Karaoke is the quintessential Japanese (and Korean) leisure activity, and one you must absolutely try in your trip.
You can find plenty of karaokes in every nightlife area of a city, and the shiny カラオケ (ka-ra-o-ke) letters on the outside make them easy to spot everywhere you go. A typical karaoke consists of a small maze of private rooms (or boxes) of different sizes that you book for a few hours.
The rooms are furnished with sofas, a table in the middle and a flat screen on the wall. You’ll be given a couple of microphones along with one or two touch-pads with which to select the songs you want to sing. The big difference with Western karaokes is that you will be singing in front of your friends, and not a whole bar audience.
Drink and food services vary from place to place, but free soda and ice-cream refill is typically available. Karaokes located around the busiest corners of Tokyo are several-story high, and sometimes different floors are decorated with different themes.
For many youngsters and adults in the country, karaokes are a mandatory stop after dinner with friends or workmates, and a cool place to hang out. Some people love it so much they often go alone to sing some songs alone and relax.
It was during my first night in Kyoto that I ended up in a karaoke for the first time. After some drinking along the river, we befriended a bunch of locals, and they suggested we go to a karaoke. That night turned to be one of the most fun nights I’ve had in Japan. I later visited tens of karaokes around Kanagawa and Tokyo and had all sorts of experiences, and not once I had a boring time.
- Go with locals! Even if you’re in the city for just a few days, try to make some Japanese friends before going for karaoke. It will be of course be fun to just go and sing American pop-rock songs with other travelers, but you won’t really get the real experience if you are not doing it with locals. Join them, or invite them, and allow them to go and choose the first songs and get the party started.
- Get a discount! You’ll usually find karaoke staff standing on the street near the karaoke. You can easily get 20-30% discounts, up to a 50% if you are very good at negotiating. The discount amount will depend on how much you will spend: how many people, with or without drinks, etc. Alternatively, discount coupons are available at nearby bars. They are usually placed along with other flyers near the entrance or the toilets.
- Make new friends. Some karaokes have shared spaces where people can sit and wait for their friends, refill their cups or even take a rest from the karaoke box for a bit. Take the chance to meet new people there, since you already have something in common! I met one of my best friends in a karaoke while refilling a cup, and ended up sharing a flat with him a few months later. You never know!
- Support the singing of your friend. Join your friend’s singing; clap your hands, do some background shouting or even use the second microphone to do backing vocals.
- Stick to popular songs. Selecting the right songs for the atmosphere is an art, and there’s no better feeling than seeing your friends sing and enjoy a song you chose. Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Beyonce, etc. are popular in Japan. Michael Jackson, Green Day and Queen are also good choices for mixed groups. While you should definitely sing one of your own favorite songs, go for popular hits every other time.
- Be prepared. Only first-timers can be excused from choosing bad songs for the atmosphere; every other time in the future, make sure you have an idea of a group of songs that you want to sing and know for sure are fun and enjoyable for everyone else.
- Accompany your karaoke night with all you can drink deals (nomihoudai).
- Expect to pay between 1,200 and 3,000 yen for a couple of hours per person. (If no discount is applied)
- Don’t be shy. It’s you alone with a few friends, give every song your best shot!
- Avoid spending too much time on the touch-pad. You might want to check the available songs of every artist you like, but try to choose real fast so that you can sit back, relax and enjoy your friend’s singing. Basically, remember that it is a group experience!
- If you are with Japanese friends, be careful about using the secondary microphone to join your friend’s song. Read the situation and realize whether he or she is happy with it or not; some people prefer singing alone.
- Don’t choose songs with (long) guitar solos. We came to sing.
- Don’t overuse instruments. Tambourines and maracases are always available for free if you ask at the reception, but please don’t destroy your friend’s singing experience with them.
- Don’t get too intimate. And by that, I mean don’t try to have sex in a karaoke box. They won’t come and kick you out right away, but the staff will make sure to drop by your glass door frequently and show you how displeased they are with your act. Not a very cool thing to do in a karaoke.
And finally, there’s some extra borderline advice that one might find useful: a lot of people leave karaoke boxes before their time is up, and that means free drinks and free singing if you are sneaky enough. You might be asked to leave in a polite manner, or be kicked out right away, your mileage may vary.
Ever been to an Asian-style karaoke? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!!