I just returned from a summer in Japan! It was my 2nd time in Japan but the first extended period of time that I had spent in Japan. I was able to play some mahjong and I would like to share my experience with you and give some tips to those hoping to play at jansou for the first time. If you didn’t know, jansou aka “mahjong parlors” are places where you go to play mahjong, commonly found in Japan.
Preface: The Requirements
If you are looking to play in a jansou, it is expected that you know some Japanese and know the rules. Unless you’re with someone who knows Japanese, you should be able to understand the rules of the parlor and be able to hold a conversation with the staff. In addition, you should know how to score your hands (count han/fu and convert that into a number). These two things are basically required if you want to play in jansou in Japan.
Types of Mahjong
There are a few terms you should know before you go to a jansou. First there is “free mahjong.” No, this is not mean that the mahjong is free. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world. Free mahjong refers to the ruleset that uses shuugi. Shuugi (also known as “chips”) are bonuses received most commonly for red dora, ippatsu, and ura dora. Depending on the parlor, shuugi will be worth different amounts of money, possibly ranging from 50 yen to 1000 yen per shuugi. Free mahjong can either be based on placement or points. For example in some parlors, only your placement in the game matters in determining how much money you win/lose. Otherwise, the number of points you end with determine how much money you win/lose. Furthermore, free mahjong parlors have table fees which are a fixed amount of money you pay per game. If you can match the table fee with your winnings, then this mahjong will be “free!”
Next is “no-rate mahjong.” No-rate does not involve gambling since it means that you pay to play mahjong. Some places have you pay by hour while others you pay by your placement. No-rate is fairly straight forward. I suggest it to those who do not wish to gamble or those who do not feel confident enough in their skills to play free mahjong.
Finally there is “set mahjong.” Set mahjong is where you and 3 others rent a table at a jansou. You are free to use whatever rules you like since you are playing with your friends. Some parlors are set mahjong parlors, so you cannot walk in by yourself and play like you can in free or no-rate.
Now that you know these terms, I can talk about the parlors I went to.
Shibuton is a no-rate parlor located in Shibuya. The payments are based on placement. 1st pays 200 yen, 2nd pays 300 yen, 3rd pays 400 yen, and 4th pays 500 yen. When I went there, I told them it was my first time and they gave me an application to fill out with my information (name, age, address, etc.) Also it’s very common for places to ask for a “handle name” which is like a nickname they call you. I went with “Geo” as my handle name. Then a staff member came and explained the rules to me. It usually went like this: I would walk in and write my name in the sign in sheet along with the time. Then I would wait until a spot opened up or there were 4 people to start a new game. If there weren’t enough people, sometimes the staff would play. But usually I waited and the staff would bring me a wet towel and a drink. A cool thing they do at Shibuton is print out your stats. Every couple of visits, they will give you a sheet with your win record which shows your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place rates and your R. Check out their website here: http://www.shibuton.jp/
Zoo is a mahjong parlor chain that offers free mahjong and set mahjong. In one of the locations in Ikebukuro (here), they also have “free no-rate” which basically means no-rate by the hour. I played free mahjong at Zoo with xkime in Shinjuku. I don’t remember the rates well because I don’t really understand it well but each shuugi was 50 yen. I also played no-rate with Dasuke and Daina Chiba himself! A funny moment was when Mr. Chiba chankan’d me. I was going for chinitsu and reached tenpai. I kanned a 9m that I was keeping to upgrade one of my pons and then boom! Chankan dora 1. First time that happened to me irl. Later I also played free mahjong (tengo rate, which is 50 yen per 1000 points) with Dasuke and no-rate with Dasuke and another one of my friends visiting Japan. Although I didn’t play free mahjong much, I think that the players in free mahjong are better than in no-rate since bad players probably wouldn’t want to play free mahjong and lose a bunch of money. However I did have many good games with good players in no-rate. Check out their website here: http://www.mj-zoo.jp/
First the auto tables that they use deal your starting hand. If you are the dealer, don’t forget your first draw! I accidentally forgot to draw on a few occasions but if you notice on the 2nd turn, they let you take 2 tiles. Another tip is to have good manners. I can’t list them all here, but these are things like discarding before you take a tile for chii/pon, placing point sticks in front of people when you pay, tilting your wall, and placing the rinshan tile down. If you’re not sure what to do, usually you can watch how other people do things and copy them since most people are well-mannered. Next is calling for a daisou. A daisou is a staff member that plays for you if you need a break for a phone call or bathroom. You literally call for a daisou and a member will come over. Usually they will play somewhat neutrally unless you tell them they can do as they please. How daisou behave depend on the parlor. Finally this applies to all parlors, but make sure you clearly call your last game. When the staff come collect the table fee at the end of the game, make sure that you tell them that the next game will be your last. It’s bad practice to leave after a game without prior notice. Obviously this requires a bit of planning if you are on a tight schedule.
Can You Make Profit?
The short answer is no. Mahjong has a couple reasons why it is hard to make a profit by gambling. First there is the fact that mahjong is not a purely skill-based game, which is why it is considered gambling in the first place. This means that mahjong is hard to consistently win. If mahjong were random, you would win (get first) 25% of the time. Suppose a good player can win 30%, which is the 1st rate of many good players in the mahjong world, then that player is still losing 70% of the time! In parlors, there tends to be a focus on getting first since 1st has the most reward. Of course, 2nd place has some gain but it is very insignificant. Another reason why it is hard to make a profit is the parlor system. Every parlor has some sort of table fee. Thus in order to make a profit, your winning must cover the table fee. At higher rates, this becomes easier but the tradeoff is that you can lose more. Getting 4th and even 3rd generally have significant losses. Thus if you’re not getting 1st ~70% of the time (generous estimate), then you will be losing a lot. It is not impossible to make a profit sometimes, but in the long run it is extremely difficult. A few years ago, xkime wrote an article that does some calculations on trying to profit at parlors which you can see here.
Playing in jansou in Japan is an experience that I probably couldn’t get anywhere else. The automatic tables, skilled players, and service are something I would definitely pay for. In both no-rate and free mahjong, I think paying for the unique experience is fine. I’m still learning as a player as I develop my skills and gain more experience. Where I live there are few players I can play with in real life, so going to jansou was an invaluable experience. Handling real tiles and gathering information in real life have nuances that online mahjong doesn’t have. It’s a totally different feeling. I hope to return to Japan someday and when I do, you know where to find me!