So what is your image of Japan?
A romantically beautiful garden in tune with the surrounding environment, with cherry blossom trees sighing in the soft wind next to a carp-filled pond?
How about a wooden training dojo, alive with the thuds of kendo sticks and the thwacks of archery shafts hitting home in their stuffed-straw targets?
Or perhaps an exotically beautiful kimono-clad girl, playing a shamisen and singing in a clear high voice of love and loss?
All images of Japan, and all false.
The one thing that sums up Japan, that underlines the chasm between the image and the reality...is the pachinko parlor.
A pachinko machine is what you might get if a slot machine, a poker machine and a pinball machine had a threesome and engended some misbegotten mutant child. Knobs whistles and dials. Flashing lights. Cigarette-filled ashtrays. Sirens and blaring music. Hundreds of tiny steel ball flying around, bashing into each other and driving their noise into your skull like a hammer wielded by a meth-addict. Filling the parlor with a desperately unpleasant mix of loud noise, bright light and tobacco smoke. Pretty much my personal idea of hell.
Oh, and you have to pay. A lot. It's gambling Japanese-style. And just as the Japanese army doesn't actually exist according to the Japanese consitution, and thus passes itself off as the /Self Defence Force/; the pachinko parlor rewards its few lucky winners not with money directly, but with cigarettes, radios and lighters, which the patron drags around the block to the secretive yakuza-run pawn shop and exchanges for hard yen.
The most popular pastime in Japan. They are everywhere, from the smallest countryside town to the huge Shinjuku and Shibuya parlors with hundreds of machines.
On Saturday afternoons, when you may wonder why the parks and beaches in your city of 20 million or your town of 6000 are empty, you will find the answer when you walk by the open doors to the local parlor and see the lines of captive men inside, tied to their machines like the worst pokie-addict back home. Not only that, you will often find men in large numbers early in the morning, lining up outside waiting for the parlor to open. I can understand this, it gives the Japanese an opportunity to combine two of their favourite activities.
In fact, it is so popular that parchinko parlors are often the largest and most conspicuous buildings in a town or neighbourhood. Some theorists, observing that a society's largest buildings are often places of worship- cathedrals in Europe, temples in South-East Asia, mosques in the Middle East, have concluded that pachinko is actually Japan's real religion. Certainly its most popular.
Many magazines, books and internet sites are devoted to pachinko, where readers learn hints, tips and strategies. Many pachinko players are convinced it is possible to win long-term, by, for example, finding out which machines are programmed to pay out more winnings. In fact, many people have ambitions to achieve the Holy Grail of Pachinko Life, that is, to become a Professional Pachinko Player. Unfortunately I do not share their ambition.
In fact, I think it is fair to say that the very thought of the shuddering horror entailed by such an occupation is enough to make me doubt the existence of a benevolent deity.
Yeah- I don't get it either.