celebrities like Nicolas Cage to endorse their product. It is sort of vertical pinball machine, where pins are arranged behind a glass screen. Most of them are decorated with decals from popular anime series, and some play audio clips from these shows during jackpot rounds. What you do is buy a tray of 30-50 small metal balls from the counter, then place them at the base of the pachinko machine. The machine then starts dropping the balls from the top of the screen at a fast clip. The balls start hitting the pins, deflecting them onto other pins before landing on the bottom. Your job at this point is to twist a knob which controls the rate the balls fall down, which in turn affect their pattern of dispersal. If they fall into special slots, the machine rewards you by plopping 8-15 more balls in your tray. Another slot activates the video monitor at the center of the glass screen, where an anime girl cheers you on.
The trick to winning is picking a machine based on the number of payouts it has for that day and the number of times the reel has spun without a win (these statistics can be seen on a display on top of the machine). A “hot” machine can continue to fill up your tray until closing time, while a losing machine will eat up your metal balls within minutes. Professional pachinko players can make a living off playing these machines, although the law limits the jackpot amount. And while the prizes are your typical carnival-type items like stuffed toys and bric-a-bracs, illegal operations outside the parlors will trade winning balls with real cash.
If all that pachinko playing leaves you wanting for more electronic fun, then head off to Tokyoâ€™s many arcade game stores. In Japan, where even the lowliest village has a shop dedicated to these interactive machines, the capital is ground zero for the latest trends in video games, titles that will take months before appearing in any other country, if at all. And in a world of X-Boxes and Playstations, arcade games work three times as hard to entice gamers to get away from their home consoles, swipe their game cards and immerse themselves in digital play. In Sega Joypolis in Odaiba, Sega introduced life-sized cars to simulate Initial D Arcade Stage 4, the latest of the popular driving simulation series. Full-scale mockups of the Toyota Trueno, Subaru Impreza WRX and Mazda RX7 are affixed with giant motion simulators, movie projection screens, and moving platforms to give a complete sensation of drifting down Japanâ€™s winding mountain roads. The level of detail is astounding, down to the authentic racing wheels and bucket seats.
Other video games involve the use of cards to store information and save gameplay. One strategy game has up to eight people battling each other on a common system, while another one is a virtual horse race which allows betting. Entire buildings are dedicated to video games, where each floor serves a particular niche, from the ground floor which is devoted to ufo catchers (a crane is manipulated to pick up prizes), the second floor is devoted to photo booths, to the top floor where mature games reside.
If you want to indulge in the cutting-edge video games, then head for Sega Joypolis near the artificial island of Odaiba in Minato District, reachable via the Rainbow Bridge. Many buildings in Akihabara are also dedicated to gaming; just look for the ufocatchers or Taiko Drum simulators outside of the lobby. To get your pachinko fix, Esupasu is a large pachinko chain that operates buildings jam-packed with these machines. The Shinjuku branch is typical of the classiness of their operation.