Let me walk you in the door of the Pachinko Oasis. We are in Iidabashi, a geographically central but not especially electric area of Tokyo. The outer moat of the Imperial Palace provides a spacious feel, and a handful of universities and intersecting train lines give a little bustle: pubs, noodle shops, and of course the Pachinko parlor. The evening is calm, and the sliding doors of the Pachinko Oasis greet us with a roar of flipping punchers, tumbling pinballs, buzzers, sirens, and girl-group pop tunes. A stale mix of cigarette smoke and air freshener blasts us in the face. I last about twenty-five seconds. That is exactly how long it takes me to decide this is a place I never want to be again.
Pachinko is a kind of vertical pinball machine with hundreds of balls cascading over a round light display. Each pathway triggers the release of more balls or spins a virtual slot machine in the center of the screen. The game started as a simple mechanical toy for children, but since World War II, has ballooned into a $400 billion a year gambling industry. Of course, there is no gambling in Japan. It just so happens that next door to the Pachinko parlor, you can sell the plastic trinkets you won for real money. As long as the two businesses keep separate books, nobody says boo.
Before writing off the world of Pachinko, I figured I should at least give it a try. Feeling too shell-shocked and self-conscious to take a chair at the Oasis, I found a solo machine at the video store and plugged 100 yen into the slot. The machine came to life, offering me a variety of spiky-haired characters and releasing a flood of silver. The controls included a twisting knob, a pair of bright red buttons and a small four-key pad, basically a BOP-IT! set rigged up to a pinball machine. I pounded, pressed, and spun, but for the life of me, I could not discern any effect on the dwindling stream of balls. By the end I just watched them bounce their way down. My Pachinko career lasted about thirty seconds. I declined to enter my name in the score sheet and glanced around to be sure no on had watched me flailing around in my swivel chair. This was not my game.
Across town at the Oasis, life goes on in one of the most abrasive sonic spaces ever created for human pleasure. Balls accumulate and diminish, stacked by the hundreds in plastic trays. Salarymen and housewives, college kids and retirees lose themselves, their eyes and fingertips twitching with the ricochets while their bodies remain perfectly still. I had always seen the name of the Oasis as purely ironic, but for the regulars it might just be apt. They are in the zone, the caustic sounds, lights, and smells blocking out all interference from the outside world. Or perhaps their senses just become so over-stimulated that they shut down, diverting all brain function to the computation of rebound trajectories. In either case, after my own Pachinko failure I have to respect their composure, and their ability to sit calmly in the crush of noise while four-yen balls flash down the drain.