karaoke in japan: the experience

Karaoke in America is often a daunting experience.

There is a mic in a stand on a stage, usually in the middle of a bar, and then you are called up to sing in front of not only your friends but every other Joe and Sally who decided to have a drink and blow off steam that night. Everyone is looking at you expectantly, or nobody is paying attention to you at all (who is to say which of those is worse?). The person before you just did a killer rendition of one of your favorite songs and now you’re thinking in horror, “How am I going to compete with that?”

The music starts and you realize that even though you know the chorus by heart and the hook sometimes, you’ve never heard this verse in your entire life. You down your gin & tonic in one gulp and plow forward while your friends cringe and clap too much in a “it’s all right, you’ll get ’em next time” kind of way. Walking off the stage you decide that the only reason you didn’t do so hot is because that obviously wasn’t the right song for you, but maybe such-and-such will be good if you give it a good listen while shaking this off in the bathroom… Then again, no. Your friends tell you to do another song – it’s karaoke night after all! – and when you say you’re not up for it they convince you with tequila shots to take the nervousness off (liquid courage and all that).

Flash forward to the next morning. You have a wicked headache and you can barely remember getting home. While trying to re-hydrate and wondering how much you ended up drinking, you rummage through your phone to discover videos of yourself singing Journey, Queen, … and Eminem? Good lord.

Okay, so maybe that exact situation hasn’t happened to you. Maybe you’re one of those people with a gift for performance or singing or even both. I am only speaking from experience, and from the many conversations I have had with other American’s who preface any invitation to karaoke night with something about needing to be well drunk to face that crowd of strangers and their own voice amplified.

My point is this: Karaoke is Japan is different.

Karaoke is hugely popular here in Japan. Anywhere you go, especially in big cities, you are bound to find at least a few karaoke joints. These buildings are typically very large, brightly colored, well lit, and often have a very large photograph of a group of people having a very good time indeed whilst singing (and I don’t know why, but that group of people is typically made up of a rather diverse group of foreigners/non-Japanese people).

Once you walk inside you go to the desk and choose what plan you want for the evening. Different karaoke businesses have different plans, which you pay for by the hour, but they are all usually a variation on the following:

  1. All you can drink soft drinks (soda, tea, coffee, juice)
  2. All you can drink soft drinks AND alcohol (beer, basic cocktails, house red/white wine)
  3. Some sort of deluxe package that includes soft drinks, alcohol, AND all you can eat food from a special menu (probably french fries, fried chicken, chips, stuff like that)

After you pick one of the plans you can either let them know in advance how many hours you intend to stay, or add time hour by hour as the night goes on. Then you are escorted to your room. The rooms are small- to medium-sized and often contain at least two television screens, two doo-hickies to pick music with, between two and four microphones, and a little table. Nicer karaoke joints will also have things like disco balls, fancy light settings, sometimes a mini-stage and mic stand, and (if you’re really lucky) even a closet full of ridiculous costumes to borrow for the evening.

Once you send your server away with your first drink/food order, that room is your oyster! It is just you, your friends, and a bottomless cup of your beer (or poison of choice, which you can order anytime you like via the small phone located by the door in your room) for the rest of the night!

Get ready for karaoke freedom.

I really adore these karaoke rooms. It makes it so easy for everyone to sing exactly what they want whenever they want without having to worry about things like, “What if I sound bad? What if this crowd doesn’t like this genre/artist? What if I don’t know the song well enough?” None of that matters because you’re with friends! You also have complete control over what song comes on when – hell, you can cancel songs completely if you want!

It is so much fun comparing musical tastes with friends, realizing you both really love that one song you thought nobody had even heard of, and doing spontaneous but awesome duets or group sing-alongs. I also really enjoy trying on the songs that intimidate me, the ones I haven’t had much practice at but still want to give a whirl. And if you’re still too intimidated and need that liquid courage? That’s okay too! Order as many beers are you want, no extra charge!

But there isn’t only one kind of karaoke in Japan.

Although the most popular setting for karaoke is in those private karaoke rooms, probably the second most popular is the karaoke snack bar. Karaoke snack bars are something of a cross between karaoke in America and a private karaoke room. They are small, intimate bars shared by several groups of people, so it is not much bigger than a private karaoke room, but if you want to sing you have to do so in front of strangers. Why is it called a snack bar, you ask? Well that’s because once you walk in the door and take a seat your server will give you a variety of little edibles to enjoy. The usual suspects are cookies, chocolates, chips, small tea sandwiches, vegetable sticks, cheese, and (you guessed it) other snack foods.

These snacks come with a fee, but how sizeable the fee is depends on a number of factors. You see, a lot of snack bars have a reputation for varying degrees of seediness. The most seedy ones are frequented mainly by men, probably after a long day or week of work, who go to loosen up and be pampered by the snack bar servers. These servers pour your drinks for you, make sure your glass never goes empty, laugh at your jokes, refill your snacks, and sometimes go so far as to sit at your table with you and make sure your every need is met. The snack bars with the table-side service from beautiful, cleavage-y women are much more expensive (more cleavage more money, I hear), and sometimes their snack fees can go all the way up to ¥5,000 (about $50.00) or beyond.

Not all snack bars are created equal though.

My favorite snack bar is a tiny hole in wall in my little country town. You probably won’t see any busty women here, but you will meet the sweet little old lady who owns and runs the place. Her snacks are many and ever-replenishing, so I always try to go on an empty stomach. She will putter about and murmur about how good your singing is while shakily pouring your beer for you, and if she gets too busy then she welcomes you behind the bar to fix up your own drink while she arranges tofu and pickled onions in small dishes.  Although I would gladly pay ¥5,000 for her kind service, endless food and beer and motherly vibes, she only charges ¥1,000 a person! Ten dollars!!

Oh yes, they are called karaoke snack bars, so people do indeed sing in these places.

Snack bars are a bit more intimidating than a private room since there are other patrons, but they are also incredibly small, as I have mentioned, and no matter what snack bar I have been to, there is always some level of mingling between the groups in the bar. People come over and compliment you on your singing or choice of song, they walk the song doo-hickey over to make sure you’ve imput enough and their group isn’t hogging all the singing, or they just decide to mingle. By the end of the night everyone has become friends and, more often than not, everyone’s performance anxiety has been cut drastically. This spontaneity and unexpectedness has brought on some of my most memorable and fun karaoke experiences I have ever had.

Wow, so I really managed to write THIS MUCH about karaoke?!

Clearly I am pretty into the karaoke experience, but even I am a bit shocked at how long this initially inocuous post turned out to be. A lot of my excitedness stems from the fact that my friend Riley, a king of karaoke in the States, is coming to visit Japan and I am so stoked to show him my favorite karaoke spots. I think I also just wanted to give my karaoke passion a voice (but this time without a mic, hyuk hyuk). I can’t remember if I have ever just sat down and talked about why I like karaoke so much here in Japan. But now I have, it felt really good, and I am really glad I did.

I will wrap up this post now, but stay tuned for pictures of my favorite karaoke spots and lists of my favorite karaoke songs!


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