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An Insider's Guide to Pachinko

By: Lana Sutton

Date Posted: 2001-02-23

You’ve used them as landmarks. You’ve seen them lighting up the night sky like an outdoor baseball field. You’ve wondered what the fascination is and why there are so many all over the island. I’ve wondered too and I finally decided to check one out with the help of a Japanese friend. She was happy that I wanted to go. She doesn’t think many Americans are very interested in Pachinko. I told her that I was willing, but because of the language barrier, I was afraid to try it. Since she was going with me, I was very happy to try it.

We met at 9:30 am and headed to the Sunbird Pachinko Parlor on Hwy. 58. You’ve seen it; it’s just past Navel Kadena shopping area and its mascot is the big Sunbird with its arms stretched out, beckoning you to come in. The Sunbird Pachinko Parlor has a good reputation for giving favorable playing odds. We parked in the free parking area behind the building. It had opened at 9 am and there were a couple of dozen cars parked already. As we entered the building, the first thing that greeted us was the sound of horns and the clanking of metal.

We met with an “expert” who is a frequent Pachinko patron. He was to be our “guide” for the day and helped us out by giving us some special tips on playing and winning. My friend has played Pachinko with him often and, with his help, has won quite a few times. I was ready!

Our first step was to decide how much to start with; a ´1000, ´2000, ´3000, or ´5000 card. I decided to start out at a medium range and went for the ´2000 card. I felt lucky! After buying my card, I then had to decide which game to start with. Pachinko is basically a vertical pin-ball game. I thought, hey, I’ve played pin-ball, I can do this. But it was a bit more complicated than that.

Once you pick a game that looks interesting, you have to decide on which machine to play. Our expert had picked a few for us that, according to its meter, had been lucky the day before (see tip #2 below). So, I inserted my card (to the left of each machine), pressed the lighted button, which gave me ´500 worth of shiny, silver balls to start with. Now, here’s the tricky part. You have to turn the dial to make the balls fall into a specific slot. This will activate the screen and start it spinning. Watch the screen as it slows and stops, showing a combination of fish (or dogs or whatever your game theme happens to be). If it stops on one of the designated patterns, you win! That easy! Well, okay, maybe not THAT easy. There is, however, a simple way to keep the balls going without having to turn the dial 150 times. Once you have the right degree of pressure that will propel your balls in the right direction to fall into the slot, you can place a coin between the dial and the knob (see photo). This will make you run out of balls quickly and have to go for another card or two. As I looked around me, I saw a number of people (mostly men) in trances, hypnotized by the flow of shiny balls, smoking cigarettes, waiting for the winning combination. I wondered how they could remain in such a calm, patient state with all of the noise and lights going on at once. As I looked closer, I saw coins placed in their ears to keep the noise out. This way, they could stay for the whole day. I also noticed that quite a few of them had won!

Our expert won a nice amount. When his machine hit, the top panel lighted up and there was a loud trumpet sounding out “The William Tell Overture” (think “Lone Ranger”). The attendant rushed over with a basket for all of his winnings, while shouting out his number over the loudspeaker! That’s why he’s the expert. I was out of credits on my card and had to go for another ´1000. I lost that one even faster than the first and decided I should try another game. I chose the dog races and was hoping to gain some luck by cheering and clapping. Close, but no cigar! Another ´1000 lost. That was enough for me.

I have to say though, it was a nice change from the slot machines found all over the bases. I wouldn’t mind going back again, maybe on a rainy day. It was a bit slow at the start, but once I understood how it worked, it was much easier. I think the exciting thing about it is the atmosphere; flashing lights, the sound of lots of people winning, the shine of the balls. I’m not really a gambler but I did enjoy myself that dayÐ maybe it was just the novelty of something new. It is part of Japanese culture and at least I can say that I tried it!

The Sunbird Pachinko Parlor is open every day from 9 am to 11:30 pm. Slot machines are also plentiful and available from

9 am to 12 am. They welcome Americans, are very patient, and are glad to help you if they can.

Some helpful tips:

1. Go during the early hours. It’s less crowded, less noisy and less smoke-filled.
2. Look at the meter on the top right corner of each machine. The top right number is the wins for the
current day; the bottom right number is the wins for the day before.
3. If it’s your first time, you might want to take along a Japanese-speaking pal to help translate how to play the varieties of games. But don’t be intimidated. Look at it as an adventure.
4. Food and drink are available, however, it is not free like it is in Vegas and other places in the States. So, save some yen for refreshments.
5. You can exchange your winnings at a better rate for prizes than yen.
6. If you’d like to exchange your winnings for yen, tell the counter person after you have your prize ticket and he will direct you to a separate company (located next to the parking area) that will exchange it for yen.

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