The Hobo Guide to Japanese Karaoke
In Japan, karaoke is essentially a national sport. Sober, solo, with mates, drunk, in celebration or commiseration, starving off boredom, or avoiding real-life responsibilities, there’s always a reason for karaoke. Whether you’re staying for a while or just rolling through, it’d be rude not to partake in this rich cultural experience.
I personally know a completely socially unaware American guy who took a Japanese girl on their first blind date (set up by the innocent girl’s mum) to karaoke and sung ‘Star Spangled Banner’ to her A cappella completely sober. I only know all this because he decided to publish a recount of the entire experience in immaculate detail on his Facebook page without a trace of irony.
Whether they’re still going strong is a mystery; I hope not for her sake though. But I guess the moral of this story is anything goes behind closed (karaoke) doors, so don’t be shy – give it a go; your experience couldn’t be any worse than the aforementioned story.
Here are some little insider tips to get you started.
Know what you want
Like most things in Japan, every taste and preference can be satisfied no matter how strange. Have you got a hankering to be the ultimate gaijin tourist and visit the famous Lost in Translation karaoke room to live out your Scarlett Johansson and Billy Murray fantasies? Easy, pop into the super accessible Karaoke Kan.
Feeling like you need to tickle that Hello Kitty fetish whilst butchering the classic hits? Done: Big Echo in Ginza has a Kitty room waiting for you.
Feeling like some alone time and want to fly solo? One-person booths are actually very common. Want to sing karaoke in a hot tub? There’s a place for that too (pop by Lovenet in Roppongi).
Remember these important words and terms
Nomihodai (no-mee-ho-die): One of the most loved words in the Japanese lexicon, hodai = “all you can” and nomi = “drink”, so by this equation, you’ve probably figured out that nomihodai = “all you can drink”.
Drinks are delivered to your booth at the press of a button. It’s a dangerous type of heaven. Many karaoke places offer a nomihodai deal with their rooms, so keep a lookout.
If you’re hungry, tabe = “food”, so I’ll let you figure out “all you can eat” (consider it your first Japanese lesson).
Okaikei (oh-kye-ki): Means bill. Often you pay before you enter the room, but if you’ve gotten too excited and need to fix everything at the end, or if you’ve been living it up ordering (karaoke) room service and extras, drop a casual “okaikei” on your way out and I’m sure the staff will be more than happy to service you the bill for your past few hours of dickheadery.
Betsu bestu (bet-sue bet-sue): Means to split. Make sure you ask this with the bill that so, you won’t get stung by that cheap tagalong who seems to have disappeared to the bathroom a few minutes prior to final call.
Biru onegaishimasu (beer-ru on-eh-guy-shi-mas): Means beer please. Like hodai, you can switch the beginning depending on your taste, for example, “lemon sour” or “whisky highball onegaishimasu” will get you just as hydrated.
You can be cheeky, but don’t be greedy
I’m yet to hear a sweeter combination of words than “konbini martini”. A konbini martini is simply any type of alcohol you can pick up from the always reliable 24-hour konbini (convenience store) located on every street corner of Tokyo.
It’s a common unspoken practice for those wanting to save a few extra yen to pop by their local konbini to sneak an extra can or two into a karaoke room. Given that you can pick up a 500ml can of Strong (which is a potent 9% shōchū mixer) for the equivalent of about $2AUD, you’re getting bang for your buck.
But be smart about it. Don’t be picking up six-packs and lugging them nonchalantly under your arm as you roll up to the service counter, grab a tall boy or two and pop ‘em in your jacket pocket or bag and leave it at that. Like Deal or No Deal, the greedier you get, the more likely you’re going to come undone (read: get busted).
Of course if you’ve signed up for a nomihodai situation, this move is entirely unnecessary; however, sometimes desperate times call for sneaky moves.
Avoid peak times if you can
Like most things, peak times = premium prices. If you’re on a holiday, every day is a Saturday night, so take advantage of that situation.
Friday and Saturday nights and evenings before public holidays are always going to be the most expensive, also, if you don’t care about getting home until the first train (5am), go late, as it’s often cheaper for a room post the midnight last train bail-out.
Be prepared to stay all night
Especially if you’re wanting to party on the cheap, late-night karaoke is the most magical. The combination of sleep deprivation, booze and the bustling energy of a city that’s buzzing 24 hours a day means that people often peak between the hours of 1 and 4am.
Also, although it seems strange for a city that is constantly open, train stations in Tokyo shut around 12:30 – 1:00am (depending on your line), and don’t re-open until 4:30- 5:00am, so settle in and make yourself at home.
Unless you’re desperate, getting a taxi in Tokyo is not fun. Between the high fares and the messed-up street address system, finding your bed in the wee hours of the morning can be a logistical nightmare and a great way to put a damper on your night.
Don’t be afraid to sleep
You’ll quickly notice that everyone sleeps everywhere in Japan, so if you’re nodding off, don’t be afraid to have a powernap – there’s no shame. Take advantage!
Know the crowd pleasers
If you’re nervous, it’s always a safer safer to command the mic if you know that you’re going to be drowned out by your mates playing the role of drunk back-up choir.
Okay, so of course Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rapsody’ will get a spin (urgh), but beyond that don’t forget these classics nobody really listens to, but everyone mysteriously knows the words to by some strange osmosis.
‘September’ – Earth Wind and Fire
‘A Thousand Miles’ – Vanessa Carlton
‘Shoop’ – Salt n’ Pepa
‘Love Shack’ – B52s
‘Rehab’ – Amy Winehouse
‘Say My Name’ – Destiny’s Child
Cover by Mathias Adam; inset by the author