Twenty Minutes With a Tokyo Scrubber – a gaijin tale

A few days ago, I was in Tokyo, hoping to get to Kyoto and catch up with a school chum who is teaching English there, and, from his email, dressing as Santa Claus. We’d agreed to do all of the things that Japan had to offer – get cutesy photo stickers, play video games, croon some at a karaoke, and play Pachinko. We both agreed that we had no idea how to play or what the point was, but when the trip didn’t pan out, I resolved to discover some of its secrets on my own.

Pachinko parlours are like Las Vegas slot machines only money doesn’t come out – steel ballbearings do. Noisily. And you can’t win money, only trade in the 5mm bearings for cigarettes, lighters, and sweets. So I got my 1000 yen worth of bearings, and sat at a machine in the cacophany of blatting steel. The machines are in rows, with a Japanese man or woman glued to a seat in front of each, with one hand controlling a powerflicker. The machine resembles a vertical pinball box without the flippers to control the dropping of the ball from top to bottom – the only control is the powerflicker, with which you can propel the balls faster or slower into the box. Unlike pinball the stream of balls is constant, with around four or five in descent at any one time. And in the middle is a screen which alternately shows slot machine reels,. and cute little anime scenes.

So my balls didn’t last long – maybe 90 seconds elapsed before they were virtually all lost in the bottom of the machine for ever. I was about to save one as a souvenir, when the little screen showed 777 – lucky three ‘sevens’ – and an anime schoolgirl appeared. Balls started pouring back out of the machine, and it seemed to feed itself with new balls constantly. The schoolgirl went through various stages in her life – having friends, meeting businessmen in bars, getting married, and as she progressed, balls started flying out of the bottom too, in addition to keeping the powerflicker constantly fed. An attendant took pity on me and helped me catch the balls in trays about the size of a punnet of strawberries, only much heavier. The attendant also tried to explain what was going on with the ‘sevens’ but the language barrier proved insurmountable. He also helped me when the machine hung – perhaps the schoolgirl had grown up and croaked.

After this went on for a while, I figured out Pachinko. The shiny things and clacking noise are what you pay the money for – you don’t actually win anything of value, but it feels like you’re doing well, and people will come to look at the racket if you are sending the schoolgirl to college every five minutes (I got a very lucky eight ‘sevens’ at one point, and there was murmuring from the occasional onlooking fan). What I didn’t figure out in the slightest was how the flow of balls out of the bottom was related to the powerflicker, the schoolgirl, or the number of ‘sevens’ on view. I’d massed about six punnets, and was getting a little tired of the game, when the attendant pointed out that “there was no challenge any more”, which I kind of agreed with, and he advised me to cash in my punnets. I figured this was part of the mock casino experience, and we were enacting a scene in which the rookie gambler had just broken the bank. But I’d played for over an hour with 1000 yen – about 5 quid, so I was happy to go.

I had about 13,000 bearings, and this amounted to about 60 points. I was led to the little exchange booth, and saw that a pack of fags was about 20 points, and a box of chocolate coated hazelnuts was 23, so I got the nuts and was about to set off, trying to leave the remaining points – there’s only so many hazelnuts a guy can take. But the insisted on giving me square pink tokens – each with a lucky coin set in the middle. I tried to explain that I was leaving Tokyo and didn’t really want them, but they insisted, and then another attendant led me outside to a cashiers desk. The cashier promptly took my tokens and handed over a whopping 53,500 yen – about 280 quid. I looked in disbelief, exclaimed “fuck me” and ran off down the street laughing.

Did I go to Miss Kitty’s and give back the money to the people? No. I grinned a fair amount, had a beer, and found my way to a capsule hotel. It was awesome – my own fibreglass coffin, and a pair of shorts and a robe. Kind of like a YMCA without the butch hairy people, and it had a sauna and steam room too. Bangkok was to be my next stop, so I tried to acclimatise in the steam room. It was sickeningly hot, and a few minutes sapped all of my post-jackpot exuberance, but I did notice that there were women and tables outside the saunas, scrubbing supine steamers. So I had a scrubber wash me down for 20 minutes, using scouring pad mittens, and the human equivalent of Jif – a really abrasive paste that helped to remove most of my dead skin, and a fair amount of live skin too. But I was completely relaxed and squeaky clean at the end of it, and fell into a relaxed slumber in my fibreglass coffin. Only to be woken up by a fair amount of snoring and drunken stumbling as Japanese business men fell out of strip clubs into the hotel.

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