While slot-machine parlors are gaining in popularity, Japan’s main answer to casinos still is pachinko, a game that involves skill, chance, flashing lights and noise.

So much noise.

Pachinko — which came to Japan in the 1920s — lures millions to spend hundreds of dollars a night, or more, to stare endlessly at ball bearings weaving their way through assorted pins and lights on an upright board. If a ball falls in a hole, numbers on a video screen inside the machine spin. If the numbers match, the machine regurgitates your winnings in the form of more balls. You reload the balls into the shooting device and hope for more hits, controlling their speed with a knob.

You can’t legally receive money for your pachinko prowess, so you turn in your balls for small plastic prizes. Just outside the pachinko parlor, however, is a booth staffed by attendants who will pay inordinate amounts of cash for your small plastic prizes. Law dictates that these three steps are operated by three separate businesses.

I settled on a smoke-infested steel hailstorm known as Maruhan Pachinko Tower, a former fashion mall reborn as pachinko paradise, for my initiation into this local pastime.

Less than 30 minutes and almost $70 after arriving, with no plastic prizes whatsoever, I realized that mastering the sneaky system of getting my cash would not be an issue.

Ear and lung damage, however, might be. The noise and cigarette smoke overtake anyone who walks among the rows of pachinko machines lined up side by side. Balls clash against plastic trays as machines yell at people to let them know how they can win. Few empty chairs can be found, and even fewer nonsmoking players. Every chair has an umbrella stand and an ashtray.

For the more romantic gaming addicts, there are “love seats” at the end of the room for side-by-side pachinko pleasure.

I started my adventure with an underwater-themed game, featuring graphics of fish on the central screen. I slid in my 1,000-yen bill (about $9) and summoned all my pachinko magic. A minute later, I got up to find a new machine after winning nothing. My girlfriend tried her hand at an anime-themed machine. She lasted longer, but still won nothing.

We finally settled on the “Robocop” machine, where my remaining 5,000 yen (about $44) quickly disappeared without a single “jackpot.”

I later learned from friends that many people spend between 10,000 yen and 20,000 yen ($90-$180) before they start really winning. No wonder pachinko pulls in about 30 trillion yen (about $270 billion) a year in Japan, according to the National Police Agency.

Embarrassed, beaten and determined to never throw money away like that again, I left to wander the neon streets of Shibuya.

I’ll be back soon.

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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