Okay, not really an ode, but I wanted a catchier title than just “karaoke”.
Karaoke (カラオケ), a portmanteau meaning “empty orchestra”, is kind of a Japanese national pastime. Unlike the karaoke bars of the west, Japan has karaoke boxes: establishments with small, private rooms, each containing karaoke equipment, tables, and couches. You and the people you’re with rent a single room for a set period of time, usually between one and three hours, with the option to extend later.
Standard karaoke equipment includes a TV, two microphones, a small remote for selecting songs by their assigned number, and a touch-screen remote for searching by title and artist. When you check in at the front desk, you’ll be given books listing the available songs (if you’re not, ask for them). They’re always slightly out of date, but all the standards will be there.
Every karaoke place has a drink bar in the lobby, where you will find water, sodas, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, slushy drinks, ice cream, and soup. Free use of the drink bar comes standard. If you want alcohol, you have two options: a more expensive set that includes nomihodai (飲み放題/all you can drink), or buying individual drinks off the menu. My friends and I usually just go cheap and skip the drinking.
Once you’re settled in with your drink of choice (I like melon slushy, myself), it’s time to get started. Everyone who does karaoke with any frequency has songs they always do, so the initial queue builds up pretty fast. Each song comes with a video, almost invariably unrelated, with the lyrics superimposed on it. The quality of the videos varies by chain, but some of them are hilariously awkward.
And that’s the gist of it! I’ll close this up with a few relevant notes:
First: You’re charged by number of people, but it’s always one bill. So if one person wants nomihodai, everyone has to get nomihodai.
Second: Sometimes more expensive karaoke places put people on the street to draw in business and, if you speak Japanese, it’s possible to haggle a bit. The best method is to know of another karaoke place in the area with a better price. This only works with the guys on the street, never at the desk inside.
Third: If someone in your party has a student ID, there might be a student discount. It never hurts to ask. Also, there might be a point card available and those are ace.
So, if you’re in Japan, definitely do some karaoke! It’s fun, it’s easy, and you are guaranteed to pass a room wherein plastered Japanese people are happily mutilating some English at the top of their lungs. How can you go wrong?